Is Malaysia the cradle of civilisation?

This groundbreaking theory puts Malaysia and Southeast Asia at the heart of prehistoric innovation and civilisation and makes the Orang Asli the probable progenitors of the ancient cultures that would go on to dominate the world.

Kathirgugan Kathirasen, Free Malaysia Today

When I was younger, the Hollywood blockbuster The Mummy enraptured and captured my attention like few other movies did. Its mesmerising mixture of Egyptian myth and cinematic mayhem sparked a lifelong fascination in me for mysterious, ancient civilisations.

However, one thing I noticed over the years was how Malaysia and Southeast Asia were largely absent from the discussion when it came to ancient civilisations. There were tales about the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Indians, and Chinese but never Malaysians – or rather those who inhabited Malaysia at the time.

For a long time, we were thought to be at the periphery of prehistory, so we were often relegated to a footnote, and sometimes not even that. Our history textbooks certainly didn’t help – they concentrated the bulk of their focus on the Malacca sultanate and the events that followed after (post-1400 AD), dedicating just a few cursory sections to powerful regional kingdoms that predated it such as Langkasuka, Majapahit, Srivijaya, and Kedah Tua. Their details on prehistory are even abysmally scantier.

When I dug deeper, I realised why. In addition to there being little archaeological, geological, and literary evidence to go by, the prevailing scientific consensus was that those who came to inhabit the Malay peninsula and Borneo were descendants of ancient argonauts from Taiwan who colonised Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia only as recently as 4,000 years ago.

Called the Out-of-Taiwan Theory, it was largely based on exiguous archaeological findings and linguistic population mapping. Since we were considered a relatively young offshoot culture who inherited agriculture and other neolithic technology from the seafaring ancient aboriginal Taiwanese (the Formosans), we were not of much interest to many prehistorians and archaeologists.

But a potentially paradigm-shifting theory posited by Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer threatens to upend this long-standing view. While his predecessors used archaeology, geology, and linguistics to investigate the subject, Oppenheimer and his colleagues have added a new, powerful tool to the mix – genetics.

The key to the theory is the study of the often marginalised and sometimes even criminally disenfranchised Orang Asli.

Oppenheimer and his colleagues pored through the Orang Asli’s female mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) and the male Y chromosome – the two components of the human genetic code that don’t get shuffled like nuclear DNA does during reproduction, hence maintaining their “purity” and making them powerful portals into our past.

Thanks to this study and the discovery of many other geological, linguistic, and archaeological markers, a new theory that reverses and predates the Out-of-Taiwan Theory has emerged. It’s called the Out-of-Sundaland Theory.

This groundbreaking theory puts Malaysia and Southeast Asia at the heart of prehistoric innovation and civilisation and makes the Orang Asli the probable progenitors of the ancient cultures that would go on to dominate the world.

According to the theory, there was a single migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa around 80,000 years ago. These pioneering beachcombers traversed the Arabian and Indian coasts, eventually making it to the lands now known as Malaysia and Southeast Asia around 60,000 years ago.

Oppenheimer says: “The ancestors of the three Orang Asli groups (the Senai, Semang, and Proto-Malays) in the Malay peninsula arrived in the vanguard. They (the Orang Asli) descended from the very first people who put foot in this region in Malaya”.

But when the ancestors of the Orang Asli set foot here, Malaysia didn’t look like it does now – far from it. At the time, it wasn’t a snaking peninsula with a large island on the east.

Instead, it was part of a gargantuan, trunk-like subcontinent double the size of India – the result of sea levels being at least 120 metres lower than they are currently. This means that modern-day Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and all the now-submerged land between them were connected and formed one solid, massive peninsula.

This majestic, prehistoric landmass is aptly called Sundaland – Sund being the Sanskrit term for an elephant’s trunk.

Thanks to its fortuitously strategic geography, where it hugs the equator and is flanked by the sea, it was Eden-like – full of dense, life-sustaining vegetation, frequent rainfall, and populated by animals of all kinds. Many of our ancestors, presumably enamored of this newly-found Suvarnabhumi, stayed put.

But all that changed around 14,000 years ago when rapidly melting ice unleashed cataclysmic floods, and maybe even tsunamis, which inundated many parts of the world. Large swaths of the low-lying coasts of Sundaland were especially badly battered and permanently submerged due to it.

Subsequently, two more massive flooding events took place around 11,500 years ago and 8,000 years ago, further swallowing up the elephantine landmass and eventually turning it into what it is today – Peninsular Malaysia, the island of Borneo, the Indonesian Archipelago, and Singapore.

These bouts of cosmic angst unsurprisingly caused a mass exodus from the region. Genetic marker links indicate that migrant bands from Sundaland travelled to and colonised many parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, China, Korea, and New Guinea.

And when they did, they carried with them the seeds of civilisation that might have gone on to fertilise the great ancient cultures of the world, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India.

Dr Sangkot Marzuki of the Eijkman Institute in Jakarta encapsulates it well when he says: “Southeast Asia is the place of origin from which modern man spread out to the rest of the world, after Africa”.

Oppenheimer zeroes in on the location of the dispersion even further, saying that “the genetic evidence for the spread of people from Southeast Asia round the Pacific Rim points to two Aboriginal areas, Sabah in northeast Borneo and the jungles of the Malay Peninsula”.

In light of this groundbreaking scientific revelation, it’s about time we celebrated the Orang Asli and their ancient way of life, instead of looking at them as irrelevant relics of the past and relegating them to the sidelines of society.

It’s about time we embraced and learned from these genetic and cultural time-capsules. After all, the Orang Asli provide a window into our forgotten past and are the proud custodians of tens of thousands of years of wisdom – something few other cultures can lay claim to today.

And it’s definitely about time we invested a lot more money and dedicated a lot more academic firepower into studying the rich prehistory of our homeland. If we did, who knows what we would uncover next.