Today there was a short article in Discover on a paper published last spring on the models for the settling of Madagascar. I didn’t pay too much attention when the paper came out for two reasons. First, it focused on Y and mtDNA, and I’ve been playing with Malagasy autosomes. Second, it seemed a ridiculously brutal computational attack on a question which seems to have a straightforward intuitive explanation: yes, Madagascar was settled by a small founding group. With hindsight I may have spoken too soon, or passed judgement too hastily. Looking at the paper the explicit model building of demography does still seem like overkill, but they obtain some important precision here. The phylogenetics and the archaeology align nicely.
Though the authors of the article talk about future directions, I think we will find that the Malagasy originate from a small group of Malayo-Polynesians who did find themselves stranded on Madagascar (later to absorb African admixture). This is not controversial. Rather, when I came to this position with enough solidity I began to look at the cultural anthropology of Madagascar. In particular, what do the Malagasy remember of about their own past in Southeast Asia? From what I could tell (the literature on Madagascar is not too rich in English) the Malagasy don’t recall much. This is important, because it tells us just how fragile oral memory can be when you have a major geographical and demographic rupture. The influence of Sanskrit is apparently evident within Malagasy, attesting to the early period if Indic influence in Southeast Asia. But the Malagasy are not part of Dharmic or Islamic civilization. They are the people forgotten by time. I think what little we know about the Malagasy can shed on light memories and legends preserved by peoples who we suspect were migrants into the only homelands they knew (e.g., how could the Aryans be exogenous if they didn’t record any memory of lands before India?).