An Atlantis in the Indian Ocean
(Review of Stephen Oppenheimer's Eden in the East)

Koenraad Elst


One of the many insulting epithets thrown at AIT disbelievers is that they are no better than "Atlantis freaks". Actually, this is not entirely untrue. Some AIT skeptics who have applied their minds to reconstructing ancient history, have indeed thought of centres of human habitation in locations now well below sea-level. When Proto-Indo-European was spoken, the sea level was still recovering from the low point it had reached during the Ice Age, about 100 metres lower than the present level. It was in the period of roughly twelve to seven thousand years ago that the icecaps melted and replenished the seas, so that numerous low-lying villages had to be abandoned.

After all, it is a safe bet that more than half of mankind lived in the zone of less than 100 m above sea level. In the context of the present debate on global warming, it is said that a rise in sea level of just one metre would be an immense catastrophe for countries like Bangla Desh or the Netherlands. The Maledives 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 m, 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.

In a recent book, Eden in the East: the Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia (Phoenix paperback, London 1999 (1998)), Stephen Oppenheimer has focused on one such part of the continental shelf: the region between Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Taiwan, which was largely inhabitable during the Ice Age. Thinking that this was then the most advanced centre of civilization, he calls it Eden, the Biblical name of Paradise (from Sumerian edin, "alluvial plain"), because West-Asian sources including the Bible do locate the origin of mankind or at least of civilization in the East. In some cases, as in Sumerian references, this "East" is clearly the pre-Harappan and Harappan culture, but even more easterly countries seem to be involved.

Oppenheimer is a medical doctor who has lived in Southeast Asia for decades. He is clearly influenced by Marxism, e.g. where he dismisses religion as a means to "control other people's labour", with explicit reference to Karl Marx's Das Kapital (p.483). His book is based on solid scientific research (genetic, anthropological, linguistic and archaeological), and is in that respect very different from the numerous Atlantis books which draw on "revelations" and "channeling".

The most airy type of evidence, in its massiveness nonetheless quite compelling, is comparative mythology: numerous cultures, and especialy those in the Asia-Pacific zone, have highly parallel myths of one or more floods. These are not opaque allusions to Freudian events in the subconscious but plainly 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 such sudden rise took place ca. 5500 BC, after which the sea level fell back a few metres to the present level.

According to Oppenheimer, the Southeast-Asian Atlantis, provisionally called Sundaland because it now is the Sunda shelf, was the world leader in the Neolithic Revolution (start of agriculture), using stones for grinding wild grains as early as 24,000 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 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.

Oppenheimer aligns with the archaeologists against the linguists in the controversy about the homeland of the Austronesian language family (Malay, Tagalog, Maori, Malgasy etc.): he locates it in Sundaland and its upper regions which now make up the coasts of the Southeast-Asian countries, whereas most linguists maintain that southern China was the land of origin. Part of the argument concerns chronology: Oppenheimer proposes a higher chronology than Peter Bellwood and other out-of-China theorists. My experience with IE studies makes me favour a higher chronology, for new findings (e.g. that "pre-IE" peoples like the Pelasgians and the Etruscans, not to speak of the Harappans, turn out to have been earlier "Aryan" settlers) have consistently been pushing the date of the fragmentation of PIE back into the past.

Another reason for not relying too much on the theories of the linguists is that Austronesian linguistics is a very demanding field, comprising the study of hundreds of small languages most of which have no literature, so the number of genuine experts is far smaller than in the case of IE, and even in the latter case linguists are nowhere near a consensus on the homeland question. 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, archaeological and genetic evidence in favour of the spread of the Austronesian-speaking populations from Sundaland seems to be sufficient.

It is quite certain that some of these Austronesians must have landed in India, some on their way to Madagascar, some to stay and mix with the natives. Hence the presence of some Austronesian words in Indian languages of all families, most prominently ayi/bayi, "mother" (as in the Marathi girls' names Tarabai, Lakshmi-bai etc.), or words for "bamboo", "fruit", "honey". More spectacularly, linguists like Isidore Dyen have discerned a considerable common vocabulary in the core lexicon of Austronesian and Indo-European, including pronouns, numerals (e.g. Malay dva, "two") and terms for the elements. Oppenheimer doesn't go into this question, but diehard invasionists might use his findings to suggest an Aryan invasion into India not from the northwest, but from the southeast.

But he does mention the legend of Manu Vaivasvata saving his company from the flood and sailing up the rivers of India to settle high and dry in Saptasindhu. Clearly, the origins of Vedic civilization are related to the post-Glacial flood, probably the single biggest migration trigger in human history.

The Tamils have a tradition that their poets' academy or Sangam existed for ten thousand years, and that its seat (along with the entire Tamil capital) had to be moved thrice because of the rising sea level. They also believe that their country once stretched far to the south, including Sri Lanka and the Maledives, a lost Tamil continent called Kumarikhandam. If these legends turn out to match the geological evidence quite neatly, our academics would be wrong to dismiss them as figments of the imagination. But the Indian or Kumarikhandam counterpart to Oppenheimer's book on Sundaland has yet to be written. This indeed is probably the most important practical conclusion to be drawn from this book: extend India's history by thousands of years with the exploration of now-submarine population centres.

Another language family originating in some part of Sundaland was Austro-Asiatic, which includes the Mon-Khmer languages in Indochina (its demographic point of gravity being Vietnam) but also Nicobarese and the Munda languages of Chotanagpur, at one time possibly spoken throughout the Ganga basin. It is the Mundas who brought rice cultivation from Southeast Asia to the Ganga basin, whence it reached the Indus Valley towards the end of the Harappan age (ca. 2300 BC). In this connection, it is worth noting that Oppenheimer confirms that "barley cultivation was developed in the Indus Valley" (p.19), barley being the favourite crop of the Vedic Aryans (yava). Unlike the Mundas who brought rice cultivation from eastern India and ultimately from Southeast Asia to northwestern India, and unlike the Indo-European Kurgan people whose invasion into Europe can be followed by means of traces of the crops they imported (esp. millet), the Vedic Aryans simply used the native produce. This doesn't prove but certainly supports the suspicion that the Aryans were native to the Indus Valley.

Concerning the political polemic, the usual claim that the caste system with its sharp discrimination was instituted by the invading Aryans to entrench their supremacy is countered by the finding that even the most isolated tribes on India's hills turn out to have strict endogamy rules, often guarded with more severe punishments for inter-tribal love affairs than exist in Sanskritic-Hindu society. Here, Oppenheimer confirms that in the Austro-Asiatic and Austrone-sian tribal societies, where many of India's tribals originate, inequality is deeply entrenched: "Yet the class structure which cripples Britain more than any other European state, is as nothing compared with the stratified hierarchies in Austronesian traditional societies from Madagascar through Bali to Samoa. (...) This consciousness of rank is thus clearly not something that was only picked up by Austronesian societies from later Indian influence." (p.484) Social hierarchy is not a racialist imposition by the Aryans, but a near-universal phenomenon especially pronounced among Indo-Pacific societies including most non-Aryan populations.

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.







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