Rebutting Zaharah Sulaiman on Malay genes second oldest in the world ― Maude E Phipps

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AUGUST 4 ― On August 2, 2018, Malay Mail published an article by Azril Annuar titled “Historian : Malay genes second oldest in the world”. The article states that this was the report of a forum entitled “The Origin of the Malay” organised by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) and contains statements made by Zaharah Sulaiman.

We find this article to be highly misleading and erroneous. The contents are absurd, fictitious, and any content claimed to our research is complete misrepresentation. We are appalled that she has misquoted our academic work in human population genetics, archaeology and history that we and our colleagues in Human Genome Organization (HUGO) and other reputable institutions have done for many years to date.

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.

We trust that we have provided a comprehensive explanation of the scientific facts that inform our knowledge of population genetics and various ethnic groups in Malaysia and elsewhere. Most of our publications are free and accessible through our university websites, Google Scholar, PubMed, Scopus and ISI.

Prof Dr Maude E Phipps, Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Monash University Malaysia, Founder member of National Bioethics Council ([email protected])

Prof Dr Hoh Boon Peng, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, UCSI University Malaysia (KL campus). ([email protected])

Prof Dr Stephen Oppenheimer, School of Anthropology and Museum of Ethnography, Oxford University, UK. ([email protected])

Prof Dato’ Dr Mahani Mansor-Clyde, Former Professor of Genetics, Universiti Kebagsaan Malaysia, Past President of the Genetics Society of Malaysia and Past Chairperson of National Bioethics Council ([email protected])

Dr Farhang Aghakhanian, Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Monash University Malaysia. ([email protected])

Additional notes:

Background information on significance of mtDNA

― mtDNA are very small pieces of DNA that we inherit from our mothers and only from the maternal line. Size wise, it about 16 thousand DNA bases.

― Humans have much more DNA in all our genes i.e. 3.2 billion DNA bases in total and most of it in the nucleus of all our cells. This is called the nuclear genome. This DNA is arranged into discrete structures termed chromosomes. Generally, men have 44 autosomes & XY sex chromosomes and women have 44 autosomes & XX sex chromosomes

― mtDNA contribution to inheritance is very small, approximately 0.00005 and therefore the information we can derive is rather limited. But it can be useful sometimes if we just want to focus on a single maternal lineages in small studies. mtDNA seems to be more susceptible to mutations than nuclear DNA It would be erroneous to draw conclusions about human ancestry, evolution and migration based on mtDNA alone, without including looking at nuclear genomes and the bigger picture.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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