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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.

Rice fields of madagascar Dudarev Mikhail

Image: www.shuttrestock.com, Rice fields of Madagascar

An international research team has identified that ancient crop remains excavated from sites in Madagascar consist of Asian species like rice and mung beans: the first archaeological evidence that settlers from South Asia are likely to have colonised the island over a thousand years ago. Genetic research has confirmed that the inhabitants of Madagascar do indeed share close ancestry with Malaysians, Polynesians, and other speakers of what is classed the Austronesian language family. To date, archaeological research has identified human settlements in Madagascar that belong to the first millennium. There are also findings suggesting that Madagascar may have been occupied by hunter-gatherers who probably arrived from Africa by the first or second millennium. Until now, however, archaeological evidence of the Austronesian colonisation has been missing. Researchers 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. They found both types, but noted a distinct pattern, with African crops primarily concentrated on the mainland and the islands closest to the mainland, but in Madagascar, early subsistence focused on Asian crops which suggests these crops were introduced to Madagascar and the neighbouring Comoros Islands by the 8th and 10th century. 

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