Austronesian People

Where do the Malay and the Orang Asal (Borneo indegineous) people in Malaysia come from?

One of the various ways to understand our origins, is to first understand to whom we are related to and how we are related to one another. These relationships can be viewed as a family, a family of seemingly different languages that share a common root.

Austronesian languages, is a family of languages, spoken in the area extending from Madagascar to the Pacific Islands. The term ‘Austronesian’ is coined together by a German researcher – which means ‘Southern Islands’.

Diagram 1: Geographical coverage of where Austronesian people have settled today.

Some examples of Austronesian languages include Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Dayak Iban, Bahasa Kadazandusun, Bahasa Indonesia, Tagalog, and Javanese. In fact, there are approximately 110 languages that are classified within the Austronesian family of languages in Malaysia alone.

The Root of the Family

The variation in languages within this is coming from at least 3000 years of human migration and evolution. People moved across the land and the seas, and without the highly-globalised and highly-connected world that we have today, the language that we originally shared in common thousands of years ago, evolved within the different communities that settled at different regions.

Based on the ‘Out of Taiwan’ Theory , the theory simply means that Austronesian-speaking people, which includes the Malays, Iban, Kadazan, Javanese, the aboriginals in Australia, New Zealand, and Madagascar, all have ancient ancestors in Taiwan from thousands of years ago, before we evolved ourselves into different ethnicity and identities.

Austronesian Migration Pattern

Diagram 2: The blue arrows on the map shows migration patterns of Austronesian people from Taiwan and outwards. The colour bars show the genomic mixture of different ethnicity we have today.

Humans were believed to have migrated into Northern Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa) around 4000 BCE. These are the Taiwanese aborigines which eventually populated the island of Taiwan as the moved south.

Taiwan Aboriginal : The Truth about Taiwanese Aboriginals with LTL ...
Photo 3: Taiwanese Aborigines make up 2% of the population of Taiwan today.

The population continued to grow and it is said that around 3000-1500 BCE, these people at Taiwan migrated southward across the sea and started populating Luzon, northern Philippines.

During these thousands of years, the people would continue to migrate across the land and the seas. There would have been many different groups migrating using different routes at different times, but generally there are 2 main routes that the people took from the Philippines:

  • Route 1: Moved southeast, towards the Pacific Ocean.
  • Route 2: Moved southwest, towards Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, and eventually Madagascar.

Route 1: Southeast towards the Pacific Ocean

This group will eventually populate Papua, Australia (aborigines), New Zealand (Māori), Hawaii, and also the Easter Islands.

Bajau Laut – MABUL.COM
Diagram 4: The Bajau Laut of Semporna, Sabah. A clear evidence of the Austronesian seafarers that retained their lifestyle – travelling the seas.
Diagram 5: The annual Regatta Lepa Festival celebrated at Semporna. ‘Lepa’, is a type of boat built by the Bajau people.
Diagram 6: The evolution of outrigger boats that allowed Austronesian people to travel far across the Pacific Ocean.

Route 2: Southwest, towards Borneo and the Malay Peninsula

The group that settled on the Malay Peninsula is called the Proto-Malays (ie. Melayu Asli/Melayu Purba). They would settle across the Malay Peninsula Indonesian Archipelago in a long series of migrations and intermarriages over many years particularly up to around 1500 BCE. Some of these Proto-Malays are grouped as Orang Asli today (ie. Orang Jakun, Orang Kanaq, Temuan, Orang Seletar, Orang Kuala, etc.).

The group that settled at Borneo will eventually be grouped as the Orang Asal that we know of today.

This group will also continue to travel west across the Indian Ocean, and finally settle as far as Madagascar.

Another Wave of Migration after the First Wave Settled

However, as these Neolithic-era (stone age) Proto-Malays and Orang Asal settled themselves, at around 500-300 BCE, the Malay Peninsula experienced a new wave of human migration. People who are more advanced from the Iron Age, who had more advanced farming techniques, and knew how to make and use iron tools, started migrating into the Malay Peninsula.

These group of people came later through the Austronesian migration and are partly descended from the Cham people (Mekong Delta of Southern Vietnam). It is commonly known as the Yunnan Theory (Yunnan is in Southern China, and at the start of the Mekong River which will end in Southern Vietnam).

With their arrival, they pushed some of the earlier Proto-Malays inland. Compared to the Proto-Malays who were more nomadic in nature, this group of new arrivals would establish ‘kampungs’ as units in the society.

Some would inter-marry with the Proto-Malays and other people in the region, and this new hybrid of Austronesian as a result of many intermarriages, is called Deutero-Malays – the direct ancestors of present-day Malay people.

Early Political State Formations

As Austronesian people move away from a nomadic lifestyle and settled across the Malay and Indonesian Archipelago, we will start to see the development of organised societies.

One such evidence in the Malay Peninsula is the site of Bujang Valley, which dates back to the first millennium.

Day 3 – Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum – Museum Volunteers, JMM
Diagram 7: A temple foundation at the Bujang Valley archaeological site, Kedah.

At Bujang Valley, there are at least 60 of these temple foundations scattered across the area. It is believed that this area was part of the Langkasuka Kingdom that was founded around the 2nd century.

Diagram 8: Furnaces used to smelt iron at Sungai Batu Archaeological Site, Bujang Valley.

Societies of the Austronesian people in the Malay and Indonesian Archipelago will continue to organise themselves into bigger polities over the next few centuries. At around the 7th-13th century, the Srivijaya Kingdom centered at Palembang, Sumatra, will eventually expand and cover the entire Malay Peninsula.

The maximum extent of Srivijaya around the 8th century with a series of Srivijayan expeditions and conquest
Diagram 9: Srivijaya Kingdom territory at its peak.


Where do the Malay and the Orang Asal (Borneo indegineous) people in Malaysia come from?”

Although there are still many theories about where the Malays really came from and there is much more to explore, I can sufficiently conclude at this point that:

  • The Malay people, most of the Orang Asli of Peninsula Malaysia, the Orang Asal of East Malaysia, majority of Indonesians, indigenous people of Papua, Australia aborigines, New Zealand’s Māori, Malagasy people of Madagascar, and the indigenous people of islands in the Pacific Ocean including the Hawaii, have a common ancestry that goes back to more than 4000 years ago.
  • The Malay ethnicity, is a result of many different human migrations and intermarriages that happened over thousands of years.
  • The identity of the Malay ethnicity, was probably developed as societies started organising themselves together, and it flourished as political establishments started to expand during the Srivijaya Era and eventually the Malacca Era.

It’s interesting for me to finally see, how once in awhile we will come across commonalities among different people of different cultures from different geographical locations. Why and how people in maritime southeast Asia and beyond (Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean), especially the indigenous communities, can have cultures and physical features that feel quite similar in nature.

It is also particularly interesting for me to see, how identities have evolved and developed over time, and makes me wonder how much of a role do political structures play in shaping how we classify ourselves into different ‘ethnicity’ as we know of today. And will ‘nationality’ be the new ‘ethnicity’ when we look back at our history in the future?

Other Interesting Media

History of Austronesian People
Media 1: Iban of Sarawak
The Murut tribe is known for their skills in the traditional Bamboo dance
Media 2: Kadazan-Dusun of Sabah
Our People - Bidayuh | Visit Sarawak
Media 3: Bidayuh of Sarawak
Bajau's Wedding | al-amin's PhotoBlog
Media 4: Bajau people of Sabah
Kenyah | The Orang Ulu of Sarawak
Media 5: Orang Ulu of Sarawak
Media 6: Malagasy of Madagascar
Kapa haka - traditional Māori performances - Tourism New Zealand Media
Media 7: Māori of New Zealand
The Oldest Humans, Aboriginal Australians |
Media 8: Aboriginal Australians
West Papua: Jokowi Announces Indigenous People As True Land Owners ...
Media 9: Papua people
Always campaign time': Why Taiwan's indigenous people back KMT ...
Media 10: Indigenous people of Taiwan



My intention is just to pull together various information and media sources available in the public (while also linking back to the original sources), compile and present them in a way that guides my understanding of the topic, and at the same time make it available for others to digest as well. Please let me know if there are any historical inaccuracies or misinterpretation – my purpose is to learn and grow in these topics over time.

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