INTERVIEW Leading Oxford University geneticist Dr Stephen Oppenheimer is taken aback by how politically charged the research into the origins of human population is in Malaysia.
Most recently, strong reaction had arisen over media coverage of a conference on the origins of the Malay race, which marked the Orang Asli - the Senoi, Semang and the Proto-Malays - as torchbearers of the modern human race.
Clarifying this finding in an interview last week, Oppenheimer said the Orang Asli, particularly the Semang and the Proto-Malays are direct descendants of the first humans who stepped foot in South-East Asia (then Sunda), and are “ancestral” for east Asia and the Americas.
“Particularly, the Semang and the Proto-Malay have lineages which are characteristic and very unique to their own populations, which clearly have a local geographic distribution. So they have been here since the original settlers...,” he said.
Sequencing random mutations in mitochondrial DNA, a type of DNA inherited only from mothers, Oppenheimer traces the origins of human population, from the first human in Africa, to the homeland of Europeans in the Arabian gulf and to homeland of east Asians in Sunda.
Oppenheimer was in Kuala Lumpur last Friday to present a paper at the Asal Usul Melayu: Induknya di Alam Melayu conference organised by the Association of Malaysian Archeologists.
He is the author of the books ‘Eden in the East’ and ‘Out of Eden’ which details his theories on human population migration. A graphic presentation of his research can be found here.
Excerpts of the interview follow. The content has been edited for language, brevity and flow.
Stephen Oppenheimer: The ancestry of all humans living today is from Africa. From looking at the mitochondrial tree, for the whole human species that is still alive today, you'll find most of the branches and roots are in Africa. When you look at the rest of the world, it belongs to one twig of the African tree.
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