DNA analysis of the Australian outback's only palm tree, Livistona mariae, indicates that it originated from seeds brought from the north of the country — a finding backed up by a recently unearthed Aboriginal myth. This neatly illustrates how traditional ecological knowledge might inform modern research.

Credit: Albinfo

Known as the cabbage palm and found only in Palm Creek, L. mariae (pictured) diverged between 7,000 and 31,000 years ago from its relative Livistona rigida, found 1,000 kilometres to the north (see Nature 483, 248; 2012). Because these dates overlap with human occupancy, the study concluded that the seeds could have been transported south and planted in central Australia (T. Kondo et al. Proc. R. Soc. B http://doi.org/2w6; 2012).

The Aboriginal myth came to our attention through a 2013 translation of an 1895 text by German anthropologist and missionary Carl Strehlow (see go.nature.com/kxfyvn). He wrote of a visit to Palm Creek: “There are beautiful 40 to 50 feet high palms here surrounded by gum trees and acacias and the herbs and flowers at their base release a sharp smell. How this palm got into the interior of Australia has not been established yet by science.” Strehlow relates that, according to traditional local beliefs, “the gods from the high north brought the seeds to this place a long time ago”.