Contrary to what you might expect, there is some debate over who first settled Madagascar. Some anthropologists believe Madagascar was first settled 2,000 years ago by Indonesians, not black Africans, and that mainland Africans did not arrive in Madagascar until a later date. Others suggest that the people of Madagascar descended from Indonesians and Africans who mixed before their arrival on the isolated island. Regardless, most experts agree that Madagascar's inhabitants arrived relatively recently (there is no evidence of a stone age in Madagascar and the island was settled around the time Polynesians reached some of the planet's most isolated islands ) and that subsequent migrations have brought other groups (like Arabs and Indians) into the mix.
The mixed origins of the Malagasy (the name for the people of Madagascar) has produced an interesting set of cultures that draws from southeast Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East. Peter Tyson (The Eighth Continent) notes that
"The Indonesian element in Malagasy culture is the most predominant, with the language [Malagasy is most closely related to a dialect from Borneo], rice culture, and belief in the ancestors [see "razana" below]," but the African influence is evident with the widespread obsession with Zebu cattle (Zebu are "humped" cattle originally from India and known by the scientific name Bos indicus), while Arab origins can be seen in some of the belief systems, trading patterns, and Arabic language elements (names of months and days of the week; words for money, books, and musical instruments). Within the country, people's physical appearance, religious practices, and traditions are highly regional—the strongest bond between the Malagasy is sharing a common language.
Today there are more than 20 ethnic groups in Madagascar from the Indonesian-looking Merina in the highlands to Arabic Antaimoro on the eastern coast. To learn more of Madagascar's ethic groups, I highly recommend the Bradt guide along with The Eighth Continent.
Madagascar People Photos
Studies prove people of Madagascar came from Borneo and Africa