THE MAIN SPEAKER
The Department is currently making arrangements to invite Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford University to serve as Main Speaker of the Conference.
Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer is a graduate of medicine from Oxford University. After graduation, he followed a career in tropical pediatrics and haematology – spending the next twenty years of his life teaching and doing field research in Hongkong, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific region. His research interest lies mainly in malaria and the unique genetic mutations that protect against it. These mutations, serving as markers of migrations of people from east to west across time , became his best evidence for the Indo-Pacific migrations that followed the flood at the end of the last Ice Age. Based on this evidence, he was persuaded to seriously investigate the possibility of “founder cultures” in Southeast. Hence, from his synthesis of DNA study with archeological, linguistic, oceanographic, and folkloric data, he was able to write his first book, Eden in the East : The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia (1998). His other book Out of Eden (2004) has been the subject of a Discovery Channel film, “The Real Eve.” His most recent book is the Origins of the British : A Genetic Detective Story. Oppenheimer is presently an Honorary Fellow at the School for Tropical Medicine at Liverpool, England.
In the book, Eden in the East : The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia (1998), Oppenheimer asserts that the presently submerged area of Southeast was once the cradle of ancient civilization. He challenges the conventional view of prehistory by asserting the following statements, using mainly data from myths, legends and folklore, backed by combined evidence from genetics, oceanography, archaeology, and linguistics:
First, he asserts that the occurrence of a series of global floodings, starting about 30,000 B.C. and ending about 11,000 B.C., happening at the end of the last Ice Age related to what is popularly known as the “Biblical flood.” This he substantiates through parallel myths and folkloric accounts occurring in the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East and Near East, as well as from all continents of the world.
Second, he asserts that this great flood drowned the continental shelf of Southeast Asia, which he calls, the Sundaland or Sunda shelf – covering existing land bridges under water.
Third, that this event caused a population dispersal eastwards and westwards by the Southeast Asian inhabitants, thereby enriching the Neolithic cultures of India, China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and thus, in the process, creating the first post-diluvian civilizations of the Neolithic Age.
Fourth, that the Polynesians did not come from southern China as the dominant view holds (as propounded by Peter Bellwood) – but from the submerged islands of Southeast Asia.
Fifth, that the domestication of rice was not in China but in the Malay Peninsula, occurring 9,000 years ago.
The importance of this book for the Philippines is that Oppenheimer offers new contributions to the field of Southeast Asian studies : first, he asserts that Southeast Asia is the source of the elements of Western civilization; second, he introduces and shows through genetic evidence that Polynesian-speaking people began their great Pacific dispersal from Southeast Asia, not China.; and third, that his analysis of folklore links – building on Frazer’s pioneering work – “confirms a prehistoric East-West connection and provides a logical basis for the original meaning of much Western myth and folklore.”(4)
This new scientific evidence therefore relocates the “cradle of civilization” to Southeast Asia. He makes this assertion using extensive research in ethnography, archaeology, oceanography, mythology, linguistics , and DNA analysis – with a great focus on global floods, and the myths of great floods, from every continent of the world. According to Konraad Elst, Oppenheimer as a medical doctor, has lived in several parts of Southeast Asia for decades, and endorses his book as based on solid scientific research, and is, in that respect, very different from the numerous Atlantis books which draw on “revelations” and “channeling.” (5)
Oppenheimer states that the continental shelf “Sunda” included the region covering Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Taiwan,, Vietnam, Thailand, China and the Philippines. He writes that he became more convinced about this when he flew to Manila from Hongkong in 1993 to conduct a series of medical lectures in a medical school. In his free time, he went over to the National Museum where he saw an exhibit of a long boat, “preserved like some Viking boat burial” and a treasure trove from a sunken galleon. There he met Dr. Jesus Peralta, the curator at that time, with whom he had some discussion. Later, Oppenheimer would cite Peralta in the opening pages of his book. Peralta, himself, confirms having discussed with Oppenheimer two things : first, the probable dispersal of the Southeast Asians into Oceania and other parts of the world due to land tension caused by the major inundations as a result of the breaking down of the ice caps during the end of the last Ice Age (30,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C.); and second, the presence of a sickle-shaped blood characteristic among the people. All these information coming from Jesus Peralta, Oppenheimer admitted, inspired him, so he pursued this line of study and later factored them into his hypothesis. After the publication of his book, Oppenheimer, in appreciation, sent Dr. Jesus Peralta a copy of his book, in which Jesus Peralta is cited in the very first pages of the book.(6)
The most compelling type of evidence that Oppenheimer presents , according to the reviews, comes from the data on comparative mythology. Various continents of the world, most especially those from the Asia-Pacific region, have parallel folk stories of once or several times of flooding which are believed to be “historical references to the catastrophic moments in the otherwise long-drawn-out rise of the sea level after the Ice Age For indeed, this rise was not a continuous process but took place with occasional spurts, wiping out entire tribes living near the coast. The last sudden rise took place ca. 5,500 B.C., after which the sea level fell back a few metres to the present level.” (Koenraad Elst)
In the context of the present discussion on global warning, Elst reports that the rise in sea level of just one meter would be an immense catastrophe for many countries like Bangla Desh or the Netherlands:
The Maldives would completely disappear with a rise of only a few metres. But more
importantly, most big population centres today are located just above sea level: Tokyo, Shanghai, Kolkata, Mumbai, London, New York, Los Angeles, etc. If the sea level would rise 100 metre, most population centres including entire countries would become a sunken continent, a very real Atlantis. Consequently, there is nothing far-fetched in assuming the existence of population centres and cultures, 10 or 15 thousand years ago, in what are now submarine locations on the continental shelf outside our coastlines.(7)
Furthermore, according to Oppenheimer, this Southeast Asian continent, provisionally called Sundaland ( the Sunda shelf) was
…..a world leader in Neolithic revolution (start of agriculture), using stones for grinding wild grains as early as 24,000 years ago. More than ten thousand years older than in Egypt or Palestine. Before and especially during the gradual flooding of their lowland, the Sundalanders spread out to the neighbouring lands : the Asian mainland including China, India and Mesopotamia, and the island world from Madagascar to the Philippines and New Guinea, whence they later colonized Polynesia as far as Easter Island, Hawaii and New Zealand.(8)
In the debate regarding the origin of the Austronesian language family, Oppenheimer aligns with some archeologists against the linguists who claim the South China homeland as propounded by Peter Bellwood. Oppenheimer “locates the homeland in Sundaland and its upper regions which now make up the coasts of the Southeast-Asian countries.”(9) Elst believes that linguistic evidence is
….very soft evidence, and usually the data admit of more than one historical reconstruction , so I don’t think there is any compelling evidence against a Sundaland homeland hypothesis. Conversely, archeological and genetic evidence in favour of the spread of the Austronesian-speaking populations from Sundaland seems to be sufficient.(10)
Another language family originating in some part of Sundaland is Austro-Asiatic. This includes Mon-Khmer languages (Indochina), Nicobarese and the Munda languages in India and Nepal. It is now believed that it is the Mundas who brought rice cultivation from Southeast Asia into to the Ganga basin, whence it reached the Indus Valley towards the end of the Harappan Age (ca. 2300 B.C.). In conclusion to his review, Elst writes:
Stephen Oppenheimer makes a very detailed and very strong case for the importance of the culture of sunken Sundaland for the later cultures in the wide surroundings. India too certainly benefited of certain achievements imported from there. What is yet missing is a similar study for the equally important and likewise neglected culture of the sunken lands outside India’s coast. (12)
Following the recommendation given by Elst, the Department finds it timely to hold this International Conference that will highlight the role of myths and symbols, particularly the prominence of the theme and motif of the great floods, lost lands and sunken continents not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also the rest of the world. In this way, the role of myths as culture bearers and markers can be demonstrated. Moreover, their function as conceptual tools for contemporary rediscovery and re-invention, leading to personal and social empowerment, transformation, liberation and inspiration in nation-building, as well as a means of deepening and enriching the global concept and understanding of world community – will be recognized and valued, as corroborated by other studies.
At the same time, the rise in recent studies in various disciplines showing some contemporary substantiations and pieces of evidence pointing to the scientific and rational bases of what has long been considered merely as mythical and folkloric accounts of unlettered people, further heightens the need for this kind of conference. In line with the rise of qualitative researches with interpretivist and constructivist paradigms, as well as the growing recognition of the power of the people in constructing their own destiny based on their roots and collective memory, it is high time that the University ride to the expanding horizons, and work with the fresh leash of energies associated with the coming of the New Millennium.