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Study links ancient Indian visitors to Australia’s first dingoes

A new study of DNA has found that Indian people may have come to Australia around 4000 years ago, an event possibly linked…

The dingo appeared around the same time as new tool technology and Indian visitors, the researchers suggested.

A new study of DNA has found that Indian people may have come to Australia around 4000 years ago, an event possibly linked to the first appearance of the dingo.

Australia was first populated around 40,000 years ago and it was once thought Aboriginal Australians had limited contact with the outside world until the arrival of Europeans.

However, an international research team examining genotyping data from Aboriginal Australians, New Guineans, island Southeast Asians and Indians found ancient association between Australia, New Guinea, and the Mamanwa group from the Philippines.

“We also detect a signal indicative of substantial gene flow between the Indian populations and Australia well before European contact, contrary to the prevailing view that there was no contact between Australia and the rest of the world. We estimate this gene flow to have occurred during the Holocene, 4,230 years ago,” the researchers said in a paper titled ‘Genome-wide data substantiate Holocene gene flow from India to Australia’ and published in the journal PNAS.

“This is also approximately when changes in tool technology, food processing, and the dingo appear in the Australian archaeological record, suggesting that these may be related to the migration from India.”

The researchers said that around the time the Indian visitors arrived on Australia’s shores, stone tools called microliths began appearing for the first time and new plant processing techniques were used.

“It has been a matter of controversy as to whether these changes occurred in situ or reflect contact with people from outside Australia or some combination of both factors. However, the dingo also first appears in the fossil record at this time and must have come from outside Australia. Although dingo mtDNA appears to have a Southeast Asian origin, morphologically, the dingo most closely resembles Indian dogs,” the researchers said.

Lead author Dr Irina Pugach, from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said it was not clear how many people came from India to Australia.

“It could have been just a very small group,” she said.

“We don’t claim the dingo and changes in stone tool technologies came with these migrants. We suggest that maybe they accompanied the people.”

Professor Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, said the research team’s discovery of “a previously unsuspected episode of gene flow with populations from mainland India, estimated to take place around 4,200 years ago… coincides with significant changes in the Aboriginal archaeological record, around 4000 to 5000 years ago.”

“It does not necessarily indicate direct contact with mainland India. For example it could be via populations elsewhere whose original source was mainland India,” said Professor Cooper, who was not involved in the research.

“It would be interesting to compare this theory with the Aboriginal language patterns, where one group (Pama-Nyungan) is thought to have recently spread around all parts of Australia apart from the big end, where amazing diversity remains. The timing of this language movement is thought to also be around 4000 - 5000 years ago, so this is starting to be a very important time in Australian history.”

Professor Maciej Henneberg, Wood Jones Professor of Anthropological and Comparative Anatomy at the University of Adelaide, said the research team’s findings were “logical, though based on a limited sample of genetic material.”

“There are some indications of similarities to Indian Subcontinent in marital customs of Aboriginal Australians as well as in their morphology,” said Professor Henneberg, who was not involved in the original paper.

“It is quite wrong to simplistically assume that Australia was discovered by people only once some 40,000 years ago. Such an assumption denies intelligent behaviour to people in the South and the East of Asia and its fringes as well as to Aboriginal Australians. People were capable of sea travel and exploration for many hundreds of thousands of years and thus should have come to Australia many times during the last 50,000 years or so.”

It is equally simplistic to assume that everyone came out of Africa once some 100,000 years ago, he said.

“Australian people were, for tens of thousands of years, a part of the human population of the world exchanging both genes and cultural information with their neighbours.”

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email

    A date of 4000 to 5000 years bp for this possible ingress and language change would presumably imply little or less influence of the muted indian arrivals on Tasmanian Aboriginal populations and languages due to the additional isloation of bass strait. Is this consistent with what is already known?

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    What an interesting business and a nifty bit of DNA sleuthing!

    There was some interesting stuff happening in India at the time - from 6,000 BCE on really ...most notably the rise of the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley in modernday Pakistan ... is there a modernday Pakistan?

    This Harappan lot get the blue ribbon just ahead of the Sumerians for inventing writing. The Harappans had well established trade and commerce with the Sumerians and probably with Egypt and the rest of the middle…

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  3. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    The dogs of downtown Calcutta do seem to resemble dingos. There also seems to be a population boom underway there.

    Overall, human movements seem to have been more diverse than we have thought. Is this just a consequence of the West's parochial viewpoint, assisted by the rise in sea levels hiding the traces of travel sites after the end of the ice age?

    The collection of very different sub sets of some of the species declared to be noxious weeds in the NT from areas not greatly affected by Europeans suggested to me that visitors from else where, and in retrospect some what more afield than the Trepang traders some of whose campsites in Northern Australia are are marked by Tamarind trees.

  4. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Yes, a most interesting piece and I also found the clip of Gond art remarkably beautiful, and remarkably similar to the hatched art of northern Australia.

    I suspect that Peter Ormonde's occupation of 'farmer' may be a second or subsequent occupation. My current guess is that he was previously a public servant in Canberra with an economics background.

    1. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I agree on both points. The Gond art is beautiful, and strangely reminiscent of Australian indigenous art.

      I suspect that Peter has performed various occupations. He always strikes me as knowledgeable, even tempered, and, for the want of a better phrase, a good bloke.

    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      About the 30th "occupation" from my reckoning ... always drifted about like a piece of flotsam and have accumulated a crusty coat of useless - but in their own way interesting - scraps of information. Always been interested in too many things for my own good.

      Never a public servant in Canberra though Gavin - I worked for the "other side" - the politicians. The only time I tried being a public servant (in NSW) I was sacked... not "one of us" apparently. Thank heavens for that! Something to wear with pride.

      Now I just look after my trees and talk to my dogs and you lot here on the Conversation and watch the world go by.

  5. Brad Purcell

    Wildlife ecologist at University of Western Sydney

    Interesting to see this evidence. James Kohen hypothesised this occurrence in his 1995 book 'Aboriginal Environmental Impacts' (UNSW Press) pp86-87, citing White & O'Connell 1982 'A prehistory of Australia. New Guinea and Sahul' (Academic Press).

  6. Alice Gorman

    Lecturer at Flinders University

    The archaeological evidence does not support the introduction of a single cultural "package" at this time - microliths, for example occur in archaeological contexts well before 5000 bp (including in the Pleistocene). But it's clear that something is going on, and it's time we stopped thinking of Aboriginal people as isolated, and viewed them as part of a dynamic regional interchange.

    1. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Alice Gorman

      Not just Aboriginal folks either Alice ... our various predecessors were a lot smarter, more adventurous and well-travelled than we might think. Just look at the adventures of the polynesians... gee they got about. The Pacific Ocean was their backyard.

      Luckily they all got up to mischief and have left genetic traces. Bit more permanent than megaliths.

      Lots more of this sort of biological archeology in future. Very interesting times.

  7. Rajan Venkataraman


    Fantastic article and I suspect there is a rich seam for research here to develop a more sophisticated picture of cultural and people movements to Australia in pre-Cook times.

    I've hardly had a visitor from India who has not commented at some point on the similarities between the sounds of aboriginal and Indian place names. These same visitors also seem immediately at home with dreaming stories and aboriginal cosmology. I am intrigued by Prof Henneberg's comment about parallels in marriage customs…

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  8. Roger Carter

    logged in via Facebook

    Exciting stuff indeed. I always thought the dingo had a connection with the spitz group dogs (albeit distant); they have that look....wolfy face, forward facing ears. I owned spitz dogs for hears (chow chows) and always made that connecttion when I saw a dingo. I was surprised to read that dingos arrived here so recently though.
    While studying linguistics a few years ago, I also noticed the incredible similarity between aspects of the phonology (sound system) of many aboriginal languages and many…

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  9. Michel Syna Rahme

    logged in via email

    Also, there is a strong resemblance of the Australian Dingo to Sri Lankan dogs.

  10. David Paxton


    Thank you for an interesting glimpse of the interesting tip of an interesting iceberg, Sandra and Alan. No need to be shy about it. As Richard Rudgley writes in Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age, history is a footnote to prehistory. Homo sapiens didn't sit on their hands until the Holocene was declared. I think the dingo/dog came to Australia with the original seafarers and later disassociated from them (to some extent),

  11. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    I am puzzled that anyone seriously thinks of the Aborigines as having been isolated for 40000 years. Not least, the apparently very wide spread of some Malay words dates from Malay trading contacts well before European contact.

    The idea of several waves of immigration over a very long period was proposed by Manning Clark. He also proposed that one of the waves of settlement was people from India.

    He might not have had enough persuasive evidence for it, but the idea is not new.

  12. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    I am curious: why the assumption that the Indians were visitors, and not immigrants?

  13. Warren Biggs

    logged in via Facebook

    I have been doing some reading on dingoes because genetic studies have suggested that the New Guinea singing dog is a phenotypic subgroup of dingoes. I ran across an article in Australian Geographic that claims that mDNA research has determined that dingoes most likely originated in southern China 18,000 years ago. They then supposedly travelled through southeast Asia and Indonesia to arrive in Australia between 4,600 and 18,300 years ago. The article doesn't really mention with what immigration the dingoes came and how they crossed the Wallace Line. This article is more recent so I was wondering if the research has changed. I also wonder why morphological similarities would have any bearing against mDNA evidence. There are many, many instances of morphological similarities occurring from convergent evolution so, to me, morphological evidence should be taken with a grain of salt. Any suggestions would be appreciated.