Madagascar lies just 500 kilometers (300 miles) from the coast of Africa, but 6,000 kilometers (3,750 miles) from Indonesia. Somehow, however, settlement came from peoples whose origins lay in Southeast Asia. Evidence for this idea has been building for some time, but a new study provides archaeological support, along with unexpected evidence that the same migration also included the nearby Comoros.
Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, is classified as an Austronesian language, showing similarities with tongues native as far afield as Hawaii and New Zealand. It is the only language outside Southeast Asia and the Pacific to be part of this group. A combination of genetic and cultural evidence suggests the language came to the island some 1,300 years ago, but there are no written records testifying to the event.
Such a settlement seems so improbable that prominent author Jared Diamond described it as “the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world.” Under the principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,” anthropologists have been keen to find archeological evidence for the settlement. This has finally occurred with the discovery of Asian crops at 1,200-year-old village sites, accompanied by evidence that the nearby Comoros Islands may have been settled in the same migration.
Dr. Alison Crowther of the University of Queensland told IFLScience there is some evidence of scattered nomadic populations in Madagascar 4,000 years ago. “Aside from this, there are no signs [of habitation] before about 600-700 AD,” Crowther said. Crowther is first author of the paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which shows that the oldest permanent settlements were built by people using crops from Asia, rather than from nearby Africa.
Staple crops at these Madagascan settlements included bananas, yams, taro and coconuts, all originating from Southeast Asia. Rice was also widespread, along with mung beans and Asian cotton. The diversity of crops demonstrates that the Austronesian settlers came well prepared, supporting the theory the process was a systematic migration, rather than a single ship that got badly lost.
In the same era, sites along the African coastline were dominated by African crops such as sorghum and millet, although some also showed a sparse presence from the same crops found on Madagascar. The Comoros Islands, however, were dominated by Asian rice, and showed few traces of African-origin crops.
Anjouan in the Comoros Islands is one of the places that shows signs of settlement from Asia. Professor Mark Horton/University of Bristol
The Comoros Islands are very close to Madagascar's northern tip, but the paper notes: “Comorians today speak Bantu languages, and in addition, preliminary molecular genetic studies suggest that they possess only a small proportion of Southeast Asian ancestry.”
The mix of African and Asian crops along the African coast is suggestive of an African population that traded with Asia, while primarily growing native plants, the authors conclude. The Comoros, however, appear to have been settled by Austronesians bringing their own crops, who at some point were displaced, leaving little genetic legacy. Nevertheless, further study revealed that Comorian languages have enough Austronesian words that some linguists had speculated about just such a settlement.
The Comoros sites appear to be slightly older than those in Madagascar, but dating uncertainties prevent confirmation of the possibility that the extraordinary migration crossed the Indian Ocean to settle first in the Comoros, before extending to Madagascar.
A dig site at Sima in the Comoros Islands turned up an abundance of Asian rice and some cotton. Professor Mark Horton/University of Bristol