There’s a fascinating new article in PNAS, ‘Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models‘, outlining a long chronology for the settlement and early habitation of Madagascar. The traditional wisdom is that Madagascar was uninhabited until around 500 CE when Austronesian speakers from southern Borneo migrated several thousand kilometres westward, and Bantu-speaking East Africans crossed the Mozambique Channel, producing a civilization of iron-using swidden farmers and creating an ecological catastrophe in which many native species went extinct. The discovery that the Malagasy language is most closely related to the Southeast Barito languages of Borneo, proposed systematically for the first time by Otto Dahl in the 1950s, is one of the most significant and surprising findings in historical linguistics of the past century, given the enormous geographic distance between the two regions. Later, Dahl helped to establish that Malagasy also has an important Bantu linguistic substratum, and more recent genetic evidence confirms that both African and Southeast Asian migration was involved.
This new study, whose first author, Robert Dewar, unfortunately passed away before its publication, shows the situation is significantly more complex, and that there is a history of hunter-forager habitation in at least some parts of Madagascar going back up to 4,000 years (i.e. 2,500 years more than previously acknowledged by the traditional hypothesis). I’ve always wondered how it was that Madagascar, which is not that far from the East African coast, could remain entirely uninhabited by humans for so long. The new study, based on fieldwork conducted a few years ago at two rock shelters in the northern part of the country, shows a vibrant hunting-foraging adaptation with microlithic tool technology to have existed far earlier than previously suspected. This tool tradition has similarities with both East African and Middle Eastern traditions of the same period, but not with Southeast Asian ones (unsurprisingly). What this tells us is that there was a previously-unidentified pre-Bantu, pre-Austronesian population on the island, probably of East African ancestry for millennia before the extinctions of Madagascar’s megafauna began in earnest, It requires that we rethink the model that sees the arrival of humans on Madagascar as the simple direct cause of the extinctions, and forces us to instead ask what sorts of human-environment interactions cause effects, and how.