Why does Jared Diamond consider Madagascar the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world in Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his famous book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond writes about Madagascar (a large island off the African coast) in chapter 19: "How Africa Became Black."

According to Diamond, the five major human groups in Africa included "blacks, whites, African Pigmies, Khoisan,...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In his famous book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond writes about Madagascar (a large island off the African coast) in chapter 19: "How Africa Became Black."

According to Diamond, the five major human groups in Africa included "blacks, whites, African Pigmies, Khoisan, and Asians." The "biggest anomaly" of Madagascar therefore has to do with the background and composition of the people inhabiting the island. Although Madagascar is just off the coast of East Africa and otherwise surrounded by the vast Indian Ocean, the island's people are a mix of blacks and Southeast Asians who speak an Austronesian language originating in Borneo. As Diamond explains:

These Austronesians, with their Austronesian language and modified Austronesian culture, were already established on Madagascar by the time it was first visited by Europeans, in 1500. This strikes me as the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world.

Diamond considers this anomaly comparable to Columbus arriving in the new world and finding blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavians on Cuba instead of Native Americans.

This is an instance of how languages can help determine the origins of people. Diamond wonders whether these Austronesians somehow made the long trip straight across the Indian Ocean and then later became connected to East African trade routes. He writes that: "some mystery remains about Africa's most surprising fact of human geography."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In chapter nineteen of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond refers to Madagascar as "the biggest anomaly."

Geographically, Madagascar is closer to Africa than any other continent (it is only two hundred and fifty miles away) and separated from Asia and Australia by the "whole expanse of the Indian Ocean." Despite that, the people of Madagascar are a mix of two influences. One is African blacks, and that is not surprising. What is surprising is that the other is clearly recognizable as being descended from Southeast Asia. Even more astonishing is that all of the people of Madagascar speak a language spoken only on Borneo, an island which is located four thousand miles away. 

There is no evidence of any other such influence anywhere near Madagascar, and Diamond sees this as "the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world." He cannot fathom how a primitive people, such as the people of Borneo, could have established themselves in Madagascar before the Europeans arrived in 1500--"presumably voyaging in boats without maps or compasses."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team