Proto-who? On the origin of Bumiputeras — Zurairi AR

(The Malaysian Insider) – Fresh from being told that Hang Tuah — the icon of Malay resilience (“takkan Melayu hilang di dunia”) — did not exactly exist, some Malays may be shocked to learn that they were originally Africans. Suddenly, it dawns on them that those they have mocked freely with names like “Awang Hitam” and “Dayang Senandung” might turn out to be their ketuanan compatriots.

At least, that’s the claim made at a conference known as Konvensyen Asal Usul Melayu: Induknya di Alam Melayu (literally Convention on the Origin of Malays: Ancestry in Malay World). With a RM1.4 million grant from, of all people, the Higher Education Ministry, it is hard to argue with them.

Or is it?

To be precise, a presentation in the convention posited that the ancestral people called proto-Malays originated from Africa before migrating to the Sunda Shelf, the mass of land covering the area of Southeast Asia. It is believed that the proto-Malays then survived the supervolcanic eruption of Danau Toba in Sumatra by living in places not affected by the volcanic ash.

The Toba event happened between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago, which would make proto-Malays among the only 10,000 humans estimated left during that time. The event is an important explanation for the bottleneck in human evolution, which answers how the human race actually descended from a very small population.

Fleeing from global warming that flooded the Sunda Shelf into different islands 25,000 years ago, the people would have migrated north to the rest of the world, populating, among others, India, China, Japan and the United States. In short, these proto-Malays might be the origin of human life on Earth.

This, of course, flies in the face of the previous three theories on proto-Malays, which suggested Yunnan, New Guinea or Taiwan as their point of origin, which means they were northern people migrating south. These three theories were mostly based on archaeological findings and linguistic studies, as opposed to genetic studies which became the reference for the latest theory.

Who exactly were the proto-Malays, though? They refer to a group of Austronesian speakers (an ancient grouping of languages) from mainland Asia that moved to the Malay peninsula and archipelago in a series of migrations between 2500 and 1500 BCE. Adept in oceanography and fishing skills, these seafarers served as navigators, crew and labour for Indian, Arab, Persian and Chinese traders. They have since settled down in many places, acclimatising with indigenous tribes like the Semang and Senoi in the Malay peninsula.

This new theory, in turn, would strengthen the point of view that the descendants of proto-Malays, the Malays and Orang Asli (read: Bumiputeras), were not immigrants, and, in fact, were the original settlers of the land in Southeast Asia (read: Malaysia). Add that with the superiority of being the point of origin of the human race, and you get a delusion worthy of the “master race” that was the proto-Aryans.

One just need to hear Universiti Sains Malaysia scientist Zafarina Zainuddin explain the motivation behind the study. She hopes that the finding that “Malays have genetics which originate from the Malay land” would reignite the “Malay spirit… so that people will be proud to be Malays.”

Try saying that in an international scientific conference with a straight face.