The rushing of a river, buzzing of insects and chirping of birds are all parts of a jungle chorus that urbanites are scarcely familiar with. Yet for centuries they have been part of the symphony that colours Malaysia’s once-dense interior. Woven into the harmonious tapestry of sounds are the languages of the forest’s most ancient dwellers.

The 18 groups that make up the broader Orang Asli community have lived here for an estimated 4,000-5,000 years. Now numbering about 215,000, they live across Peninsular Malaysia, from the remote jungles of Kelantan to islands off Klang.

There is a tendency to portray the Orang Asli as homogenous, but they are nothing of the kind.

As communities can be nomadic, live in remote areas and are at times reclusive, official population figures sometimes vary widely between official data and those by NGOs.

But it is generally accepted that the Orang Asli are divided into three main groups – the Negrito, Proto-Malay and Senoi. Each of these is further divided into six groups.

Groups like the Bateq, Jahai, Semoq Beri, Jah Hut, Mah Meri, Orang Seletar and Orang Kuala number less than 6,000, while the smallest of the tribes, the Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Mendriq, Che Wong and Orang Kanaq, all have less than 1,000 registered people per tribe.

Vanished groups

This means their language and culture may go extinct within a generation – which has happened before.

There was a tribe called the Kenaboi who spoke a unique language. Their numbers dwindled as they started to integrate with the larger Temuan community. Over time the group’s language and culture became extinct.

What remains are approximately 250 words compiled in 1880 by researcher DFA Hervey and referred to in the book Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula by WW Skeat and CO Blagden, published in 1906.

But Bah Tony, former Persatuan Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia president, believes the smaller communities are self-preserving.