Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1140th General Monthly Meeting

"The role of DNA studies in the story of human evolution"

Dr Sheila van Holst Pellekaan, Visiting Senior Research Fellow
School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, University of NSW

Wednesday 2 November 2005, 6 pm for 6.30
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road


In the unfolding story of human evolution, DNA studies have provided powerful and prodigious banks of information that have challenged many aspects of what has been interpreted from the fossil record. Skeletal morphology indicates divergence from our nearest hominid relatives some 5─7 MYA (million years ago) in Africa. Around 1.5─1.8 MYA, some `early' hominids, known as Homo erectus, left Africa and spread into Europe, Asia and as far as Indonesia. There has been much debate concerning two main models for how the process may have occurred. `Modern' homo sapiens eventually spread into Australia, the Americas and the Pacific region. DNA studies directed at understanding human history began to emerge in the 1980s and exacerbated contention about human dispersal by positing that another wave of humans left Africa around 200─100 KYA (thousand years ago) giving rise to all modern populations, thus contending that existing populations were replaced by the newcomers. Our ability to analyse observed DNA variation is impressive but raises questions about our interpretation. The Australian continent, and its earliest inhabitants, offers a fascinating context in which to explore what we know and do not know about human dispersal.


Dr Sheila van Holst Pellekaan is currently a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, University of NSW. She has a multidisciplinary background, having started her career in nursing, especially operating-theatre work, and then moved into medical research with positions at the Howard Florey Institute at the University of Melbourne, the Royal College of Surgeons, London and the Kanematsu Institute in Sydney. After some years devoted to family life she obtained undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Anthropology at the University of Sydney and developed a strong interest in human evolution, Australian archaeology and anthropology. The transition to molecular anthropology followed and she completed a PhD in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney in 1997. The project explored the mitochondrial variation in Aboriginal Australians. At the same time she was also a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Nursing, University of Sydney, where she taught human biology and Indigenous Australian studies and was closely involved with Indigenous health and education issues. Research work continued on mitochondrial DNA variation and health related nuclear markers, some of which was published, confirming the long-time depth for a human presence in Australia evidenced by archaeological deposits. Throughout this research, she has had a strong commitment to working closely with Aboriginal communities in western New South Wales, maintaining frequent contact, and involving participants and Elders in the writing of community reports.

We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.