Shipwreck Colonization?


Women, like this one from Indonesia, played a major role in founding Madagascar.
CREDIT: Francois Ricaut

I’m gearing up to teach a Maritime Studies course in lovely Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The class is sailing the Pacific after a month of coursework on land (I wish I could sail with them!). While updating a lecture on the colonization of the Pacific I came across this fascinating new research about Madagascar.

The large island off the east coast of Africa was settled about 1,200 years ago. It was one of the last places in the world to be colonized by homo sapiens. Previous research revealed the ancestors of people living there now came from Indonesia (about 3,500 miles away) not nearby Africa. Since then theories of how that happend have multiplied.

So Murray Cox, of Massey University in New Zealand, and a bevy of scholars analyzed genes from the mitochondria of 300 native Madagascans and 3,000 Indonesians to try and find out. According to LiveScience:

The researchers found that the island was most likely settled by a small population of about 30 women, who arrived in Madagascar around 1,200 years ago. Ninety-three percent (28) of these women were Indonesian, and the other 7 percent (two individuals) were African. Almost all native Madagascans are related to these 30 women, they found.

Fascinating. But it still doesn’t answer the why or how questions. The hypothesis suggested by the researchers:

The fact that there were only 30 women, and likely no more than that of men, means it probably wasn’t intentional, Cox said. He suggests that a shipping vessel, which can hold up to 500 people, could have capsized, and its travelers could have ended up on the shores of the African island.

“I wouldn’t say we were sure it was an accidental voyage, but the new evidence suggests this is a good idea,” Cox said.

Maybe. But as recent scholarship on human colonization of the Pacific suggests, the “shipwreck colonization” theory has many shortcomings. It ignores the skill, knowledge, and prolific history of colonization of distant, disparate islands by peoples originating from southwest Asia. It also reduces them to victims who got really, really luck.

1 Comment

Filed under Notes from the Field, Shipwreck culture

One response to “Shipwreck Colonization?

  1. this reminds of the Daughters of Eve research- – – with a shipwreck twist!

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