Out of Indonesia

Thursday, February 01, 1996
RELATED TAGS: GENETICS
Though Madagascar lies only 250 miles off the African coast, linguistic and archeological evidence suggest that its first settlers--who arrived in about 400 A.D.--hailed not from Africa but from Indonesia, more than 3,000 miles to the east. All 13 million of Madagascar’s present-day people speak Malagasy, which, though it contains some African Bantu words, is most closely related to the Maanyan language of the Barito River region of Borneo. Africans are not thought to have arrived in Madagascar until much later; exactly when is unknown.

To check the accuracy of this long-established linguistic evidence, Himla Soodyall, a molecular evolutionary biologist at Penn State, turned to the techniques of modern genetic analysis. She has found that some Malagasy have a genetic kinship with Polynesians, of all people-- indicating that Polynesia and Madagascar may have been settled by the same population of seafaring Indonesians.

Soodyall compared the incidence of a genetic marker known as the Polynesian motif among groups of people from Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Madagascar. The Polynesian motif is found within the mitochondrial DNA, which is usually passed unchanged from mother to daughter. (Mitochondria are the cell’s energy-producing batteries.)

The motif was common, she found, in Hawaii, Samoa, Easter Island, and coastal Papua New Guinea. But 18 percent of the Malagasy in Soodyall’s study group also carried the motif. It was rarer among the people of eastern Indonesia and southern Borneo, less than 5 percent of whom carried it, and absent completely from the Africans sampled.

Modern Polynesians, Soodyall points out, are themselves the descendants of Indonesian seafarers, so the linguistic evidence and the genetic evidence are not necessarily at odds. Both could be true if Polynesians and Malagasy are descended from the same population of Indonesian ancestors. Although the genetic motif is rare among Indonesians, if it happened to be present in those who went down to the sea in ships, it would have become more prevalent in the new populations they founded to the east and to the west. My gut feeling is that when these people were moving out of Indonesia, maybe one boat caught the wrong wind and steered west toward Africa, says Soodyall. They must have all started going off together, and one just got lost.
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