When history and genes collide

In October 2013 on October 10, 2013 at 10:26 pm

 Sarah Groot Eylandt

Sarah: Most history books tell us that Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1788.

Delve a little deeper, and you’ll find plenty of other snippets of information showing that the Dutch and maybe even the Portuguese explored Northern and Western coasts of our Great Southern Land centuries earlier.

Unfortunately, 16th century Portuguese exploration and sexual activity near or in Australia sealed its influence in a permanent way through embedding itself firmly in the genomes of local people. Machado-Joseph Disease is a neurodegenerative condition passed from generation to generation and most often seen in individuals of Portuguese/Azorean descent, but also found in a few families living in the North of Australia.

Currently on holiday at Groote Eyland, 50km off the Arnham Land Coast in northern Australia, I read about this disease and its presence in this region on an inflight document (Vincent Aviation is a major sponsor of the Machado-Joseph Disease Foundation).

In my head, I have an image of 15th and 16th century Portuguese traders passing through Indonesia and maybe even Australia, and spending enough time with local women to establish a few pregnancies carrying those fatal genes. Further trade and travel within the region spread those genes further and further, and now many hundreds of years later they still crop up.

Individuals with the disease typically experience “slowly progressive clumsiness in the arms and legs, a staggering lurching gait that can be mistaken for drunkenness, difficulty with speech and swallowing, impaired eye movements sometimes accompanied by double vision or bulging eyes, and lower limb spasticity.”

Sadly, it’s just another example of the catostrophic influence that Europeans have had on the course of Aboriginal history and health.


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