The human race from proto-Malays? Prove it.

Sometimes a story appears that is so stupid, so inane, that you just have to rant about it. The Malaysian Insider, an online newspaper, today published a story about how some archaeologists have claimed through their “scientific” studies that they have traced the lineage of humankind to the proto-Malay race. This is total bull.

Study claims human race came from Proto-Malays
The Malaysian Insider, 20 January 2012

Be warned, the opening paragraphs are already quite a riot:

Archaeological and genetic research suggests that ancient Proto-Malays who lived in the Sunda Shelf were the ancestors of the human race.

In a video presentation at the conference on the origin of the Malay race here, conference deputy chairwoman Zaharah Sulaiman explained how inhabitants on the Sunda Shelf survived the Toba super-volcanic eruption 75,000 years ago.

She added that the group, having left Africa, was forced to migrate to other parts of the world 25,000 years ago due to global warming, which she said caused floods that divided the Sunda Shelf into islands.

Some clarification of terms are in order here. The Proto-Malays are one of three classifications of the Orang Asli, or the aboriginal people of Peninsular Malaysia, the other two being the Semang/Negritos and the Senoi. These classifications, which encompass the some 18 tribes or aboriginal groups in the peninsula are based on language and customs. Note that the classifications are based on not on genetics, but fairly mutable traits such as language – which can be learned. There have already been published studies about the genetic lineages of indigenous groups in Southeast Asia (see here and here) and that latter paper suggests that the Semang have the deepest ancestry in Peninsular Malaysia. This new claim that the Proto-Malays have a lineage that go back 75,000 years is quite controversial, and frankly unbelievable. If it is true, then where’s the data?

The story later quotes Dr Zafarina Zaifuddin, who has claimed to trace a “pure Malay lineage” through DNA, and that “Malays have genetics which originate from Malay land”. I wonder how this is done, since genetic populations are ordered around haplogroups (either Y-chromosome or mtDNA) , which are labelled with letters, not ethnic groups. The fact is, “Malay” and “Proto-Malay” are cultural definitions, and you cannot simply ascribe DNA groupings to either. The assertion that Proto-Malays can be defined as a genetic group that eventually populated the world makes as much sense as the equation Π + elephant = [The Complete Works of Shakespeare].

Yes, populated the world – and thus the origin to the entire human race is the other part of the story. Here this claim flies in the face of a mountain of fossil evidence showing the movement of anatomically modern humans out of Africa over the last 200,000 years. The reference to floods causing the creation of islands in the Sunda shelf is also amusing. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the palaeoenvironment would know flooding doesn’t quite capture the situation of rising and falling of sea levels due to temperature fluctuations during the glacial and interglacial periods.

With such outlandish claims, and a RM1.4 million (about US$400,000) grant backing this research, I should really expect to see a publication in a major journal out of this. I’m not getting my hopes up though.

The key to understanding these incredulous claims may not be evident to people unfamiliar with the politics of Malaysia. Malaysia’s politics is dominated by tensions between the ethnic Malay majority and other minority groups such as the Chinese and Indians. The ethnic Malays dominate the political sphere, and in recent decades there has been a disquieting trend towards an ideology of Malay supremacy. It is interesting to note that the conference in this story was opened by a known Malay supremacist. In this light, this is really a story of the state using archaeology (actually, junk science) to promote an ideology.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

8 thoughts on “The human race from proto-Malays? Prove it.”

  1. Apart from all the stupidities pointed out by the blogger, I thought most of the inhabitants of the Toba area were thought to have been wiped out by the eruption. According to the report, they survived and stayed there till the flooding 50,000 years later.
    Such a pity that these ‘supremacists’ are determined to prove their case, even by ignoring scientific facts and techniques.

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