Among the large stone structures of Gunung Padang, a megalithic site in Cianjur district, West Java, a group of scientists is searching for Indonesia’s “lost civilization” — a civilization that, according to them, pre-dates the ancient societies of Egypt and Sumeria.
The group has many critics, both in the local and international scientific communities, but they keep on digging. What makes them so optimistic about this ambitious project?
Geological studies of the site were the first clue. Carbon dating of the rock layers suggest there is an ancient building buried beneath the site that could be more than 10,000 years old. The team has turned to genetics to find the truth.
In a presentation to the World Culture Forum in Bali last year, Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, the lead researcher of the team spoke of Stephen Oppenheimer, an Oxford scientist who proposed the “Out of Sundaland” theory.
Oppenheimer is not an archaeologist but a geneticist who works with mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), a genetic material that is passed by maternal lineage. His studies the people of Southeast Asia and the Pacific and has found a specific strain of mtDNA found in people who have evolved from the Indonesian archipelago more than 40,000 years ago.
From this he assumed that the ancestors of Asian people had lived in Sundaland, a part of the Eurasian continent that today makes up Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan islands.
According to Oppenheimer these people were the first humans to start growing crops and domesticating animals. Around 14,000 years ago, they started to migrate to other parts of Asia because of climate change. At that time, the ice that covered most of Sundaland melted, creating a massive flood.
If this theory is correct there is a chance that a once-great ancient civilization may have flourished in Java. And Natawidjaja wants to find it.
In 2009, this theory was strengthened by a group of Asian geneticists working for the Human Genome Organization (HUGO), who claimed that Indonesia was the home of East Asia’s ancestors.
The study found a wave of migration from the Indonesian archipelago to the north, supporting the “Out of Sundaland” theory. The HUGO scientists based their claim on the study of SNPs, an individual variation in the genome of Asian people.
Human history can be traced back by analyzing our DNA because genetic information is passed from generation to generation. By comparing our genome to other people around the world, scientists can tell us where we originated from and any possible degree of relation.
Last August, the scientific journal Nature published research that came to a different conclusion about the history of the Indonesian people.
The research, titled “Reconstructing Austronesian History in Island Southeast Asia,” found Indonesia was not the home of Asian people’s ancestors.
Rather, it found a reverse conclusion: the ancestors of the Indonesian people originated from Taiwan, said the researchers. This finding is in line with the “Out of Taiwan” theory, which is supported by linguistics and some archaeological evidence.
David Reich, one of the authors of the Nature paper and a professor from the department of genetics at Harvard Medical School, said this finding is more reliable than Oppenheimer’s mtDNA study as it used the whole genome data of 31 populations living in Indonesian archipelago and 25 populations from other Asian countries.
“A whole genome data is always much more powerful for studying history than mtDNA. It makes it possible to study hundreds of thousands of ancestors, not just one ancestral lineage,” Reich said.
Mark Stoneking, another author and a professor in evolutionary genetics from the Max Planck Institute, said this research is compelling genetic evidence for the “Out of Taiwan” theory. The research found all populations in the Indonesian archipelago had genes from aboriginal Taiwanese.
Compared with the HUGO study in 2009 that supported Oppenheimer’s theory, the study in Nature used a new sophisticated statistical analysis developed by an MIT scientist. This new method included the factor of genetic mixing between Southeast Asian populations into the calculation as there was a probability of interbreeding between those populations.
“[I think] the difference is that in 2009 [HUGO], the methods for analyzing genome-wide data were still not very well developed, so the conclusion of a south-to-north migration [Indonesia to East Asia] was not very well founded,” Stoneking said.
“We now have much better methods for analyzing migration history, and those methods much more strongly support the north-to-south migration [Taiwan to Indonesia] that we reported.”
Stoneking acknowledges that there were humans living in Sundaland 40,000 years ago, but they were not the ones who migrated to the rest of the Indonesian archipelago and built a great civilization.
“While people have been in Sundaland for at least 40,000 years, Austronesian-speaking people [today’s Indonesians] arrived more recently from the north [the Philippines] and continue spreading eastward [to Near and Remote Oceania]. I think the scientists who claim an ‘Out of Sundaland’ origin for Austronesians are confusing the ancient presence of humans in Sundaland with the spread of Austronesians,” Stoneking said.
Herawati Sudoyo, deputy director of the Eijkman Institute in Jakarta, who has also been studying the genetics of Indonesian people, admits that this research presents a novelty in analyzing human history from genetics study, but said the history of Indonesian people is still an open question for science.
“The genetic diversity of Indonesian people across the archipelago is very complex. We are still conducting in-depth studies in some sites such as Sumba and Timor,” she said.
She adds that the Eijkman Institute never claimed that Sundaland was the home of the ancestors of all Indonesian people.
“[‘Out of Sundaland’] was only an assumption. There has been no archaeological evidence for it,” she said.
But this does not convince those who still favor the “Out of Sundaland” theory.
Martin Richard, a professor of archaeogenetics from Leeds University, who co-authored the mtDNA research with Oppenheimer, said Stoneking’s recent study is “unconvincing.”
“Genome-wide patterns provide a much fuller picture but techniques for handling them are still in their infancy and are often very hard to evaluate,” Richard said.
For Natawidjaja, the ongoing scientific debate is no deterrent; he continues to dig at the site of Gunung Padang, hoping to uncover a great lost civilization.