We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Was Madagascar Settled by a Tiny Group of Refugees From Distant Lands?

The first inhabitants of the island seem to have come not from nearby Africa but distant Indonesia.

By Jennifer Abbasi
Sep 23, 2012 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:26 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

A.D. 830: A storm sends an Indonesian trading ship drastically off course. Months later, dozens of ragged survivors make landfall on an island off the southeast coast of Africa, more than 3,000 miles from home. Today, Murray Cox, a computational biologist at New Zealand’s Massey University, says a scenario like this may describe the murky origins of the first permanent settlements on Madagascar, home to about 22 million people today.

Genetic and linguistic studies suggest the island’s native Malagasy people are mainly of Indonesian descent. The idea of early Indonesians traveling 3,000 miles to the island intrigued Cox. “It’s a surprisingly long distance to come,” he says. So he used computer modeling to parse the clues, running through 40 million settlement simulations. Cox soon pinpointed one that would explain the DNA patterns evident in Madagascar today. Surprisingly, the current population descends primarily from just 30 or so Indonesian women who arrived 12 centuries ago [pdf]. His conclusion is supported by priorfindings that about 30 percent of Malagasy have the same mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child—far less diversity than in typical human populations, which share less than 2 percent. “This suggests rapid, recent growth from a very small founder population,” Cox says.

It is unclear how Madagascar’s founding mothers (and the fathers who must have been with them) arrived. Cox proposes seafaring merchants thrown off course, or refugees fleeing political strife; the latter could explain why women, usually not found on trade ships, were on board. Now, Cox plans to explore whether small founding groups are characteristic of other early island settlements, including Hawaii. “There may be general rules for settling islands,” he says.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.