© Francois Ricaut
Women, like this one from Indonesia, played a major role in founding Madagascar.
The land of freaky animals and amazing biodiversity, Madagascar was also one of the last places to be settled by humans. And new research suggests that didn't happen until about 1,200 years ago.
The colonization might even have been an accident, the researchers say. A small group of Indonesian women settled the island in one fell swoop, possibly making their way there after their trading vessel capsized.
"The unusual thing about this island is Madagascar
is a long way away from Indonesia. ... It was also settled very recently; by this time, most of the world had already been settled," study researcher Murray Cox, of Massey University in New Zealand, told LiveScience. "We are talking about an entire culture being trans-located across the Indian Ocean."
Mad about Madagascar
Previous genetic research showed that, surprisingly, instead of coming from Africa, the people living on the island off the east coast of Africa seem to have come from Indonesia, another island nation a quarter of the world, or some 3,500 miles (about 5,600 kilometers), away.
What we haven't known is exactly how that happened. When did those people arrive and how did they arrive?" Cox said.
To find out, Cox and his colleagues analyzed genes from the mitochondria of 300 native Madagascans and 3,000 Indonesians. Mitochondria are the cell's energy factories, but they are special because their genes are inherited only from our mothers.
These genes showed a clear similarity between the Indonesian and Madagascar genomes. To find out how long ago and how many Indonesian settlers there when the island's population was founded, the team ran various computer simulations that started out with different founding populations at different times until the results matched their real-life data. The researchers found that the island was most likely settled by a small population of about 30 women, who arrived in Madagascar around 1,200 years ago. Ninety-three percent (28) of these women were Indonesian, and the other 7 percent (two individuals) were African.
Almost all native Madagascans are related to these 30 women, they found.