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Malaysia has a complex history of ethnonationalism, in which people who are identified as Malay (but more accurately native Malaysians) are given special privileges over other ethnic groups in the country. This has led to a number of social, economic and political problems but the one that I want to highlight here is the misuse of science and archaeological research to advance this agenda. Last week, a historian speaking at the ominously named “The Origins of the Malay” forum “quoted” the work of the Human Genome Organisation and said that after the Africans, the Malays have the second oldest genetic lineages in the world, even going so far as to imply that the Malays were ultimately responsible for establishing the Chinese and Greek civilizations.

DNA strand. Image by Caroline Davis2010

Image by Caroline Davis2010

This is some next-level ridiculousness but the misuse of archaeology for the promotion of ethnonationalism is not new in Malaysia, particularly when it comes to genetics, and we have seen examples before here and here. I’m glad that the authors from the Human Genome Organization whose research were misquoted and misused issued a rebuttal, but I also wish that the journalist and editors from the Malay Mail had done some basic fact-checking as well. I reproduce the main rebuttals here:

As academicians who have been funded largely through grants from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia, the UK government and our respective institutions, we are duty bound to address the dubious statements that do not stand to factual or scientific scrutiny, and only serve to misinform and confuse the public.

1. We must unequivocally state that there are no such things as Malay genes, Chinese genes, Indian genes, etc. All of humanity are Homo sapiens with Homo sapiens genes.

2.  Zaharah is reported to have said that “roughly 60,000 to 75,000 years ago, there was a migration by some of the shortest people from humanity’s cradle in Africa to Sundaland, which is now known as Southeast Asia”.

This seems inconceivable and illogical. How could these “first migrants” have been the “shortest people” and how could they have skipped the landmasses between Africa and Southeast Asia such as the Arabian Peninsula, Middle East, Levant and Indian subcontinent to get to Southeast Asia? There are clear archaeological evidences of the existence of Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) from the following sites that have been carbon dated. For example, Jebel Qattar (75 thousand years ago (kya), Mundafan (100-80 kya), Aybut Al Awual (105 kya) and Jebel Faya C (125 kya); in Levant Qafzeh (120-90 kya); and 16R Dune (96-80 kya), Jwalapuram (85-75 kya).

3. She is reported to have said that “The study conducted by the Human Genome Organisation (Hugo) that was published in 2013 showed that the ancestors of the Malay people, the Semang and Senoi, migrated to the ancient kingdom of Champa that is now located in parts of Vietnam and Cambodia.”

We are members of the Human Genome Organization and can verify that there was no such publication in 2013.  What we did publish were papers in 2011 and 2014 that elucidated genetic variants among various Malay sub-populations. We found no evidence whatsoever that Senoi and Semang were directly related to Malays. The Champa were never mentioned. The Malaysian Negrito (also known as Semang) and Senoi groups are Austro-Asiatic speakers, while Malays are Austronesian speakers. Both groups are genetically distinct from each other.

4. She has been reported to have claimed “From Semang and Senoi came the rest of the ethnic tribes including the indigenous peoples such as the orang Asli, Iban, Dayaks and so on. In fact, the Malays’ closest ancestor is the Jakun tribe”.

This statement is fundamentally flawed and misleading. There are 3 main groups of Orang Asli in peninsular Malaysia ― Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay (of which Jakun is a sub group). Jakun and Malays are genetically related. However, there is no strong evidence to prove that Jakun are ancestral to Malays. Neither is there any evidence to prove that Semang (Negrito) and Senoi are the ancestors of the Iban or Dayak in Borneo.

5. She was also reported to have said that “based on scientific evidence, the Malay set of mtDNA is 63,000 years old when compared to the Chinese mtDNA that is 43,000 years old. The youngest set of mtDNA in the world belongs to the South American civilisation at 10,000 years old.”

The mtDNA is inherited from mothers and is used to roughly estimate departure from our female ancestors. It contributes only 0.00005% of total human DNA/genes and is less stable than nuclear DNA (99.99995 per cent) in cells. Population genetics does not rely solely on mtDNA to draw conclusions about human ancestry, evolution or migration. To do so now would be inaccurate and unreliable. We always consider maternal, paternal genetics and the bigger picture.

The rebuttals were issued by Prof Dr Maude E Phipps (Monash University Malaysia), Prof Dr Hoh Boon Peng (UCSI University Malaysia, Prof Dr Stephen Oppenheimer (Oxford University), Prof Dato’ Dr Mahani Mansor-Clyde (formerly at Universiti Kebagsaan Malaysia) and Dr Farhang Aghakhanian (Monash University Malaysia).

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