Orang Asli folk memories of mega floods in a land before time

Antares was the sprightliest 70-year-old I’d seen. Not one to let modesty get in the way, he greeted me sporting only his spunky sarong when I arrived at his picturesque longhouse in Kampung Orang Asli Pertak, just minutes from Kuala Kubu Bharu.

Since 1992, he has been living among the Temuan, a fascinating Orang Asli group, many of whom call the foothills of Gunung Raja home.

A wordsmith with a colourful past, Antares describes the mountain that straddles the Selangor and Pahang border well: “a mysterious, mist-enshrouded mountain revered as the birthplace of a postdiluvian humanity”.

My eyes lit up and a sense of excitement coursed through my veins. Yet another ancient culture describing an epic flood! Unsurprisingly, I dug deeper, only to find out that a flood myth is central to their origin story.

According to Temuan myths, thousands of years ago, their God, who became increasingly displeased with the sinful humans, unleashed a great flood which ravaged their lands and drowned their people. The only two who survived were Mamak Bongsuk and Inak Bongsuk, who held on to dear life by climbing an Eaglewood tree in Gunung Raja. They then repopulated the Earth and all of us today are their descendants.

The Tambunan Dusun, an Orang Asli group in Sabah, have a similar origin story as well. Their God was offended by the greedy and ungrateful humans and sent a great flood as punishment for their transgressions.

However, a good man named Muhgumbul was given forewarning of mankind’s impending doom and was instructed to construct a craft to safely house all lifeforms during the flood. A less sinful species was born out of the cataclysm and they went on to repopulate the earth.

If these fables sound familiar, it’s because they bear an uncanny resemblance to the well-known Biblical flood myth. The Temuan’s Mamak and Inak Bongsuk are analogous to Adam and Eve while the Tambunan Dusun’s Muhgumbul mirrors Noah.

Although the Christian version is the one best known around the world, Christianity certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the flood myth: it is the most prevalent piece of geomythology throughout the ancient cultures of the world.

The Atra-Hasis, an ancient Akkadian epic written on clay tablets around 3,800 years ago, details a calamitous, civilisation-erasing flood. So do some of the oldest surviving literary works in the world, including the 2,700-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, the 2,600-year-old Hindu Sataphata Brahmana, Plato’s 2,400-year-old Timaeus and countless others.

Li Wei, a Taiwanese folklorist, has found a whopping 51 flood myths just in the region of Malaysia, Southeast Asia, South China and Taiwan. Most interestingly, Oxford University geneticist Dr Stephen Oppenheimer says Southeast Asia has the most number of flood myths in the world.

Unfortunately, for a long time, the scientific community largely ignored the ubiquitous flood myths and sometimes even looked at them as unsubstantiated blathering of prehistoric people.

But with this deluge of flood myths that have now washed up on the shores of our consciousness, maybe it’s time we reconsidered their status as fact-devoid figments of the overactive imagination of ancient people.

Maybe these myths, that have partly been lost to antiquity, were tools that ancient cultures used to encapsulate the historical record of a civilisation-ending flood for posterity.

Interestingly, the steady strides of science are slowly turning this strong “maybe” into a “definitely”.

Consider the geological discovery of the ancient landmass now called Sundaland, a gargantuan, trunk-shaped chunk of land that encompassed and connected present-day Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.

At the height of the Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago, Sundaland was an expansive swath of land double the size of India that was exposed thanks to sea levels being at least a whopping 120 metres lower than current levels.

In a largely frigid and desolate Ice Age world, Sundaland was paradisiacal. Its location near the equator and its ample shorelines meant life of all kinds flourished here, including human life. It was a true suvarnabhumi – a lush, fertile land with rainfall and natural resources aplenty.

But according to Oppenheimer, all that changed when three megafloods struck the region around 14,000, 11,500 and 8,000 years ago. The cause, magnitude and duration of these floods are contentious and hence are still being hotly debated. Some say they were due to rapidly melting glacial lakes that overflowed into the sea, while some others say they were due to asteroid impacts and yet others say they were caused by solar storms.

All these theories have prominent proponents and only time and the steady encroachment of science will reveal the truth. But one thing is undeniable – the mega floods that are replete in myths were real and did inundate many parts of the ancient world. And nowhere was the flooding as catastrophic as it was in Sundaland.

After the three major floods, the region was a pale version of its former, resplendent self, eventually losing around half its landmass.

The rapidly rising seas are said to have swallowed up and fragmented the elephantine Sundaland, turning it into what it is today – Peninsular Malaysia, the island of Borneo, the Indonesian Archipelago and Singapore.

Eerily enough, the Temuan myth mentions that the flood convulsions “split up the land and separated the grandchildren of (Mamak and Inak Bongsu) into different land masses of the world”.

Coincidence? Perhaps not.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.