By John Tiffany
References to "the Malay" no doubt conjure mental impressions of a people long particular to Indonesia and its surrounding areas. But Malay bloodlines run strong from the Philippines to Madagascar. They constitute possibly the world’s most culturally and linguistically fractioned subrace.
The Malay people might reasonably be called "the Vikings of the Orient." Magnificent instinctive shipbuilders, renowned as among the world’s finest sailors, they take to the water like fish, and conquered a goodly portion of the globe before being themselves "discovered" by Europeans. Indeed, they crossed the Indian Ocean to discover and settle the island of Madagascar at a time when Europeans, by and large, were still steering fearfully clear of the open ocean.
Mighty mariners and master traders, many of these seafaring tribes possess the amazing art of psycho-navigation, finding their way through the vast oceans by a sort of sixth sense.
At one time, when Europeans were sailing around in small, clumsy caravels, the Malays possessed the largest ships on the planet. Even today, the great Malay ships known as prahus (or praus) may be seen scything through the seas, the largest working sailing ships left in the world. They are shaped like the galleons of dreams, streaming softly into port under thousands of feet of black canvas. (Blair, Lawrence, Ring of Fire: Exploring the Last Remote Places of the World.)
Associated with the Malayo-Polynesian, or as it is nowadays called, the Austronesian civilization, are mysterious mega liths and more than one remarkable script of unknown, but certainly considerable antiquity.
Like the Vikings, the Malays comprise one of the great seafaring civilizations and spread their culture, language and racial stock all over two vast oceans and three or four continents. Yet there are also significant differences. The Malays have always disliked land interiors, settling generally along coastlines and avoiding the highlands. The Vikings, in contrast, penetrated deeply into Russia, traveling overland and by rivers and inland seas as far as Persia.
In a way the Malays could be described as less "mature" than the Germanic peoples, in that they are quick to laugh, quick to anger, and generally take life less seriously. They have been accused of being hard to hold to their word, and of failing to recognize the value of private property rights. And they are also unusual in their reluctance to form a true nation; their loyalties have as a rule been confined to their family, their tribe, and their locality. Even when they have formed "empires" in the past, these have not been states in the modern sense so much as city-states to which outlying territories might render tribute, but rarely allowed the "capital" to interfere in local affairs.
The fascinating part of the globe which we may call "the Malay world" has touched America more than most people are aware. Christopher Colum bus was sailing in search of the Spice Islands, it is generally believed, when he landed on Caribbean shores. And England acquired Manhattan from the Dutch in a swap: Manhattan for one of the chief islands from which cloves are obtained.
But the Malay world is infinitely more important relative to prehistory and some schools of human evolution.
Java is the home of the so-called Java Man (originally labeled Pithecanthropus erectus by scientists, but later reclassified as Homo erectus). This is thought to be an extinct ape-man or man-ape, using stone tools and dating from as long ago as one million years B.C. to some 250,000 B.C.; in a time when great ice sheets a mile or so in thickness still covered much of North America and Northwestern Europe.
Controversy swirls around another fossil hominid, Solo Man, found in central Java. Some scholars classify Solo Man as an intermediate species dating from perhaps 250,000 years ago, and claim him as evidence of a Southeast Asian evolutionary descent from H. erectus to H. sapiens. Others insist Solo Man was simply an advanced race of H. erectus who survived for a while in isolation, then died out completely.
How a proto-human such as H. erectus wound up in such a seemingly out-of-the-way place as Java is at first glance a mystery, as is the presence of the orangutan on the island of Borneo, the land of the singing fish (see MacDonald). And how did the negritos, the Papuans and other primitive people arrive at these islands, if, as is generally assumed, they originated on the mainland of Eurasia or Africa? Conversely, if they had their start in the islands, how did they get to the continents? These people seem to have neither the knowledge nor the ability to build any sort of seaworthy vessel, even a raft.
The likely explanation for how primitives got to such places as Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines, New Guinea, Australia and Madagascar becomes evident when we examine a map of the area during the Pleistocene era. The surface of the ocean then was at today’s 40 fathom line, and vast areas now submerged were then above water. Indeed, it was possible to walk from the mainland of Asia to all of Malaysia, including the island of Borneo (this entire area was one landmass, called by geologists Sundaland), and to the Philippines, and it appears that man followed in the footsteps of elephants, rhinoceri and stegodons along this route.
All Southeast Asian H. sapiens fossils prior to about 5,000 B.C. are of the type known as Bacson-Hoabinhians (because their culture was first recognized from the provinces of Hoa-binh, Hoa-nan, and Tan-hoa, in Vietnam’s Bacson mountains). The cave-dwelling Hoabinhians have been identified as members of the Australoid Veddoid group of peoples, who survive in isolated pockets in Malaya and the Philippines today. (The Toalas of southern Celebes would be examples of the Veddoid type.)
The Hoabinhians seem to have been of a commanding stature, six feet or so tall, with heavy bones, and possessed of large skulls with massive jaws and well-developed brow ridges. Their only known products were crudely chipped hand axes that can only with some difficulty be recognized as tools rather than naturally occurring rocks. Their skeletons are remarkably similar to present- day Melanesians, such as the people of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands. It is therefore thought that Australoids were the original "modern men" of this part of the globe, and that they were absorbed, driven to the uplands or pushed eastward by waves of Caucasoid and Mongoloid migration. These first modern men of the area seem to have been cannibals, as crushed human bones are found alongside discarded shells and debris of such prey animals as tapirs, elephants, deer and rhinoceri
The first human burials and partial cremations in the area date from about 20,000 B.C. The first cave paintings in the region (mainly hand stencils but also human and animal figures) may be 10,000 or more years old and come from southwestern Sulawesi and New Guinea.
We know that the Malay region today contains races ranging from such primitive forms of humanity as the dwarf negritos, the Papuans and the Kubus, to the highly civilized Indian-Javanese, who more than 600 years ago built such fabulous monuments as the Buddhist Borobudur (Barabodur) and the Hindu chandi Prambanan. These jewels of Oriental art are noted for their magnificent sculptures and reliefs. It is a mystery why Hinduism was unable to disseminate itself over vast territories as did Buddhism, its penetration being limited to the Malay archipelago, Cambodia and Champa. Nevertheless, it struck root there so deeply that, like Buddhism, its influence has persisted down to the present day. (See Bosch for an analysis of this puzzle.)
On the small island of Bali, separated from Java by a strait only two miles wide, are found various relict groups, survivals of earlier times. First there are the majority of Balinese, who are Hin dus. In ancient times, Java was Hindu, but it was taken over by Mos lems. In Bali, Islam seems never to have achieved a foothold.At one time Bali was populated by a race referred to by Covarrubias (Island of Bali) as "pure Indonesians", the Bali Aga. These people still have their own villages, from which outsiders, including other Balinese, are rigid ly excluded.