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Indonesians in Medieval Africa October 22, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Despite all the excitement about the use of DNA in history, those elusive strands have so far proved surprisingly unhelpful in our text books. The problem is that populations with similar DNA live close to each other and that it is next to impossible to give a chronological breakdown of when a given locality changes its DNA without finding bodies from every generation and comparing them. Every so often though DNA crops up far from ‘home’. And these are the moments when DNA really makes a difference, sticking out like a neon church tower in a landscape of brick campanili. We have looked here before at an example of Amerindian DNA from Iceland and, another time, at ‘Gypsy’ DNA in Insular Europe. What about for Monday morning blues, Indonesian DNA in Madagascar?

Madagascar and Indonesia are separated by some three thousand miles: even in the late nineteenth century a boat trip between the two was far from a joke. Yet recent studies in the mitochondrial DNA of Madagascar, by one Murray Cox and team, suggest that the African island’s founding mothers were from the Asian archipelago. After a large-scale analysis of Indonesians and Madagascans he suggests, in fact, that most modern Madagascans can be tied to thirty Indonesian women who came to the island perhaps twelve hundred years ago. The number of males will have to await later study. This Indonesian DNA fugues with the suspicions of linguists who have noted vocabulary overlap with some ‘Indonesian’ languages. There are also characteristically ‘Asian’ objects in Madagascar such as xylophones. Earlier studies were not  as emphatic as MC, suggesting mixing of an Indonesian with an African population in Madagascar or elsewhere. But there has long been the suspicion, now a certainty that there was a large, perhaps overwhelmingly Indonesian component in the first Madagascan populations.

A question that cannot be answered is under what circumstances these Indonesians made it across the Indian Ocean. The normal fail-sure solution for these embarrassments is a trader blown off course: but that doesn’t work here. After all, what kind of trader carries women: unless we are to suppose a slaver? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com An inter-island ferry might have got blown off course, but a ship like this would have had less chances of getting through with crew and passengers still alive. A final possibility is that a population from a western Indonesian island was forced to flee from some sort of catastrophe or invasion and that a boat or a number of boats went into the waves preferring death by water to lava or spear, only to come across this unexpected paradise weeks later. However, we explain the strange colonisation of Madagascar consider this: there are only about three hundred miles from Continental Africa to the island, yet the original colonists came from perhaps ten times that distance or more, c. 800 AD, making Madagascar one of the last places to be populated on the planet.

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22 Oct 2012: Stephen D complicates matters: The Y chromosomes of Malagasys have already been reported: see Hurles ME et al, American Journal of Human Genetics 76:894-901, 2005. About half the males studied have African haplotypes, the others appear to be from Borneo (and linguists have noted that the languages spoken around the Barito River in southern Borneo are the closest relatives of Malagasy languages).Note that this adds a further twist to the story: if you had to guess where in Malaysia or Indonesia the transoceanic element of Madagascar came from, Borneo would seem very unlikely. KMH has a coast-hugging solution: There is the remote possibility that the ship or ships of these thirty women hugged the coast line most of the way from Indonesia to Africa before perhaps being serendipitously blown off course to Madagascar. I seem to recall that a great Chinese fleet made a similar voyage that got at least to Aden. As such, the survival problem would not be overwhelming. Follow the Baldie has a supplementary question: If you work out the conundrum of the female xylophone orchestra’s deserting ship in Tamatave, maybe you could help with this one: http://oreneta.com/kalebeul/2005/12/30/when-javans-ruled-spain/ Thanks Stephen, Baldie and KMH!

31 Oct 2012: Stephen D. Sends in this further piece: Serva M (2012) The Settlement of Madagascar: What Dialects and Languages Can Tell Us. PLoS ONE 7(2): e30666. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030666; Abstract: The dialects of Madagascar belong to the Greater Barito East group of the Austronesian family and it is widely accepted that the Island was colonized by Indonesian sailors after a maritime trek that probably took place around 650 CE. The language most closely related to Malagasy dialects is Maanyan, but Malay is also strongly related especially for navigation terms. Since the Maanyan Dayaks live along the Barito river in Kalimantan (Borneo) and they do not possess the necessary skill for long maritime navigation, they were probably brought as subordinates by Malay sailors. In a recent paper we compared 23 different Malagasy dialects in order to determine the time and the landing area of the first colonization. In this research we use new data and new methods to confirm that the landing took place on the south-east coast of the Island. Furthermore, we are able to state here that colonization probably consisted of a single founding event rather than multiple settlements. To reach our goal we find out the internal kinship relations among all the 23 Malagasy dialects and we also find out the relations of the 23 dialects to Malay and Maanyan. The method used is an automated version of the lexicostatistic approach. The data from Madagascar were collected by the author at the beginning of 2010 and consist of Swadesh lists of 200 items for 23 dialects covering all areas of the Island. The lists for Maanyan and Malay were obtained from a published dataset integrated with the author’s interviews. Stephen abstracts this information: there is a strong ocean current from Sumatra to Madagascar; the Barito languages lack words for deep sea navigation; Such words in Malagasy are from Malay, not Barito; Therefore probably Malay ship with Barito as crew, swept off course; Linguistics of Madagascar consistent with once-only arrival, ca 650 AD. Thanks Stephen!!