[SydPhil] HPS Research Seminar Series -Emma Kowal - Deakin University - Monday 29th October

Debbie Castle debbie.castle at sydney.edu.au
Tue Oct 16 13:48:27 AEDT 2018

Defining race: A century in the life of an Aboriginal hair sample.

Professor Emma Kowal, Deakin University

Making his way home from the 1923 Pan-Pacific Science Congress, British ethnologist Alfred Haddon caught the Trans-Australian Railway from Sydney to meet his ocean liner in Perth. At a short stop at Golden Ridge siding, east of Kalgoorlie, he cut a deadlock from the head of an unidentified ‘young Aboriginal man’. It contributed to Haddon’s extensive hair collection, the basis of his theory of three races based on hair form. In 1945 it was moved from the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to the newly established Duckworth Laboratory under the directorship of physical anthropologist Jack Trevor, a signatory of the 1951 UNESCO Statement on Race. It stayed there until Danish evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev obtained it, extracted DNA from it and published the ‘first Aboriginal genome’ in 2011. The genomic analysis indicated 70,000 years of Aboriginal Australian genetic distinctiveness. In the process of publishing the paper Willerslev established a new standard of international ethical practice. Although his university thought ethics approval was unnecessary because the specimen was ‘archaeological’, he eventually sought and gained approval from the Goldfields Land and Sea Council. This paper traces the story of this particular piece of human biology from a remote railway siding to Cambridge, Copenhagen and Kalgoorlie. It explores the material entanglement of interwar race science, post-war scientific anti-racism and 21st century postcolonial genomics, showing it is no surprise the ‘first Aboriginal genome’ was derived from a hair sample – a substance that only rarely yields autosomal DNA - and not one of the plentiful frozen blood samples stored in Australian and international institutions.


Emma Kowal is Professor of Anthropology at the Alfred Deakin Institute and Convener of the Science and Society Network at Deakin University. She is a cultural anthropologist who previously worked as a medical doctor and public health researcher in Indigenous health. Much of her work is at the intersection of science and technology studies, postcolonial studies and indigenous studies. Her publications include the monograph Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia and the collection (co-edited with Joanna Radin) Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World. Her current book project is entitled Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity in Australia.

Monday 29th October
New Law Annex Seminar Room 446

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