Ancient Crop Remains Reveal Madagascan Ancestors Came From Southeast Asia

May 31, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Rice paddies in the Madagascar countryside
Photo credit: Jean-Louis Vandevivère/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Archaeologists find evidence of an epic migration to Madagascar over 1,000 years ago.

Though the island of Madagascar sits in the Indian Ocean just 500 kilometers (310 miles) east of mainland Africa, its inhabitants speak the Malagasy language, which is otherwise unique to Southeast Asia — a region located more than 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) away.

It has been suggested that this linguistic anomaly reflects an ancient colonization of Madagascar by Austronesian speaking people — an idea that has been supported by genetic research. Until now, however, archaeological evidence of the Southeast Asian colonisation has been missing.

An international research team has recently identified the first archaeological signature of this elusive colonization event, in the form of remains of the Asian crops that settlers brought with them over a thousand years ago. The findings will soon be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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The team examined residues obtained from the sediments at 18 ancient settlement sites in Madagascar, neighboring islands, and on the eastern African coast. From their excavations, they were able to identify the remains of nearly 2,500 ancient plant species and determine whether each one originated in Africa, or was introduced to Africa from elsewhere.

A distinct pattern emerged: crops of African origin were mainly concentrated on the mainland and islands closest to the mainland. The sites in Madagascar and the neighboring Comoros Islands, on the other hand, were abundant in Asian crops like rice and mung beans.

The data suggest these crops were introduced to both Madagascar and the Comoros Islands by between the 8th and 10th centuries.

“Southeast Asians clearly brought crops from their homeland and grew and subsisted on them when they reached Africa,” said study senior author Nicole Boivin from the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in a press release.

“There are a lot of things we still don't understand about Madagascar's past; it remains one of our big enigmas,” she added. “But what is exciting is that we finally have a way of providing a window into the island's highly mysterious Southeast Asian settlement and distinguishing it from settlements by mainland Africans that we know also happened.”

The finding that Southeast Asians colonised not only Madagascar, but also the nearby islands of the Comoros, was unexpected. “This took us by surprise,” said study lead author Alison Crowther from the University of Queensland, Australia. “After all, people in the Comoros speak African languages and they don't look like they have Southeast Asian ancestry in the way that populations on Madagascar do.”

By digging into research that has been carried out on Comorian languages, the researchers realized that their discovery confirmed the suspicions of numerous linguists, who have proposed that the Comoros Islands were settled by people from Southeast Asia.

“So we've been able to not only to show for the first time an archaeological signature of Austronesians, we've also shown that it seems to extend beyond Madagascar. This is really exciting, and highlights how much we still have to learn about this fascinating migration,” said Boivin.

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