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New Evidence on the Settlement of Madagascar

Submitted by on March 28, 2012 – 3:55 pm 8 Comments |  
A new study of the genetic background of the people of Madagascar sheds light on the settlement of the island. It has long been known that the initial movement of people to Madagascar was relatively recent (1,000 to 1,500 years ago), and that it originated not from the African mainland but rather from the islands of what is now Indonesia. The new study, carried out by a team led by Murray Cox of New Zealand’s Massey University, examined mitrochondrial DNA, providing firm data on maternal lineages. The findings suggest that the first settlement of the island occurred around 830 CE, and involved a small group of women, numbering around thirty individuals. The researchers found no indication of women continuing to move from Insular Southeast Asia to Madagascar after the initial settlement event. Subsequently, however, another migration stream brought women (and men) from Africa to the island.

Many mysteries still surround the peopling of Madagascar. Cox’s dating suggests that the initial settlement occurred during the heyday of the powerful Srivijaya Empire, which controlled the Strait of Malacca and maintained a powerful fleet. But cultural evidence of Srivijaya’s role in the settlement process is lacking. The Empire was Buddhist, with Hindu elements, but religious practices of Indian origin were not established on Madagascar. The indigenous Malagasy language of Madagascar, moreover, is most closely related to the Barito languages of Borneo, not the Malay language spoken in Srivijaya.

Some have suggested that the first settlers could have been members of a tribal population from Borneo sent by Srivijaya, or perhaps by a Malay mercantile network, to establish a local base for food production that could aid their trading activities in the area. Others think that the settlement could have been entirely accidently, resulting from a ship or small fleet blown off-course. It is unlikely that mercantile activities would have directly led to the settlement of the Madagascar. Certainly traders from what is now Indonesia were active at the time in the waters of the western Indian Ocean, but it is thought that few women were involved in the process.




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  • This is fascinating! I have to agree with you that the mtDNA data argues against the “mercantile ship blown off course” theory: one just doesn’t go on trading trips with 30 women on board. Unless they were slave trading… And although 30 women may seem like a small number, it’s not actually that small for a founder effect. One study, for example, has shown that half of the Ashkenazi Jews today descend from just *four* women! (Although it must be noted that those four women are dated to a much earlier period than the settling of Jews in Europe, so in effect they were “foremothers” of the actual women from the Middle East who were in the founder group for the Ashkenazi Jews.) One other thing to remember is that the actual number of women in the founder group is always somewhat higher than the number of women whose lineages can be traced to the present-day population (same is even more true for Y-DNA), since there must have been women in that founding group who had only sons (or whose daughters/granddaughters/etc. had only sons) so their mtDNA lineages do not continue to the present day.

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  • This video, which seems to be a tribute to the beauty of Malagasy women, makes the Southeast Asian ancestry of the island’s inhabitants pretty clear. 

    • Thank you for the video, Peter! Actually, not all Madagascarian (?) women look Southeast Asian. As Martin mentions in the post, after the initial Austronesian-speaking settlement, Africans (men and women) too settled on Madagascar. In fact, different tribes look decidedly different: people of Merina (the ruling tribe) look very Southeast Asian, but people from the Betsimisaraka tribe (one of the coastal tribes) look far more African than anything else:

      •  Yes, that’s true.  The young women in the video, being exhibitors and hostesses at some sort of computer trade show, would be drawn mainly from the higher echelons of Malagasy society, or at least not from the peasantry.  I believe the Merina are for the most part on the top of the country’s socioeconomic scale.

        • Good point. But it is also important to note that the Merina historically had a caste-like system of extreme social stratification. 

  • Neo

    I read somewhere that the Malagasy language has Sanskrit words, meaning obviously they were influenced by the Sri Vijaya Indic Civilization.

    Secondly there are later settlement during the colonial days. From British Malaya.

    • Regarding the issue of Sanskrit words in Malagasy, it is indeed true, though there are relatively few loanwords from Sanskrit. Based on this observation, Otto Dahl postulated that the emigration from Indonesia to Madagascar took place at the beginning of Indian influence there. If it were later, one would expect to find a stronger influence of Sanskrit on Malagasy. Since some early Sanskrit inscriptions dating to 400 CE turned up in eastern Kalimantan, Dahl reasoned that the Malagasy emigration must have been about that time. Other scholars, however, have argued for later dates, around 700 CE, which is bolstered by archeological findings carbon-dated to ca. 700 CE.

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