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The term Proto-Malay, which translates to Melayu asli (aboriginal Malay) or Melayu purba (ancient Malay), refers to Austronesian speakers, possibly from mainland Asia, who moved to the Malay peninsula and Malay archipelago in a long series of migrations between 2500 and 1500 BC, and in one model the first of two migrations of early Malay speakers, before that of the Deutero-Malays. The Proto-Malays are the ancestors of the Malays in the modern Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Proto-Malays are believed to be seafarers knowledgeable in oceanography and possessing advanced fishing as well as basic agricultural skills. Over the years, they settled in various places and adopted various customs and religions as a result of acculturation and inter-marriage with most of the people they come in contact with Orang Asli tribes such as the Semang and Senoi peoples.
The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early History has pointed out three theories of the origin of the Proto-Malay:
- The Yunnan theory, Mekong river migration (first published in 1889). The theory of Proto-Malay originating from Yunnan is supported by R.H Geldern, J.H.C Kern, J.R Foster, J.R Logen, Slametmuljana and Asmah Haji Omar. Other evidence that supports this theory includes: stone tools found at Malay Archipelago which are analogous to Central Asian tools; similarity of Malay customs and Assam customs; and the fact that the Malay and Cambodian languages are kindred languages because the ancestral home of Cambodians originated at the source of Mekong River.
- The New Guinea theory (first published in 1965).
- The Taiwan theory (first published in 1997). For more information, see Austronesian languages.
Some historical linguists have concluded that there is scant linguistic basis for a Proto-/Deutero-Malay split. The findings suggests that the Proto-Malay and the Deutero-Malay peoples possibly belong to the same stock and origin. Previous theories suggested that the Deutero-Malays came in a second wave of migration, around 300 BCE, compared to the arrival of the Proto-Malays who came much earlier.
- Neil Joseph Ryan (1976). A History of Malaysia and Singapore. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 4 & 5. ISBN 0-19-580302-7
- Karl Anderbeck, "Suku Batin - A Proto-Malay People? Evidence from Historical Linguistics", The Sixth International Symposium on Malay/Indonesian Linguistics, 3 - 5 August 2002, Bintan Island, Riau, Indonesia