Lost Colony

Madagascar was originally settled by Indonesians, specifically people from South Borneo, possibly as early as 300 BC.   Recent genetic work on their mtDNA suggests that the number of founding mothers was small, around 30, and those researchers have speculated that the colonization event may have been a shipwreck. That early population accounts for about half of the ancestry of islanders today, the rest mainly being Bantu.

Those castaways  had the island to themselves for something like a thousand years: that was plenty long enough to fill it up.  Imagine that they averaged three surviving children per couple, which doesn’t sound at all hard in an island with few local diseases and plenty of tasty animals with no adaptation to humans: with a founding population of 60, you would end up with hundreds of millions of people in 40 generations.  Impossibly large, but that makes the point.

The number of Africans who immigrated to the islands (much later) must have been far, far larger than that one shipload, but they only end up accounting for half the genes in Madagascar today. Through the miracle of exponential growth,  a tiny early colonization has as much effect as large numbers arriving later.  In much the same way, there are more descendents of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in this country than there are Italians, even though vastly more Italians immigrated.

This also fits with the story of the three migrations found the Amerindian population.  The first migration, although small, accounts for the vast majority of Amerindian ancestry, and the later two  (Na-Dene and Eskimo) succeeded by settling land in the far North that was effectively uninhabitable, unless you had the right technology.




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16 Responses to Lost Colony

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    What kind of ship would have 30 youngish females on it? In Victorian novels of shipwrecks, the number of females onboard is usually quite low: e.g., the captain lashes his daughter to the mast. It must have been some kind of immigrant or slave trading ship heading for a closer destination than Madagascar.

    That reminds that in 1983, just after the firm I worked with did an IPO, the chief founder bought a huge sailing boat and invited all the executives to accompany him on a celebratory cruise from Chicago to St. Joseph, MI. As a new hire, I wasn’t invited, much to my relief when a storm hit Lake Michigan that night, blowing waves across Lake Shore Drive. Watching this out my apartment window, I was wondering if I was going to be the senior employee come Monday morning. My boss, a lady named Jody, was wondering the same thing, just in a more terrified manner: she demanded that the chairman / captain lash her to the mast. (How does that whole lashing-to-the-mast thing work, anyway? Does a body automatically float face-up?) Eventually, they wallowed into St. Joseph’s harbor safely, but all the executives took a Greyhound bus back to Chicago.

  2. Robert King says:

    When the Vikings settled Iceland in the 8th century they remembered to bring horses, sheep and pigs but forgot to bring women. To rectify this they sailed over to Cork in Ireland and pinched theirs. Having just been in Reykjavik and Cork recently I can confirm a definitely recognisable phenotype (red-haired and voluptuous) very common in both places.

  3. dearieme says:

    “but forgot to bring women”: what a very Irish tale.

  4. typal says:

    Re.”plenty of tasty animals”. If the original settlers’ on Madagascar were hunters and their mtDNA survived unchanged through 2000 years of slash and burn agriculture then I understand why it is thought highly significant that the first settlers in Europe mtDNA is no longer around. Did the first settlers on Madagascar use agriculture in their previous home?

  5. dave chamberlin says:

    So…. the crew on a slaver ship carrying thirty or so attractive young women got caught up in a typhon and the end result is they have almost as many descendents as Genghis Khan. If they ever trace the male descendents on Madagascar down to just a few males I vote they name the most prolific one Gilligan.

  6. ohwilleke says:

    “The number of Africans who immigrated to the islands (much later) must have been far, far larger than that one shipload, but they only end up accounting for half the genes in Madagascar today.”

    How do we know this?

    I’ve never seen any published academic research that reached this conclusion. Genetics tell us that the Africans who were the founding population of Madagascar were basically Eastern Bantu, rather than, for example, Mozambiquan which would have made lots of geographic sense but didn’t apparently happen. This pins down one axis of Austronesian Madagascarian trade routes. But, it doesn’t tell us when they arrived.

    Also, the circumstantial evidence for a joint Austronesian-Bantu settlement of Madagascar is supported indirectly by evidence of vigorous Indonesian-African trade starting around the time of the settlement of Madagascar that was pivotal in allowing the Bantu to migrate into tropical areas where traditional Niger-Congo linguistic family farmers couldn’t expand because their crops wouldn’t thrive there. The poster child here is the banana. It is an Indonesian plant imported to Africa around the time of Bantu expansion, not an African origin fruit. This apparently sustained and multi-faceted history of interaction also disfavors the shipwreck theory.

    Another piece of circumstantial evidence is that Bantus, who expanded everywhere else over land and not by sea, probably made their way from the East African coast to Madagascar on Austronesian ships, not their own (there were other non-Bantu ocean ship operating peoples like the Yemeni’s in the Indian Ocean, but if their ships had delivered the Bantus to Madagascar one would expect them to have made a distinguishable contribution to Madagascar’s gene pool and more Afro-Asiatic linguistic influence which is there in Madagascar, but thin).

    But, since the language of Madagascar is overwhelmingly Bornean at its core and does not show the classic signs of creolization, despite similar genetic contributions from Indonesia and Africa, it is a fair guess that the Borneans were a politically unified superstrate running the show.

    The bottleneck in the Austronesian population was more likely to have taken place on or before the trip from Borneo to East Africa than on the trip from East Africa to Madagascar that might very well have been integrated from the start. For example, suppose that Madagascar was founded by 1,000 people, 500 Borneans and 500 Africans in Bornean ships. If the Borneans all have roots in one tiny area of Borneo, they may have been closely related to a founding population of that microstate of 30 women that expanded much earlier in the Indonesian microstate. The Africans, in contrast, in an early phase of Bantu expansion perhaps before the main wave that came later, may have had much more diverse and admixed origins on their path to the East African shore as they conquered and assimilated individuals from other populations as they made their way from the Nigeria-Cameroon border to the East African shore.

    “What kind of ship would have 30 youngish females on it?”

    The ship would have had seed crops and domesticated animals too. This would have been more Mayflower than Santa Maria.

  7. ohwilleke says:

    “Did the first settlers on Madagascar use agriculture in their previous home?”

    Yes. They had been food producers for probably at least a millenium at that point.

  8. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Are you telling us that the claims of likely replacement of whites in the US by Mexicans is so much BS?

  9. That Guy says:

    I’d imagine that the Austronesians must have been trading with India and then on to Zanzibar – which was a major international market on the East African coast in Medieval times – and from there it’s a short hop to the Comorros and then to Madagascar.

    So if the connection was via Zanzibar, that would link them to the East African Bantu (Swahili speakers)

  10. dearieme says:

    “Bantus … probably made their way from the East African coast to Madagascar on Austronesian ships”: ah, the middle passage.

  11. ironrailsironweights says:

    The shipwreck theory makes sense only if the ship were carrying people from Borneo to found a settlement elsewhere, for as Steve Sailer points out other types of ships wouldn’t have had that many (if any) women onboard. Okay, a slave ship might, but the women wouldn’t have been from Borneo. Which begs the question of exactly where the Borneo people were planning to settle.

    • That Guy says:

      Yeah, but while trading with Zanzibar they might have been blown off course by a storm to Madagascar – then after repairing their ships/boats, set sail again. On their return to Borneo, they told of a great green land, ripe for the taking and got a bunch of volunteers to make the trip back with them.

      This is basically how Erik the Red discovered Greenland, and then got Icelanders to volunteer to colonize it.

  12. That Guy says:

    OT Question for both Henry and Greg:

    If you could clone yourself – without any DNA damage, to telomeres etc – would you? If so why, if not why not?

  13. typal says:

    Perhaps the ship was on a woman stealing expedition.

    I couldn’t find out from a quick search how common Y chromosomes of the early founding population are, but I’d expect them to be relatively rare

    mtDNA mutations that affect males are inaccessible to natural selection. News about mother’s curse.

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