The great Malagasy leap into the unknown

By Razib Khan | September 24, 2012 11:33 pm

Today there was a short article in Discover on a paper published last spring on the models for the settling of Madagascar. I didn’t pay too much attention when the paper came out for two reasons. First, it focused on Y and mtDNA, and I’ve been playing with Malagasy autosomes. Second, it seemed a ridiculously brutal computational attack on a question which seems to have a straightforward intuitive explanation: yes, Madagascar was settled by a small founding group. With hindsight I may have spoken too soon, or passed judgement too hastily. Looking at the paper the explicit model building of demography does still seem like overkill, but they obtain some important precision here. The phylogenetics and the archaeology align nicely.

Though the authors of the article talk about future directions, I think we will find that the Malagasy originate from a small group of Malayo-Polynesians who did find themselves stranded on Madagascar (later to absorb African admixture). This is not controversial. Rather, when I came to this position with enough solidity I began to look at the cultural anthropology of Madagascar. In particular, what do the Malagasy remember of about their own past in Southeast Asia? From what I could tell (the literature on Madagascar is not too rich in English) the Malagasy don’t recall much. This is important, because it tells us just how fragile oral memory can be when you have a major geographical and demographic rupture. The influence of Sanskrit is apparently evident within Malagasy, attesting to the early period if Indic influence in Southeast Asia. But the Malagasy are not part of Dharmic or Islamic civilization. They are the people forgotten by time. I think what little we know about the Malagasy can shed on light memories and legends preserved by peoples who we suspect were migrants into the only homelands they knew (e.g., how could the Aryans be exogenous if they didn’t record any memory of lands before India?).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
  • Maju

    I’m not familiar at all with your version of the Malagassy founder process. For what I’ve read the Malagassy must have arrived via East Africa, where they were instrumental in introducing some key crops like banana.

    IF they would have been sailing up and down the Indian Ocean instead of coasting through Asia and Africa, they would have surely found and settled the Seychelles, Reunion and Mauritius, as well as possibly other islands like Diego García. Instead all those islands remained unihabited until Modern Age.

    Otherwise the paper seems motivated by the need to explain the absolute absence of the Malagassy motiff among modern Malays, unlike what happens with its Eastern “twin”, the Polynesian motiff, relatively common in some Indonesian and Filipino islands.

    For some odd reason anyhow, this study seems to ignore Ricaut 2009 (not in the references section), which found a novel haplogroup, then called M16 (not sure if renamed by now) found among only some of the Malagassy ethnicities (Vezo and Mikea) and also in at least one Dubai native. The lineage might have arrived to Dubai through the Iron Age Malagassy migration or, inversely, have been incorporated to the Malagassy genetic pool in Arabia. Of course it can also be a slave-trade byproduct via the Comores and Zendj (Swahili East Africa) but hard to demonstrate. In any case it is not linked to the Austronesian origins in ISEA in any obvious way, same as with the Malagassy motiff discussed here.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    I have to say, one thing which would be surprising to me if the “castaway” model is true is that so much agricultural knowledge was retained. I wouldn’t think that the founding group would have access to seed rice, taro, and banana unless it was a planned settlement from home territories. Furthermore, I wouldn’t think they would retain rice farming during the flush period in early settlement when there were plenty of easy prey animals with no fear of humans. But obviously that’s what happened.

    Another oddity to me is why all of Madagascar speaks one language. I understand the founding was relatively late, but given it was pre-literate, seems to have been stuck at the chieftain level until European contact, and had extensive African settlement of the coastlines, you’d think the dialects would have diverged into separate languages.

  • Gisele

    Maju: Ricaut’s M16 is referred to as M23 at Phylotree and connected to minor SE Asian haplogroup M75. Bodner et al. (2011) reported an M23 sequence in Laos (based upon coding region mutations) and I am inclined to put an HVR I sequence obtained by Sykes from Sabah in the same classification. There may be others in SE Asia but coding region mutations would be required to confirm classification.

  • Razib Khan

    Another oddity to me is why all of Madagascar speaks one language.

    that’s the reason i think there is one founding. i agree that there were other contacts, and connections to east africa.

    seems to have been stuck at the chieftain level until European contact, and had extensive African settlement of the coastlines

    Unlike most capital cities in southern Africa, Antananarivo was already a major city before the colonial era. The city was founded circa 1625 by King Andrianjaka and takes its name (the City of the Thousand) from the number of soldiers assigned to guard it.

    from what i recall it was already one of the largest cities in sub-saharan africa in the 19th century. i read in one book that it was the largest in the 18th century (assume capetown and zanzibar surpassed it in the 19th?), but i’m moderately skeptical of that.

  • Maju

    #3.- Thanks Giselle, I lacked any update on that matter since the discovery.

    It is an interesting lineage in any case: even if the origin of the Malagassy M23 founder effect would be in Sabah as you seem to suspect (a quite reasonable exit point for the proto-Malagassy sailors’ adventure), its finding in Dubai still suggests that these may have stopped in the Arabian Sea (unless it is a backflow with a Zandji trade routes’ context, not necessarily more plausible than my first idea).

  • Monica

    There are similar cultural activities with Indonesia – the “retournement” of re-wrapping the dead before their final resting place in Madagascar, is similar to this: in Indonesia. I was raised in Mdagascar until I was 10 and have always been fascinated with it.

  • Karl Zimmerman


    Maybe saying “stuck at the chieftain level” was overdoing it. But I meant that it seems clear the Merina (or any other group) never held an island-wide hegemony during prehistory. In the absence of evidence of such hegemony, the linguistic unity seems odd – particularly given the racial admixture of coastal peoples is totally different from those in the central highlands. Without a strong state, you’d expect the Bantu settlers would have resulted in a more Bantu-influenced coastal language at the very least, if not wholesale language replacement.

  • Mark Rich

    It is a common misperception among white foreigners to Madagascar that they all speak one language, a misperception that is at times abetted by Merina speakers who wish foreigners to believe that their language is the only one. The research by Leoni Bouwer from Unisa definitively establishes the significant amount of linguistic distance between many of the Malagasy languages, which are often as different as English and German. They are all part of the same branch of the Austronesian language family, but they are often quite different, approaching mutual unintelligibility. It is NOT a linguistic unity on Madagascar. That unity is a myth, and we should stop perpetuating it.

  • Justin Giancola

    2.”plenty of easy prey animals
    with no fear of humans.”

    I’ve heard many people say this, as if it were common knowledge. Can we reliably believe this was ever the case? – anywhere? Most animals are flighty around any foreign “agent”; most others are secrective/”slip in to the painting” in general.

  • ohwilleke

    “Maybe saying “stuck at the chieftain level” was overdoing it. But I meant that it seems clear the Merina (or any other group) never held an island-wide hegemony during prehistory. In the absence of evidence of such hegemony, the linguistic unity seems odd – particularly given the racial admixture of coastal peoples is totally different from those in the central highlands. ”

    Madagascar has several factors favoring linguistic unity: (1) The proto-language isn’t that distant in the past, (2) Madagascar has always had competent homegrown sailors so water isn’t the barrier that it is in some places, (3) it has no truly insurmountable geographic barriers that lead to linguistic isolation — no part of the island has been truly out of contact with the rest of it for very long, (4) outsiders became competent sailors much later than the locals, so an organized conques of the islands by enough outsiders to impose their language on the locals wasn’t viable until the European colonial era. The Bantu weren’t notable for their maritime capacities. If the Bantus had the sailing technology of the Vikings (or the Celts for that matter), Madgascar would speak Bantu languages now.

    Madagascar’s scenario sounds very similar to Japan. The Yayoi migrants from Korea who were the predominant linguistic source for the ancient Japanese language were politically divided for centuries (notoriously so in the eyes of the Chinese historians of the day) before Japan was reunited politically, were sheltered from the mainland by the sea, and there is significant variations in levels of Jomon admixture from one geographic region of Japan to another.

    Language replacement isn’t democratic. It is driven not by admixture percentages but by the language spoken by elites. And, those elites don’t need to be interally organized to have linguistic impact.

    The U.S. had immense German, Scandinavian, Irish and Italian immigration in the 19th century that had very little linguistic impact on American English because those populations didn’t make it into the nation’s elites until after they had undergone language shift themselves. American English has assimilated far more Yiddish idioms than it has Italian idioms, despite the fact that far more Americans have Italian roots than Central/Eastern European Jewish roots, because more Jews retained a linguistic identity and because more Jews made it into the ranks of the Americans elites before having abandoned that linguistic identity.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    9 -

    It might have been less true in Madagascar than other insular faunas (there was a giant Fossa which weighed up to 20 kilograms), but I would expect that the larger herbivores (elephant birds, giant lemurs, pygmy hippos) would have had no predators to worry about as adults but crocodiles, hence they would have displayed a low level of wariness. Plus they did all go extinct pretty quickly after humans arrived.

    10 -

    I think the comparison to the U.S. doesn’t work. Madagascar wasn’t a settled state where Austronesian-descended settlers met bantu at the docks, showed them around, and enrolled their kids in public education. Indeed, the very dominance of African DNA along the coastlines suggests there were very few Austronesians in the lowlands at their time of arrival. Otherwise you’d need truly massive migrations to swamp out the founders natural population growth – which seems pretty unlikely in the pre-modern era.

    The best hypothesis I can think of is while Africans came later, they came from a very small gene pool. Let’s say soon after founding an Austronesian polity raids the East African coast and takes slaves. After a few generations, the slaves are acculturated and take on some minor admixture. They revolt, and migrate out of agriculturally productive highlands, and down into the lowlands. Later African migrants may tilt the admixture to be even more Bantu, but this first group, who is Malagasy-speaking, basically sets the table.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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