A Murdoch University-led collaboration is using DNA analysis to examine how the earliest West Australians lived.
Dr Mike Bunce and Dr James Haile from Murdoch’s ancient DNA laboratory (aDNA) have received a $152,000 ARC grant to examine DNA samples from archaeological cave deposits at the Devil’s Lair cave site near Margaret River in South West WA.
“Put simply it is one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia,” Dr Bunce said.
“Evidence of people using the site dates back nearly 48,000 years.
“Some remarkable findings about the first Australians have been gathered from the excavations at Devil's Lair, and we hope to add to this.”
The project will use existing samples taken from the Devil’s Lair site, as well as undertaking new excavations.
“Primarily we will be using sediments, small plugs – a few grams – of dirt from the entire archaeological sequence and then finding out what plants/animals/insects are contained in the sediment,” Dr Bunce said.
“To date we have samples that yield DNA from a layer of the excavation that is 23,000 years old.
“One of the purposes of re-excavating some of these sites is to obtain 'fresh' and uncontaminated samples up to 50,000 years for ancient DNA analysis.”
The study will utilise cutting edge DNA sequencing equipment at the aDNA lab and the Murdoch-run State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre (SABC).
“Without a doubt isolating DNA from dirt of this age is technically challenging – but this is what our aDNA lab is good at,” Dr Bunce said.
“A few years ago this project would not have been possible – the technology in the field of genetics is moving along at a cracking pace.
“Using new DNA sequencing equipment at the SABC we are now able to effectively profile all the DNA in the samples in a cost-effective and timely manner.”
Dr Bunce said the study will build up a comprehensive picture of how the environment of the South West – a biodiversity hotspot – has changed over time.
“For example, what plants inhabited the region before the last ice age, how much biodiversity has been lost over time, and especially since the arrivals of Europeans?”
“Also, the DNA isolated from the sediments will add to our knowledge of how aboriginals used the site, for instance the foods they hunted and foraged.”
The group, which includes evolutionary biologist Professor Tom Gilbert from the University of Copenhagen, and archaeologist Dr Joe Dortch from the University of Western Australia, will work on the site for three years.
“The field of ancient DNA and archaeology go hand-in-hand,” Dr Bunce said.
“The collaborators on this project are the archaeologists and the traditional Nyungar owners of the land.
“Collectively we have the expertise to open a new chapter in the understanding of archaeology in the south-west of WA.”