You can't make this up: Madagascar, how our planet's strangest island was settled
The unreal journeys of Madagascar’s Malagasy people
Note: this is the first of two related pieces; you can read the second one here.
In 2017 I previewed journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s genetic results for the show Finding Your Roots. Hunter-Gault’s ancestry came back around half African and half European, which is not an unexpected ratio among African Americans. But a tiny component of her ancestry was much rarer for someone whose ancestors have all long been resident in the United States: she was a bit over 1% Southeast Asian. The host of Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates Jr., told Hunter-Gault that he had come across this result before, and the historical records suggested an unambiguous if rather astonishing storyline: Hunter-Gault had at least one slave ancestor from Madagascar, the storied island around the far side of Africa from the ports of the Atlantic slave trade.
Though slaves from Madagascar probably accounted for little more than a percent of the humans brought in bondage to North America’s English colonies, modern genetic techniques indicate their heritage persists down to the present in many African Americans. Using genotyping services like 23andMe, customers can find “distant cousins” with unplaceable surnames like Soloniaina and Ramalanjaona, a big hint that some of their ancestors endured not only the terrifying 5,000-mile trans-Atlantic journey in slave ships bound for America’s southern plantations, but a prior 6,000-mile one around the Cape of Good Hope, from the Indian Ocean’s southwestern edge all the way to West African ports as far north as Nigeria and Senegal.
And yet these marathon journeys in bondage are only the last legs, and arguably the least improbable ones, on another truly incredible human migration odyssey. Because really, what does ancestry found just 250 miles from Mozambique have to do with Southeast Asia? In places, Madagascar lies little further from Mozambique than Paris from London, while even as the crow flies, it’s some 5,000 miles from Madagascar to Indonesia (or more like 10,000, if you keep land in sight along the route, picking your way along the arc of Asian and African coastlines between). And yet unlike all the African Bantu languages spoken by the peoples just across that channel, Madagascar’s Malagasy language is part of the Austronesian family, its closest linguistic relative south-central Borneo’s Ma'anyan language. The dozen or so other languages in Malagasy’s broader East Barito group are all native to central or southern Borneo, literally named for the area’s Barito river. Malagasy’s membership in that otherwise compact and geographically contiguous branch of the Austronesian linguistic subfamily also makes it kin to the Rapanui language of Easter Island, off the coast of South America. But not to any of the mainland Bantu African languages that are spoken just across the channel in Mozambique.
Though Madagascar is geographically part of Africa, culturally it marks the westernmost fringe of the Austronesians’ vast domains, which stretch from there along Africa’s southeast coast to the shores of the New World, spanning the vast South Pacific, and anchored in the nations of maritime Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. This reality is undeniable on the faces and in the customs of Madagascar’s native Malagasy people. The Merina ethnic group who dominate the island's central highlands in particular tend to visually favor the Malagasy’s Asian ancestors, and rice cultivation is so central to their culture that in their dialect of Malagasy to have a meal is literally “to eat rice.”
Today the tools of archaeology, linguistics and genetics are unlocking the mysteries of the Malagasy people’s history, of a lost world geologically distinct from the African mainland, ultimately conquered by intrepid seafarers from the Indian Ocean’s far eastern reaches, five time zones away, or the distance from Alaska to Panama. Like so many human groups, the Malagasy are inheritors of multiple strands of the human story, mixing Austronesian genes with those of Bantu Africans who arrived from the mainland a millennium ago. The resultant culture perhaps suits an island known for its complement of sui generis animals whose evolution has long trod a lonely path due to Madagascar’s separation from Africa 88 million years ago. Thanks to advances in genomics, the overall story, strange as it is, has grown far clearer in the space of just a generation. Madagascar is geologically African, culturally mostly Austronesian and genetically a mix of the two.