Cape Malays…

and their Heritage

Madagascar: Indonesians in Medieval Africa

Posted by tahirfarrath on January 13, 2013


October 22, 2012

Despite all the excitement about the use of DNA in history, those elusive strands have so far proved surprisingly unhelpful in our text books. The problem is that populations with similar DNA live close to each other and that it is next to impossible to give a chronological breakdown of when a given locality changes its DNA without finding bodies from every generation and comparing them. Every so often though DNA crops up far from ‘home’. And these are the moments when DNA really makes a difference, sticking out like a neon church tower in a landscape of brick campanili. We have looked here before at an example of Amerindian DNA from Iceland and, another time, at ‘Gypsy’ DNA in Insular Europe. What about for Monday morning blues, Indonesian DNA in Madagascar?

Madagascar and Indonesia are separated by some three thousand miles: even in the late nineteenth century a boat trip between the two was far from a joke. Yet recent studies in the mitochondrial DNA of Madagascar, by one Murray Cox and team, suggest that the African island’s founding mothers were from the Asian archipelago. After a large-scale analysis of Indonesians and Madagascans he suggests, in fact, that most modern Madagascans can be tied to thirty Indonesian women who came to the island perhaps twelve hundred years ago. The number of males will have to await later study. This Indonesian DNA fugues with the suspicions of linguists who have noted vocabulary overlap with some ‘Indonesian’ languages. There are also characteristically ‘Asian’ objects in Madagascar such as xylophones. Earlier studies were not as emphatic as MC, suggesting mixing of an Indonesian with an African population in Madagascar or elsewhere. But there has long been the suspicion, now a certainty that there was a large, perhaps overwhelmingly Indonesian component in the first Madagascan populations.

A question that cannot be answered is under what circumstances these Indonesians made it across the Indian Ocean. The normal fail-sure solution for these embarrassments is a trader blown off course: but that doesn’t work here. After all, what kind of trader carries women: unless we are to suppose a slaver?

See comments from drbeachcombing (re: ferry) and Stephen D (re: Y chromosomes/Borneo)…


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