There is some debate over who first settled Madagascar. Some anthropologists believe it was first settled 2,000 years ago by Indonesians, not black Africans, and that mainland Africans did not arrive until a later date.

Others suggest that the people of Madagascar descended from Indonesians and Africans who had 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 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. The Indonesian component of Malagasy culture is very evident in the language -- which is closely related to a dialect in Borneo, an island in Indonesia -- as well as systems of beliefs and the rice-based diet. Rice is the most popular food in Madagascar and many Malagasy eat rice at every meal. Beef is also a popular, although expensive, food. The zebu cattle in Madagascar have their origins in India, but reflect the African cultural influence on the people of Madagascar.

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 people of the highlands to the African-looking Sakalava in western coastal areas to the Arabic Antaimoro on the eastern coast.

Madagascar is a land of extraordinary cultural richness. It's a place where ancestors are as much a part of the present day as they are of the past; where in many areas taboo and tradition takes precedence over the law; and western-style religion is freely mixed with beliefs in sorcery and unparalleled funerary customs.

Today Madagascar is home to around 18 million people.

Girl looking out a window of a hut in a village in the Tsaranoro Valley.

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