Ethnic Groups

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Strictly speaking are the tribes of Madagascar ethnic groups with their own culture and religion. Many ethnic groups had their own kingdoms in the past. The cultural and religious background of the various tribes is dominated by ancestor worship, which sees the ancestors as mediators between the living and God.

Due to continuing population movements and mixing with each other it is very difficult to declare strict regional borders for all tribes.

  • Antaifasy - People of the sands
    Southeastern Madagascar: near Farafangana

  • Antaimoro or Antemoro - People of the coast
    Southeastern Madagascar: near Vohipeno and Manakara

  • Antaisaka or Antesaka (subgroup of Sakalava) - People of the valley
    Southern Madagascar: near Farafangana

  • Antankarana - Those of the rocks
    Northern Madagascar: near Diego-Suarez

  • Antambahoaka - Those of the people
    Southeastern Madagascar: near Mananjary

  • Antrandroy - People of the thorns
    Southern Madagascar: near Ambovombe

  • Antanosy - People of the island
    Southern Madagascar: near Taolagnaro (Ft. Dauphin)

  • Bara
    South-central Madagascar: near Isalo, Ihosy and Betroka

  • Betsileo - The many invincibles
    Southern-central highlands of Madagascar: especially around Fianarantsoa but also a splinter group in the Betsiboka region

  • Betsimisaraka - The many inseparables
    Eastern Madagascar: Toamasina to Antalaha

  • Bezanozano - Many small plaits
    Central highlands and eastern Madagascar: the area between the Betsimisaraka lowlands and the Merina highlands

  • Mahafaly - Those who make taboos or Those who make happy
    Southwestern Madagascar: desert around Ampanihy and Ejeda

  • Makoa or Mikea
    Western Madagascar

  • Merina - People of the highlands or Those from the country where one can see far
    Central highlands of Madagascar

  • St. Marians
    Ile Ste Marie (Nosy Boraha)

  • Sakalava - People of the long valleys
    Western Madagascar; widespread in this region

  • Sihanaka - People of the swamps
    Northeastern Madagascar: around Lake Alaotra

  • Tanala: Ikongo and Menabe - People of the forest
    Eastern Madagascar: near Manakara

  • Tsimihety - Those who do not cut their hair
    Northern Madagascar

  • Vazimba - Those which were always there
    All over Madagascar

  • Vezo (subgroup of Sakalava) - Fishing people
    Southwestern Madagascar: coastal regions

  • Zafimaniry
    South-central Madagascar: highlands near Ambositra

African origins of the Malagasy

Text by Jeanne Rasoanasy from Passport for Madagascar - 62nd edition January/February 2011

It is assumed that the population of Madagascar was formed through successive migrations of peoples from Southeast Asia, the Arabian peninsula and East Africa and were grafted onto an aboriginal population of unknown origin, called the Vazimba. Once established, all these groups created a common language known as Malagasy, spoken and practiced throughout the island.

According to some assertions, the Malagasy are Africans as their country is not far from the African continent, but this is only true for some groups and not the entire population despite the existence of Bantu and Swahili words in the linguistic vocabulary of northwestern Madagascar. This may be explained by the fact the individuals from the other side of the Mozambique Channel were the objects of the slave trade carried out by Arab and Indian merchants, who came to sell slaves in some ports of the big island. Snatched from the African coastal regions such as Somalia and Zanzibar, these slaves intermarried with the indigenous population continuing to speak their own language while practicing that of the host country.

From the early part of the 19th century, eminent scientists from several countries around the world suggest it would be a mistake to consider that all those who have dark skins in Madagascar are of African descent, as among the migrants from southeast Asia there were numbers of Melanesians whose skin colour is similar to that of Africans.

Designated under the collective name of mozambika, the Africans sold in Madagascar were emancipated by a royal edict signed by Queen Ranavalona II in 1877 forbidding their sale and immigration to Madagascar and those released could choose between staying as free men in Madagascar or going home. But as many did not know where they came from they remained and integrated themselves into the population, forming part of the nation's lineage.

Arab origins of the Malagasy

Text by Jeanne Rasoanasy from Passport for Madagascar - 62nd edition January/February 2011

For centuries the big island was known to the Arab sailors and traders from the Arabian peninsula, and initially some of them had settled permanently in certain areas of the west coast. Other Arab groups were to arrive during the 14th century, settling in south-eastern Madagascar, on the banks of the river Matatana where they would become the ancestors of Antemoro, Antalana, Antefasy, Antambahoaka and Antanosy people - they called themselves the descendants of Raminia, Ibrahim (Abraham). It is the Arabic language that has most influenced the country because this is the language of the months and days, and it is also to the Arabs that the Malagasy owe the introduction of clothing, bedding accessories, coins, writing tools, certain musical instruments and so many others such as our words of greeting. Among the many Arab traditions inherited by the population is the art of divination or sikidy which is still practiced.

With this strong Arab influence, Madagascar could have become a Muslim country, but because of one of the surprises that history reserves for mankind, this was not to be the case. In fact, at the time of the introduction of teaching by English missionaries who arrived in Antananarivo in 1820, King Radama I, educated by private tutors, descendants of Arabs from the Vohipeno region, could have been imposed the Arabic language to educate his people but contrary to all expectations, he opted for the use of the Latin alphabet in schools.

The Arabs have left their mark through the Islamisation of the people with whom they had lived such as those in northwestern Madagascar, some of whom are their descendants. They could have spread their religion during the many centuries of their settlement in the country, but apparently this was not the purpose of their presence in Madagascar.

Malayo-Polynesian origins of the Malagasy

Text by Jeanne Rasoanasy from Passport for Madagascar - 62nd edition January/February 2011

Researchers place the existence of the waves of migrations of peoples by boat from the countries of southeast Asia to Madagascar to an era dating back to the tenth century or even earlier. Even now no one knows the reasons for these expeditions which took place over years or even centuries, nor the reasons for the choice of the big island located in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from their places of origin by the migrants, as their home port.

If these migrations have been highlighted and the actors identified, it is thanks to philology, because according to various researchers, certain words in the Malagasy language have the same roots as the language spoken in the countries of the Malay peninsula, Polynesia, Melanesia and the Philippine islands. As examples of vocabulary common to the Malagasy and these far away peoples, there are those used in the everyday life for numbers, body parts, family, the observed heavenly and earthly phenomena, many plants and other creatures, basic foods and the adjectives designating the five colours. Another basis for these assumptions made by several researchers is the extraordinary physical resemblance between individuals from Madagascar and these countries, the different skin colours and the habits and customs. In this context there working tools, looms, blacksmithing, irrigated rice fields and terraced fields, use of tree bark for making cloth, mud walls, fatidra or blood alliance, the architecture of the houses of Sumatra resembling that of the houses that used to be found in Imerina, outrigger canoes, etc... In short, a culture not found in Africa, providing much evidence for Malayo-Polynesian origins of the Malagasy population in general.

Additional information

  • No one is an island - The history of human genetic ancestry in Madagascar (Jul 2016,