MALAY ORIGINS: Evidence suggests otherwise

New evidence seems to suggest that Malays and Negritos both evolved together in Southeast Asia in prehistoric times.

DATUK Dr Ananda Kumaraseri’s comment piece, “Malaysia reflects its rich varied heritage” (NST, Nov 2), was a fair attempt at describing Malaysia’s population and cultural variety, based on ancient history.

(NST) – Unfortunately, his narration of the past was based on outdated theories and knowledge. There were no “waves” of migration into Southeast Asia, nor did Malays originate from Tibet or southern China, as he mentioned.

Dr Ananda was reading knowledge of the 1930s, basically just archaeological knowledge.

Lots of new evidence in archaeology and linguistics, as well as DNA studies, in Asia more recently have overturned the theories and views about Southeast Asia that originated from the 1930s.

For a round-up of some of the new evidence, refer to the book Tamadun Alam Melayu (by M.A. Ishak 2009, published by Persatuan Sejarah Malaysia).

The picture is now emerging that it was in Southeast Asia that man first began to differentiate and that the races began to emerge in Asia.

This evolution apparently resulted in the emergence of a spectrum of peoples, from darker-skinned Negritos to lighter-skinned ones (Jakuns) and the still lighter-skinned “Malays”.

That is to say, the Malay population did not go through the process of being deutero Malays and then proto Malays, as is so commonly mentioned.

What the new evidence seems to suggest is that Malays and Negritos both evolved together in Southeast Asia during prehistoric times.

At that time, southern Southeast Asia was one large block of land which then broke up to form the Malay Archipelago following rises in sea levels three times from 14,000 to 8,000 years ago. (For a comprehensive account of the sea floods and its significance in the history of Southeast Asia, please refer to the book Eden in the East by Stephen Oppenheimer, 2001).

Some of the people who arrived in Southeast Asia from Africa (about 60,000 to 80,000 years ago) did not stay in Southeast Asia long and moved on without going through the process of early differentiation in Southeast Asia. They became the aboriginal peoples of Papua New Guinea and Australia as we know them today.

Some others continued moving northwards instead and they differentiated further and became Tibetans, Yuehs, Thais and others, and only much later did the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese emerge.

In other words, human migration was from south to north, and not from north to south as suggested by the theories of the 1930s.

Thus, the Chinese are, in fact, a distant sub-set of Southeast Asians, and not the other way round.

The largest DNA studies conducted by scientists from 10 Asian countries, including Malaysia, China and Singapore, published their findings in December 2009.

They concluded that migration of man in East Asia was from south to north.

The 2009 findings reinforced findings from several earlier but much smaller studies, which also carried the same conclusions.

But much later, migrations of man from north to south in East Asia (and Chinese historical accounts mentioned these events) did take place. These migrations brought Vietnamese, Thais, the people of Myanmar and others into Southeast Asia.

These were thus back-migrations to the south, and these happened because of the pressure of the expanding Chinese population in the north.

But Malays have always been in the southern part of Southeast Asia.

There are no historical accounts, whether in China or wherever, of people who could be identified as Malays migrating south during historical times.

Malays (or, any other present-day Southeast Asians) could not have migrated south from the north earlier, meaning during prehistoric times either, as DNA studies have shown human DNA in Southeast Asia is older than that in China (in other words, human movement could only have been northwards during prehistoric times), and DNA composition in China showed a heavy Southeast Asian content, meaning Southeast Asian origin.

Over time, Malays having flourished as natives of Southeast Asia (alongside the Negritos) from the original migration from Africa and split following the break-up of their homeland — the southern Southeast Asia land mass — into the Malay Archipelago.

This resulted in the Malays becoming the population of all the islands of the archipelago. Their land-and-sea environment then caused the ancient Malays to develop a maritime way of life and maritime skills.

Eventually, the Malays sailed right into the Pacific Ocean populating all the islands there (where they are now known as Polynesians and Micronesians), and also to Madagascar across the Indian Ocean.

Malay kinship across these two oceans has been indicated by DNA studies from the 1960s and even earlier linguistic studies.

Their ancient presence in the archipelago led to the development of sub-identities like the Javanese, Bugis and others among the Malay ethnic group, also known as Malayo-Polynesian.

It is wrong, therefore, to suggest that Javanese or Bugis, for instance, are immigrant people in Malaysia, as all these people are mere sub-ethnic groups of a larger ethnic family, all inheriting a single common and extensive ancient homeland.

Thus, to get our prehistory and history right based on the new knowledge, Malays are the ancient ancestral people of southern Southeast Asia.

They did not migrate from anywhere else in Asia. The whole archipelago that resulted from the break-up of the original land mass of southern Southeast Asia was their original homeland and they kept sailing to and fro within the archipelago, even until present days.

The high cultural and linguistic diversity in the Malay Archipelago (despite being occupied by only one language family) is further proof of the Malays’ ancient presence as linguistics theory suggests the more ancient a people are, the more they generate linguistic diversity.

Linguistic diversity among Malays in the archipelago is, in fact, the highest in the whole of Asia, thus pointing to their very ancient presence.

It is this ancient Malay population that is at the base of the country that we now call Malaysia.

Dr Ananda was right in suggesting that Malaysia’s past shaped the “thinking, attitudes, ethos and the nature and substance of its statecraft”.

Diversity is nothing new to the archipelago or to Malaysia, even before the arrivals of Chinese and Indians during very recent historical times.

I look forward to the revision of our school history books to keep abreast of the new evidence.