Ancient crops reveal mass migration from Asia to Madagascar

Anthropologists assert that people migrated from Southeast Asia to Madagascar around 1,000 years ago and a new study has revealed the first proof of such a migration.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the new study reveals evidence of ancient crop remains from Asian species like rice and mung beans at sites in Madagascar.

DNA research found the inhabitants of Madagascar have a common ancestry with Malaysians, Polynesians, and other Southeast Asians. In fact, the inhabitants of Madagascar speak Malagasy, a language common to Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

To date, archaeological studies have recognized human settlements in Madagascar from the first millennium. There are also studies indicating Madagascar could have been settled by hunter-gatherers from Africa by the first or second millennium. Until recently, archaeological evidence of a great migration had been absent.

Evidence for a great migration

The new study identified the species of almost 2,500 ancient plant remains acquired from their excavations at 18 ancient settlement locations in Madagascar, on neighboring islands and on the eastern African coast. They reviewed residues acquired from sediments in different archaeological tiers using a system of sieves and water.

The team found evidence of the earliest crops grown on the locations being both African in nature and crops brought to Africa from somewhere else. The team pointed to a definite pattern, with African crops mainly concentrated on the mainland and the islands nearest to the mainland.

In Madagascar, however, early agriculture involved primarily Asian crops. The information indicated an introduction of these crops, both to Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands, by the 8th and 10th century.

“Southeast Asians clearly brought crops from their homeland and grew and subsisted on them when they reached Africa,” study author Nicole Boivin, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, said in a press release.

“This means that archaeologists can use crop remains as evidence to provide real material insights into the history of the island. There are a lot of things we still don’t understand about Madagascar’s past; it remains one of our big enigmas. But what is exciting is that we finally have a way of providing a window into the island’s highly mysterious Southeast Asian settlement and distinguishing it from settlements by mainland Africans that we know also happened.”

A surprising discovery

While evidence of Asian crops was also found on the nearby islands of the Comoros, crop remains on the eastern African coast and coastal islands like Zanzibar were mainly African in origin.

“This took us by surprise,” said study author Alison Crowther, from the University of Queensland in Australia. “After all, people in the Comoros speak African languages and they don’t look like they have Southeast Asian ancestry in the way that populations on Madagascar do. What was amazing to us was the stark contrast that emerged between the crops on the Eastern African coast and the offshore islands versus those on Madagascar, but also the Comoros.”

“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,” Boivin said.

“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.”


Image credit: Mark Horton, University of Bristol.