Where in Southeast Asia


I am on the island of Madagascar!

photo by Dormiveglia

Popular science writer Jared Diamond has called the convincing evidence of a prehistoric colonization of Madagascar, an island off of Africa’s eastern coast, by people from Borneo the “most astonishing fact of human geography.”  Archeological and linguistic evidence establishes that a group from what is today Indonesia colonized Madagascar at least by 600-700 CE, and possibly earlier.  The Indian Ocean was then an active zone of maritime trade (and had been since at least the late centuries BCE) and there’s some evidence that the first Southeast Asian voyagers to Africa’s east coast sailed under the banner of the empire of Srivijaya, whose capital was situated in southeast Sumatra but which controlled the length of the Melaka Straits.

Linguistic, archeological, and DNA evidence establishes this “astonishing fact.” A linguist first discovered that a language, Maanyan, spoken by a relatively small community living in the interior of Kalimantan (Borneo), was the closest relative to Malagasy, the language of Madagascar.  But the inhabitants of Sumatra, and subjects of Srivijaya, mostly spoke Malay. So why wouldn’t people on Madagascar speak Malay?  Maanyan is spoken by people who live near the Barito River which empties into the Java Sea at the southwest tip of Kalimantan.  Some scholars hypothesize that Manyaan-speaking peoples were taken to Madagascar as slaves in order to grow food for Malay traders who sailed the coast of Africa transporting goods to markets and only using Madagascar as a port of call.  Because the Manyaan were permanent settlers on the island, it was their language that was established.

In addition to the relationship between the languages, archaeologists have found remnants of Asian crops including rice, mung beans, and cotton dating from the 8th to 10th centuries on Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Island chain.  Rice was the most abundant food crop, found at levels between 70-100% of all remains.  Their presence contrasts with sites on the east African mainland where no Asian crops appear until the 11th century.

Finally, and most definitively, around 2005 DNA testing proved the connection.  Scientists were able to trace every maternal and paternal lineage found in the Malagasy of Madagascar to approximately equal Indonesian and African contributions.  The closest geographic origin for the Indonesian contribution was Kalimantan.

photo by Reibai