Madagascar, the large island off the east coast of Africa known for its biodiversity, may have been colonized by as few as 30 women and a small group of men as recently as 1,200 years ago, according to a new study. Researchers found that inhabitants share genes with people in Indonesia, the archipelago 3,500 miles away.
The Madagascar colonization is one of the least understood episodes in human history, the authors wrote. Despite their proximity to Africa, the Madagascan people are racially, linguistically -- and now genetically -- closely related to Indonesians and Malays.
The unusual thing about this island is Madagascar is a long way away from Indonesia, Murray Cox, lead researcher and senior lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand, told LiveScience. It was also settled very recently; by this time, most of the world had already been settled. We are talking about an entire culture being translocated across the Indian Ocean.
Researchers looked at the genes of 3,000 Indonesians and 300 Madagascans and found clear similarities in the DNA of mitochondria, the power plant of cells, passed down solely by mothers. Computers simulated different founding populations at different times until a result matched real-world observations.
Approximately 28 Indonesian women and two African women colonized Madagascar around 800 A.D., the computer simulation showed. Researchers were unable to estimate how many men would have been around when the island was first colonized.
We know that both Madagascan men and women come from Indonesia, we just don't know exactly how many men, Cox told LiveScience. Our evidence suggests it's also a small number.
The tinyl number of settlers means the colonization was most likely an accident, according to the researchers. It's possible people ended up on the remote island after their ship capsized, researchers said. Historical evidence gives the shipwreck theory credibility.
During World War II, wreckage from ships destroyed off the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra routinely washed up on the shores of Madagascar, despite the great distance. In one case, a survivor washed up in a lifeboat.
Without further evidence, it's impossible to pinpoint exactly how Madagascar was colonized, the researchers conclude. However, understanding the timeframe of when settlers first arrived is an important first step toward figuring out the rest.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences published the study on Wednesday.