History And Genetics In Madagascar

History and Genetics in Madagascar

Genetics and history have joined forces to explain the origins of the people of Madagascar (the world’s fourth largest island, off the coast of East Africa). Early Muslim chronicles speak of the peopling of Madagascar from the islands to its far east, i.e., Indonesia. Geneticists have found that about half of the island’s people have Y chromosomes or mitochondrial DNA that most resemble that of the people of Borneo. Note that all the people in Madagascar by now have Indonesian ancestors and lots of genes from there. The other half of the markers go to East Africa. There must, however, also be an Arab heritage. Some 7 percent of the inhabitants of Madagascar are Muslim, and Muslim chronicles speak of several waves of immigration from places like Yemen.

Historical linguists have long been convinced that Malagasy is an Austronesian language (other members of the family include Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, but also Hawaiian). Since historical linguistics is by now a firmly grounded science, there really was no doubt about this. Malagasy also has some Bantu words and phrases, and the people of Madagascar use East African material culture. Africa is so much closer than Borneo (20 times) that it is incredible that this big group of people emigrated across the Indian Ocean beginning around AD 400-700, and that relatively few Africans ever ventured over in comparison.

In this article, surprise is expressed that Malagasy as a language dominates and displaced Bantu among African immigrants (who in turn intermarried with the population from Borneo). But that sort of thing is common in history. German and Italian haven’t survived very well in the New World despite millions of immigrants. Arabic displaced Coptic and Aramaic in the Near East as people converted to Islam, from the seventh century through the medieval period. Anatolians gave up Greek and other languages and started speaking Turkish as they adopted Sufi Islam from Turkish mystic masters.

This kind of genetic research strikes me as just fascinating. I loved Bryan Sykes’s “Seven Daughters of Eve,” which demonstrates that the Polynesians probably came from the aboriginal population of Taiwan and not, contrary to what Thor Heyerdahl thought, the pre-Colombian population of South America. Some research has been done on the Middle East. I saw one study that suggested that the mitochondrial DNA of the Kurds is distinct from the Iranians (that is, although they speak an Indo-European language, they are probably mainly descended from the ancient Hurrians). And, Palestinian and Jewish males tend to have similar markers in their Y chromosomes. I just saw someone question Palestinian descent from the ancient peoples of Palestine. But we are all descended from the Moabites, and Palestinians and Jews are more likely to have the traces of that descent in their mitochondria and Y chromosomes than the rest of us (we’re all cousins of a sort, but they are closer to being first cousins).

(Geneticists focus on the Y chromosome and the mitochondria because they do not divide in each generation and so do not change very quickly, allowing comparisons among populations long separated. A lot of us are afraid that this distinction will be lost on the general public and that they will take mitochondria or Y chromosomes as markers of “race.” All human beings are descended from most people who lived 50 generations ago, it is just that we may by now only have an infinitesimal genetic heritage from some of them. There are statistical aggregations of genes, just because some lineages are more likely to intermarry, but there are no “races” in the Romantic European sense of pure bloodlines. Y chromosomes and mitochondria are a tiny, tiny part of the human genome, and they just accidentally freeze a certain narrow kind of ancestry; they tell relatively little of the whole story. The whole story, of course, is that we all go back to a common origin in South Africa only about 100,000 years ago; we’re a very young species and haven’t had time to differentiate much except with regard to stupid little things like amount of melanin in our skin.)

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