Is Madagascar Asian or African

The Madagascar riddleWho were the first settlers on the island?

If there is one tricky puzzle to solve for geneticists, it is the story of Madagascar. Denis Pierron from the CNRS in Toulouse has been investigating this question for more than ten years - and, according to his own statements, is on the right track. Because he was able to examine the data from more than 250 villages.

"We have analyzed 3,000 genetic samples from all over Madagascar and can now better understand the origin of today's people there. The genetic origin is a mix of African populations and groups from Indonesia, and it was only a good 1,000 years ago."

It is still unclear when and in what order the respective groups came to Madagascar. In theory, they could have lived there in parallel for millennia before being incorporated into today's Malagasy population 27 or 26 generations ago.

"What is surprising, however, is that all the individuals in our database show this mix of Africa and Asia. All study participants carry the genetic makeup of both continents."

Genetic protection against malaria

During the detailed analysis of the Y-chromosomal inheritance, Denis Pierron discovered more typical African peculiarities, on the maternal, mitrochondrial side, more Asian. The question now is how this genetic mix came about. Which genetic variants from Asia were advantageous in the new environment, which African peculiarities have prevailed? There are already first indications.

"We have discovered a gene that almost everyone in Madagascar carries. It comes from Africa and protects against malaria."

But these are only the genetic insights into the recent history of Madagascar. In order to also fathom the early history, Chantal Radimilahy merges the "hard" data from the natural sciences with findings from the cultural and social sciences as part of the MAGE consortium. The archaeologist is doing research at the University of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.

The trail leads far into the past

"If we combine the genetic results with those from archeology, anthropology and ethnology, we can perhaps find a trace of the ancestors of the first humans in Madagascar."

Such a trace leads back much further than the 1000 years of genetic analysis alone. Using the bones of now extinct primates and giant birds, a research team was able to prove at the end of 2018 that these animals were slaughtered in Madagascar around 4,500 years ago. There are no remains of the hunters of that time. This is because the tropical climate usually decomposes organic material within a short period of time, to the chagrin of many researchers.

Cultural identity is not a question of origin

Now the big question is whether these hunters came from Africa, from East Asia or whether there was an older population whose traces have now disappeared. Regardless of where the first inhabitants of their island came from: When asked what the identity of the people of Madagascar is like, there is no doubt, according to Chantal Radimilahy.

"It is Madagascar. We cannot say that we are Africans, that we come from Southeast Asia or from India. We have settled here and the people are Malagasy - that is our cultural identity."