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Who were the people that first settled in Madagascar?

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The identity of the original settlers of Madagascar has never been definitively determined.  In his exploration of world geography and the factors that determined the survival of disparate civilizations throughout history, Jared Diamond notes in his 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel regarding the population of Madagascar:

“Madagascar’s people prove to be a mixture of two elements.  Not surprisingly, one element is African blacks, but the other consists of people instantly recognizable, from their appearance, as tropical Southeast Asians.  Specifically, the language spoken by all the people of Madagascar – Asians, blacks, and mixed – is Austronesian and very similar to the Ma’anyan language spoken on the Indonesian island of Borneo, over 4,000 miles across the open Indian Ocean from Madagascar.”

Diamond’s point, of course, is that the prominent presence and influences in a region so distant from Madagascar of Asians demonstrates the extent to which not-so-early Polynesian explorers and settlers established their presence on a continent conventional wisdom would have concluded was inaccessible to people in Southeast Asia.  If anthropologists are correct and Indonesians settled Madagascar as far back as 2,000 years ago, and long before settlers from nearby Africa, then the technological prowess of one ethnicity proved more dominant than that of another.  Indonesian influences in Madagascar are prevalent, ranging from the dominant language used there to the rice-based cuisine that is similarly dominant among modern-day residents.  Diamond’s observations regarding Madagascar were supported by an article in the American Journal of Human Genetics, which similarly concluded that settlers from far-away Borneo were among the first, if not the first, to inhabit that island nation:

“Here, we demonstrate approximately equal African and Indonesian contributions to both paternal and maternal Malagasy lineages. The most likely origin of the Asia-derived paternal lineages found in the Malagasy is Borneo.” [See “The Dual Origin of the Malagasy in Island Southeast Asia and East Africa: Evidence from Maternal and Paternal Lineages,” Vol. 76, Issue 5, May 2005]

Consequently, it can be concluded that the original inhabitants of Madagascar were from the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, currently a part of the Indonesian archipelago, and sitting thousands of miles from Madagascar.  Precisely when Africans settled the island is uncertain, and could have occurred in the same time frame, but best estimates place their arrival later than that of the Asians.

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