Research provides first on-the-ground clues for missing component of Madagascar's past

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International research team provides first on-the-ground clues for missing component of Madagascar's past

Madagascar’s colonization is among the enduring mysteries of the ancient world. Madagascar is located off the East African coast, and at a distance of several thousands of kilometers from Southeast Asia. The huge island is however home to people who communicate in a language closely related to the one spoken in the Pacific Area.

Genetic research has verified that Madagascar’s inhabitants really share close ancestry with Malaysians and Polynesians, but archaeologists have researched for so many years to determine any proof for their early presence on the island.

An international research team, including Max Planck director Nicole Boivin, has analyzed the leftovers of ancient crops preserved in archaeological sediments, providing the first on-the-ground signs of the missing component of the past of Madagascar.

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The researchers examined the residues obtained from a process known as flotation, in which a system of sieves and water is used to remove ancient preserved plant leftovers from sediments, and identified 2443 individual crop residues to species level using the microscope. They collected remnants during archaeological excavations at 18 ancient settlement areas in Madagascar, the Comoros and coastal eastern Africa.

The study’s lead author Alison Crowther, of The University Queensland, said, “What was amazing to us was the stark contrast that emerged between the crops on the Eastern African coast versus those on Madagascar, and the more we looked, the starker the contrast became”.

The ancient crop findings from the eastern African coast and closest islands were African crops dominating, and included species such as sorghum, pearl millet and baobab that had already been there on the east African coast for many centuries, carried by farmers throughout the continent.

Contrary to this, the samples collected from Madagascar’s sites contained some or no African crops. There were instead dominated by Asian species such as Asian rice, mung bean and Asian cotton.

"An analysis of ancient crops has suggested that Madagascar inhabitants may have Asian origins. The study provided new clues to the mysteries of Madagascar's colonization," according to a news report published by Tech Times.

Past genetic studies already confirmed the Madagascar inhabitants' ancestral link to Polynesians and Malaysians. However, archeologists have failed to find evidence for the group's early presence in Madagascar until now.

A team of international researchers analyzed the preserved remains of ancient plants obtained using a process called flotation. This process utilizes water and sieves to separate the residues from the sediment.

"What was amazing to us was the stark contrast that emerged between the crops on the Eastern African coast versus those on Madagascar, and the more we looked, the starker the contrast became," said lead author Alison Crowther from The University of Queensland.

According to a report in Science Mag by Andrew Lawler, "The settlement of the Indian Ocean’s largest island is one of the great mysteries in humanity’s colonization of the globe. Madagascar lies just 400 kilometers off the East African coast. Yet the Malagasy people’s cuisine, rituals, and religious beliefs resemble those of Borneo, some 9000 kilometers to the east. Their language is more closely related to Hawaiian than to Bantu, and about half their genes can be traced to Austronesia—that is, Indonesia and the islands of the Pacific. Archaeological evidence of this distant connection was lacking, however."

Now, new studies—recent or soon-to-be-published—trace a wave of Austronesian colonization between 700 C.E. and 1200 C.E. The telltale evidence is, in effect, breadcrumbs: crops distinctive to Austronesia, sprinkled across Madagascar and neighboring islands. “We finally have a signal of this Austronesian expansion,” said Nicole Boivin, an archaeologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, who discussed the findings at the recent Society for American Archaeology (SAA) meeting here.

The study by Boivin and her colleagues, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that these voyagers did not stop at Madagascar. Some also settled the Comoro Islands, scattered between Madagascar and the African coast. “The discovery of an Austronesian connection for the Comoros is surprising,” says David Burney, a paleobiologist at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Koloa, Hawaii, who has studied the region. Yet the Austronesians stopped short of the African coast. “There was a culinary frontier,” says Alison Crowther, an archaeologist at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Brisbane, Australia, who led the study.

A report published in Eurek Alert informed, "Examining residues obtained from a process called flotation, which uses a system of sieves and water to remove ancient preserved plant remains from sediments, the researchers identified 2443 individual crop remains to species level under the microscope. The remains were obtained through archaeological excavations at 18 ancient settlement sites in Madagascar, the Comoros and coastal eastern Africa."

"What was amazing to us was the stark contrast that emerged between the crops on the Eastern African coast versus those on Madagascar," says Alison Crowther, of The University Queensland, lead author of the study, "and the more we looked, the starker the contrast became." The ancient crop findings on the eastern African coast and nearest islands were heavily dominated by African crops - species like sorghum, pearl millet and baobab that had been present on the east African coast already for some centuries, brought by farmers across the continent. In contrast, samples taken from sites on Madagascar contained few or no African crops. Instead, they were dominated by Asian species like Asian rice, mung bean and Asian cotton.

The team examined where else in the Indian Ocean these crops were grown and also drew on historical and linguistic data. On this basis, the researchers were able to make a strong case that the crops reached Madagascar from Island Southeast Asia. "There are a lot of things we still don't understand about Madagascar's past, it remains one of our big enigmas" says Nicole Boivin, Director of the new Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena and senior author on the study.

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