Madagascar, anyone? How did it get there?

Last night we watched a National Geographic documentary on Madagascar. It opened with the narrator saying “some bajillion years ago, Madagascar broke away from the coast of Africa.” Of course, he didn’t say bajillion, but I can’t remember the actual number.

I’m confused by this concept of breaking away. It’s not as if islands float, they’re attached at the bottom, right? The little graphic in the documentary made it look as if a small chunk of land drifted off, sort of like a piece of ice breaking off of an iceberg, and floated away. How exactly would this work? Did it happen all at once, like a big earthquake, or was it a gradual process?

Next, the documentary moved on to lemurs. And boy, are they cute. Lemurs are primates. However, several times, the narrator referred to a common lemur ancestor, and described it as “squirrel-like.” Now I know that National Geographic is the ultimate for putting scientific things in layman’s terms, but is there any scientific reason AT ALL that lemurs would be like a squirrel? Or was the program simply trying to create an image of a small furry thing that scampers around in trees?

The field is plate tectonics and I find it fascinating, though I’m no geologist. I’ll let others explain in more detail.

Tectonic plate movement. Check out the Dispersal of Gondwanaland. Madagascar stays near the center of the animation.

There’s a half dozen large lithospheric plates (and some smaller ones) comprising the earth’s outer crust that are in constant motion, largely as a result of sea floor spreading. Try a google search on Plate Tectonics.

This site will give you the basics on plate tectonics (aka “continental drift”). Madagascar broke off Africa as part of the long-term breakup of the great southern continent of Gondwanaland, which also included South America, Australia, Antarctica, and India. It was a very long process - a few centimeters a year.

As for ancestral primates being squirrel-like, I assume the narrator was just indicating that they were less “primate-like” than they are now, perhaps more like modern tree-shrews (which were previously classified as primitive primates, but no longer are).

(PS. on preview I see that KTK also linked to a plate tectonics site, but mine is different.)

The more interesting thing about Madagascar, to me, is the origin of the people. Several sources I’ve come across {like this one) say that both DNA and linguistic evidence points to their origin as, not the African mainland as might be supposed, but Borneo, and only about 2000 years ago at that. The native fauna also didn’t evolve until the geological split - so where did their ancestors come from?

Borneo is several thousand miles away, and the trip to Madagascar is against the wind and current. So how did the Malagasys get there, and why didn’t the Africans just a couple of hundred miles away upwind, and how did all the native fauna’s ancestors get there? The workings of plate tectonics are trivial problems by comparison.

The Malagsy, which are the largest group on Madagascar are an interesting group to say the least.
They are subdivided into such ethnic groups as the…

Merina (Imerina) (Elevated People)
Betsimisaraka (The Inseparable Multitude)
Betsileo (The Invincible Multitude)
Tsimihety (Those Who Do Not Cut Their Hair)
Sakalava (People of the Long Valley)
Antandroy (People of the Thorn Bush)
Tanala (People of the Forest)
Antaimoro (People of the Banks)
Antanosy (People of the Island)
Antaifasy (People of the Sand)
Sihanaka (People of the Lake)
Antakarana (People of the Rocks)
Betanimena (People of the Red Soil)
Bezanozano (Those with Many Braided Hair)
Mahafaly (the Joyful People)

*The Malagasy language is a member of the Austronesian family, as are Malay, Javanese, Sundanese, and other languages of Indonesia. More specifically, these belong to the Western or Indonesian branch of Austronesian, along with Tagalog and other Philippine languages. The languages of Borneo are transitional between Malay and the Philippine tongues.

The ancient Austronesians were the first to develop long-distance open-ocean travel. Early European and Phoenician navigators hated to sail out of the sight of land. They hugged the coast wherever they went. The Austronesians learned how to navigate across the wide open ocean. That’s how they were able to travel from Indonesia to Madagascar, and how they populated the Pacific islands too. The other branch of Austronesian, the Eastern or Oceanic, includes Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian. The Austronesian languages originated in the vicinity of Taiwan (the aboriginal languages of Taiwan are Austronesian too).

You can easily see the relationship if you compare the numbers 1-6 in these languages:

isa, roa, telo, efrata, dimy, enina

satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima, enam

Penan (a language of Borneo)
jah, ruah, telu, pat, lemah, enem

isa, dalawa, tatlo, apat, lima, anim

tasi, lua, tolu, fâ, lima, ono

‘ekahi, lua, kolu, ‘eha, lima, ono

The words for ‘sky, heaven’:
Malagasy lanitra; Malay langit; Penan langit; Tagalog langit; Samoan lagi; Hawaiian lani.

Words for ‘fire’:
Malagasy afo; Malay api; Kadazan (another Borneo language) apuy; Tagalog apoy; Samoan afi; Hawaiian ahi.

I spent two months in Madagascar in 1985. While, as has been stated, the dominant ancestry of most of the population is from southeast Asia (Borneo), there is also a significant input from the African mainland. As the site Elvis linked to mentioned, there were Arab/African groups present on the coast from early times, and both the Arabs and I believe the Malagasy themselves raided the mainland for slaves. The various ethnic groups mentioned by jaimest differ in the proportion of Asian and African ancestry, with the Merina of the central plateau perhaps being the most like Malays, while some of the coastal groups look more like the people of the adjacent African mainland.

I have seen various dates for the geological split, from 125-165 million years ago, or the mid-Cretaceous. The mammal and bird groups present - the lemurs, endemic carnivores and insectivores, six endemic bird families (including the extinct elephant birds) - probably didn’t evolve until the early Tertiary at the earliest. The mammals must have arrived there by rafting - floating on logs, debris, etc. - but at the time the island may have been closer to the mainland.

As Zoboomafoo might say:

“What a mangatsika thread!”

Give credit to the Austronesians for having spread themselves from Madagascar in the west all the way over to Easter Island in the east — more than halfway around the circumference of the globe. They were the most far-flung people in the world before the age of European colonialism.

I grew up with a father who was an anthropologist - he always cared more about the rat than the rock it crawled upon. But he recognized the relationship between the rat and the rock.

To each his own perspective; the basic tenets of plate tectonics were only widely accepted in the geosciences in the mid-'70s, and they hardly tumbled into anybody’s lap. As with anthropology and archeology, geology and geophysics matured over time only with the efforts of manny, and there are a growing number of questions unanswered.

Kennewick Man?

Hot spots?

Trivial perhaps to the general population.