Crop remains point to surprising early colonisers of Madagascar
Researchers have helped solve one of the enduring mysteries of the ancient world: why the inhabitants of Madagascar speak Malagasy, a language otherwise unique to Southeast Asia and the Pacific -- a region located at least 6,000 km away. An international research team has identified that ancient crop remains excavated from sites in Madagascar consist of Asian species like rice and mung beans. This is thought to be the first archaeological evidence that settlers from South Asia are likely to have colonised the island over a thousand years ago. The findings are published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
|Residues of plant remains were obtained from sediments in the archaeological layers |
[Credit: Nicole Boivin]
The team were able to identify the species of nearly 2,500 ancient plant remains obtained from their excavations at 18 ancient settlement sites in Madagascar, on neighbouring islands and on the eastern African coast. They examined residues obtained from sediments in the archaeological layers, using a system of sieves and water. They looked at whether the earliest crops grown on the sites were African crops or were crops introduced to Africa from elsewhere. They found both types, but noted a distinct pattern, with African crops primarily concentrated on the mainland and the islands closest to the mainland. In Madagascar, in contrast, early subsistence focused on Asian crops. The data suggested an introduction of these crops, both to Madagascar and the neighbouring Comoros Islands, by the 8th and 10th century.
|Archaeological assistants sieving deposits at Mahilaka, north-west Madagascar |
[Credit: Henry T Wright/University of Michigan]
The analyses also suggest that Southeast Asians colonised not only Madagascar but also the nearby islands of the Comoros, because again the crops that grew there were dominated by the same Asian species. By contrast, crops identified on the eastern African coast and near coastal islands like Mafia and Zanzibar were mainly African species like sorghum, pearl millet and baobab.
|Crops growing in Madagascar [Credit: Nicole Boivin]|
Dr Boivin added: 'When we started looking more closely into research that has been carried out on Comorian languages, we were able to find numerous esteemed linguists who had argued for the exact thing we seemed to seeing in the Comorian archaeological record: a settlement 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.'
Source: University of Oxford [May 30, 2016]