Madagascar: Earliest settlement and Indian Ocean integration (100-1640)

Updated November 2005

The historic process by which the present population of Madagascar migrated to the island is unclear. Linguistically the Malagasy language has its closest similarities with the Maanyan language of south Borneo (Randriamasimanana 1999). A genetic study shows that, on both maternal and paternal sides, half of the Malagasy people' genetic heritage is from East African and the other half is from Borneo (Hurles et al 2005). Hurles et al state: "The striking mix suggests that there was substantial migration of people from South-east Asia about 2000-1500 years ago - a mirror image of the migrations from that region into the Pacific, to Micronesia and Polynesia, that had occurred about 1000 years earlier".

How and exactly when this diverse ancestry reached Madagascar is the subject of some speculation. It has been suggested that the population mix is the product of a series of sea migrations related to trading activities from Indonesia, along the littoral of the Indian Ocean to East Africa and from there to Madagascar somewhere between the first and sixth centuries. In this scheme the settlers would have intermarried with indigenous East Africans prior to reaching Madagascar. Others suggest that the Indonesian population element crossed the Indian Ocean directly in a colonization drive and was later followed by African settlers. It is also asserted that the migration, whether directly across the Indian Ocean or via the littoral, was not a once-off affair, but rather a process that continued as late as the 1400s (Hurles et al 2005, US State Department 2005, Columbia Encyclopaedia 2005).

Archaeological work has found evidence of butchery on hippopotamus bones in Ambolisatra and Lamboharana, which appear to be the result of using metal tools; these findings are dated to the first century of the Common Era. The earliest evidence of a human occupation site is from Lakaton'i Anja and is dated to the 4th century CE, but provides no clue as to the cultural origin of the people who settled there (Stiles 1998).

Literary references to Madagascar begin in the 7th century CE with the discovery of the island by Arab traders, and the earliest histories of Madagascar are written in Malagasy using Arabic script. The Arabs founded trading posts, the ruins of some of which date to the ninth century, indicating settlements on the northwest and southeast of the island (US State Department 2005, Library of Congress 1994a, Columbia Encyclopaedia 2005). Madagascar formed part of a wider Indian Ocean trade network that linked Swahili East Africa with Arabia, Persia, India and Indonesia and from there with China. It is as a result of the activities of Arab and Swahili traders that Islam was planted in Madagascar (Bortolot Undated, Thomson Corporation 2005, Stiles 1998).

The Portuguese first discovered the island at the beginning of the sixteenth century, but their activity was slight until a Catholic mission was sent to Madagascar a hundred years later. Efforts at conversion of the Malagasies were unsuccessful and the mission was aborted in 1619 (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2005). The arrival of the Europeans in the Indian Ocean, and the disruption of the traditional trading networks, had the effect of relegating Madagascar to a backwater. In the 17th century the Dutch used it as a minor source of slaves, particularly for their colony at the Cape of Good Hope, where Madagascans formed 24% of slaves imported (Vink 2003).


BORTOLOT, AI UNDATED "Kingdoms of Madagascar: Maroserana and Merina" The Metropolitan Museum of Art [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Jun 2010).

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HURLES, ME; SYKES, BC; JOBLING, MA & FORSTER, P 2005 "The Dual Origin of the Malagasy in Island Southeast Asia and East Africa: Evidence from Maternal and Paternal Lineages" IN The American Journal of Human Genetics, The American Society of Human Genetics [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Jun 2010).

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RANDRIAMASIMANANA, C 1999 "The Malayo-Polynesian Origins of Malagasy" IN Kirk, NA & Sidwell, PJ (eds), From Neanderthal to Easter Island. A tribute to, and a celebration of, the work of W. Wilfried Schuhmacher presented on the occasion of his 60th birthday, Association for the History of Language, Melbourne, 26-43, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 10 Jun 2010).

STILES, D 1998 "The Mikea Hunter-Gatherers of Southwest Madagascar: Ecology and Socioeconomics" IN African Study Monographs, 19(3): 127-148, [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 10 Jun 2010).

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US STATE DEPARTMENT 2005 "Background Note: Madagascar" [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Jun 2010).

VINK, M 2003 "The World's Oldest Trade: Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean in the Seventeenth Century," Journal of World History June [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Jun 2010).