19 July 2013

Hard evidence of 2000BCE settlement of Madagascar

Unfortunately, nobody yet seems to have picked up this story, and I'm in no position to do it justice, but it needs mentioning. The paper is behind a firewall so until somebody decides to to some science journalism on this (where's the press conference?), I guess you have to trust me.

Chert flakes from one of two sites in N. Madagascar. From Dewar et al. 2013.

While there has been some hints previously at pre-iron age settlement, this is the first unequivocal evidence. This rewrites Madagascar history.

The settling and subsequent ecological transformations (levels of deforestation, causes of holocene defaunation) of Madagascar have long been contentious and murky issues, it has been received wisdom for decades that Madagascar was settled not earlier than 500 CE. and that the first settlers were most likely from Indo-polynesia.

Dewar and associates have just published a paper relating archaeological finds at two sites in the north, where they have found stone tools dating back to 2000 BCE.
"The stone tools from Ambohiposa and Lakaton’i Anja are unlike anything reported from Madagascar. The small assemblages were discovered in sites and contexts indicative of intermittent occupation by small groups engaged in foraging."
This is a huge find that calls into question perceptions of the destruction that humans have wrought on Madagascar since it was first colonized. This is big. If humans had been living on the island for 2500 years or more before large lemurs and birds began going extinct, then it wasn't simply a matter of humans showing up in Eden and wrecking paradise. Complex shifts in modes of production, climate and trade require further unraveling.

Robert E. Dewar, Chantal Radimilahy, Henry T. Wright, Zenobia Jacobs, Gwendolyn O. Kelly, and Francesco Berna. 2013. Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models. PNAS. published ahead of print July 15, 2013.