Episode 127      25 min 13 sec
An ocean away: An African nation's roots in Southeast Asia

Linguistics Assoc Professor Sander Adelaar discusses the curious linguistic and genetic origins of the people of Madagascar. With host Eric van Bemmel.

"People there are reasonably obsessed with their history and where they come from, and they can also see that they are different from Africans in many respects. And certainly the Africans can see that it's not a run of the mill African culture over there, with an African language." -- Assoc Prof Sander Adelaar




           



Associate Professor Sander Adelaar
Associate Professor Sander Adelaar

Sander Adelaar studied Indonesian languages and cultures and Austronesian linguistics at Leiden University, where he also lectured. He was a research fellow in Linguistics at the Australian National University and a Humboldt Fellow at Goethe University (Frankfurt) before coming to the University of Melbourne. His research includes comparative and descriptive linguistics with emphasis on varieties of Malay and the languages of Borneo (where he has conducted extensive field research), Madagascar and Taiwan. He is also interested in the oral and written literary traditions of Indonesia.

* The linguistic history and variety of Malay
* The linguistic history and culture history of Madagascar
* Description of languages in West Kalimantan
* Philological analysis of 17th century texts in Siraya, an extinct Formosan language (Taiwan)

Sander Adelaar studied Indonesian languages and cultures and Austronesian linguistics at Leiden University, where he also lectured. He was a research fellow in Linguistics at the Australian National University and a Humboldt Fellow at Goethe University (Frankfurt) before coming to the University of Melbourne. His research includes comparative and descriptive linguistics with emphasis on varieties of Malay and the languages of Borneo (where he has conducted extensive field research), Madagascar and Taiwan. He is also interested in the oral and written literary traditions of Indonesia.

* The linguistic history and variety of Malay
* The linguistic history and culture history of Madagascar
* Description of languages in West Kalimantan
* Philological analysis of 17th century texts in Siraya, an extinct Formosan language (Taiwan)

Credits

Host: Eric van Bemmel
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Ben Loveridge
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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An Ocean Away: An African nation's roots in Southeast Asia

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
I'm Eric van Bemmel, thanks for joining us.  The island nation of Madagascar known for its unique flora and fauna is also home to a human population with remarkable genetic and linguistic origins.  Located off the south east coast of the African continent, Madagascar is the world's fourth largest island, just a bit larger than France, it's colonial master of 70 years until 1960.  Human beings are believed to have arrived in migration terms only a relatively short time ago and both genetically and linguistically the Malagasy people, as they are known, owe a big chunk of their beginnings to a part of the world literally an ocean away.
Somehow people from a part of what is now Indonesia made their way across the vast Pacific Ocean to Africa and directly or indirectly to Madagascar.  There's no written record, archaeological evidence is scant, researchers differ in their interpretations of when and how, but the genetic and linguistic traces are indisputable there and speak of improbable Austronesian contact in East Africa.  Joining me to discuss current theories of the origins of the Malagasy and how linguistics researchers in particular have arrived at their conclusions, is Associate Professor Sander Adelaar, a Principal Fellow of Asia Institute here at the University of Melbourne, Australia and also Research Fellow at the Minpaku Ethnological Museum in Osaka, Japan.  
Sander has written extensively on Austronesian linguistics and particularly on the history and variety of Malay and languages in Borneo, Madagascar and Taiwan.  He's written a number of sole author books and numerous other publications and his 2011 volume is Siraya: Grammar Text and Lexicon of an Extinct Formosan Language.  Sander Adelaar, welcome to Up Close.

SANDER ADELAAR
Thanks for having me here.  Thank you.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Now Sander before we get to the story of Madagascar and the people there in the work of tracing prehistoric human migration there are contributions from a number of disciplines.  Genetics is a rather obvious one, archaeology another but how can the field of linguistics help us to understand the history of peoples?

SANDER ADELAAR
Well in most tropical areas manifestations of material culture and written records will not survive the times.  That is one problem.  Civilisations come and go just like anywhere else and sometimes they are pretty impressive but they can also disappear and be overgrown by jungle and texts are being eaten away by vermin, et cetera, et cetera, so that in the end you have precious little left as evidence that there ever was a civilisation of a certain kind.  In this circumstances linguistics becomes very important because languages are related and languages have loaned words from other cultures.
So the evidence of language can tell you have ethnic groups with their linguistics affiliation have moved from one area to another because their language is still related to another group of languages spoken further away and the loan words in the language tell you what kind of foreign influences there have been on a certain linguistic community having a particular language.  So where archaeology cannot provide the evidence linguistics is very often the last resort.  In the popular mind archaeology often has more of an appeal than the dry and technical linguistic argument but linguistics is for prehistorical purposes is almost just as important and also modern historical linguistics and archaeologists have, in the last couple of decades, joined hands and are cooperating much more on the basis of this insight.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Can you give us a brief description of the mechanics of what an historical linguist does?

SANDER ADELAAR
Well an historical linguist compares languages at several levels.  You start out looking for basic vocabulary.  All languages of the world, natural languages at least, have words for eye and head and nose and ear and for sky and earth and for water, sand and for sibling, mother and father.  They may not have words for uncle and aunt.  It becomes much vaguer because in one culture an aunt is different when it comes from your father's side than from your mother's side.  You don't include snow.  Most people know what snow is but in the tropics you don't have it.  So you look for notions that are totally comparable and that occur everywhere in the world.
You can the hundred or two hundred most universal notions in a human life, those which you call the basic vocabulary.  So you take basic vocabularies and languages that you think are related.  You look for words that sound the same and basically you're not fooled by a hundred per cent identical words but you are really looking for words, while they are different in one language from the other, the sounds correspond but every sound has to correspond to maybe a totally different sound in the other language that you compare it with but in the end it's the regularity of the correspondences between sounds that are really important and not so much whether a word sounds the same as in another language.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
And when there's enough frequency, enough regularity, beyond what could be a coincidence you decide there's some sort of connection here?

SANDER ADELAAR
That's right.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Sander, the people are Madagascar are called the Malagasy and Malagasy is also the name given to the language spoken by the great majority of the country's 21 million people but Malagasy is classified as an Austronesian language.  What does the term Austronesia specifically refer to?

SANDER ADELAAR
Well languages are related to one another like families and these families have names and Austronesian is the name of a language family.  Like English and French and Russian and European languages are Indo-European languages and they are related mostly to one another but also to some languages in the Middle East and then further on in north India.  Chinese is related to Tibetan and you've got the Sino-Tibetan language family.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
So where are the Austronesians from then?

SANDER ADELAAR
So the Austronesian's are a language family – a group of languages that are genetically related and they are spread over large parts of the Pacific, large parts of insular Southeast Asia, a few places on the mainland of Southeast Asia and then also in Madagascar and where do they originally come from?  Well a group of languages that are related are supposed to have evolved out of common stock language.  This common stock language is what we call Austronesian and this is the beauty of linguistic and archaeological research when it goes hand in hand, it is clear that Taiwan was an important point of dispersal of Austronesian languages.  
So Austronesian languages come out of Taiwan.  Well that is a bit of a tricky thing to say because if it comes out of Taiwan it must have come from somewhere else before, because Taiwan is not the cradle of the world.  It's not like the out of Africa theory or something.  So there's always a history before the history.  So south China is probably the place where the Austronesians come from but they migrated to Taiwan and from there they diverged into many very different languages and one of the speech communities then split again into what we call the Malay or Polynesian languages and those are the Austronesian languages everywhere in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, Madagascar.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Not as far as Australia?

SANDER ADELAAR
No, the Australian population and settlement is completely independent from the Austronesian one.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Okay.  So with the Austronesian movement towards Africa what do we know or speculate about this early contact with the mainland of Africa and how do we know it?

SANDER ADELAAR
There is some evidence.  There are no people, no Austronesian people anywhere in Africa.  The evidence is certain plants that are definitely traceable to Southeast Asia and to particular places in Southeast Asia that are also found on the African mainland.  The water yam, taro, the banana, also coconut for instance is also from the Pacific Southeast Asia region.  These plants reached Africa and have spread over large parts of Africa.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
What about technologies?

SANDER ADELAAR
There's one development in both technology which is typically Austronesian and that is the outrigger canoe constructions where two boats are linked so that they are more stable or that boats have outrigger beams that are sort of attached along a dugout canoe so that there is more balance.  Now you find those sort of boats in all kinds of subtypes, in many parts of the Indian Ocean but it can always be brought back to prototypes from the Austronesian world.  Now in Africa you find these boats too along the coast of East Africa and you find them in certain places of Madagascar as well.
It means that somehow Southeast Asian influence reached Africa.  It's possible that they would have exported their technology to the nearest society to their west and that those people then would pass it on to their western neighbours as well and so on and so forth until you reach Africa but there are also many indications that Indonesians were capable of crossing large parts of the ocean in order to reach Africa and to go there themselves and that is the beauty of the language of Madagascar.  That is not passed on from neighbour to neighbour.  That's really a direct crossing or at least that is the result of people leaving their country and really going to another part of the world.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
We have to underscore the distance here between what is contemporary Indonesia and the east African mainland.  We're talking about 8000 plus kilometres, 5000 miles or so.  Even between Madagascar and Austronesia we're talking about 7500 kilometres.  Now in Madagascar itself human habitation is said to have begun only 1300 to 1500 years ago.  Archaeologists point to a crash in the diversity of animal life, faunal diversity they call it, around this time suggesting substantial human interference.  So around that time Madagascar became a home for a human population?

SANDER ADELAAR
At the beginning there were theories that Africans lived in Madagascar before Austronesians came and that the Austronesian language had bits and pieces from an earlier African language in them that they had assimilated.  That language was supposed to be Bantu.  Now there is very little evidence at all that Bantus were in Madagascar before Austronesians.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Now just stepping back for a moment, let's describe who the Bantu are.

SANDER ADELAAR
Well the Bantus are one of the larger ethnic and linguistic configurations in sub-Sahara, Africa.  It now turns out that from incisions in animal bones which can be dated that human population is actually much older in Madagascar than the arrival of Bantus and Austronesians.  So we have to imagine that there was an earlier population.  This is the work of archaeologist, Sinclair.  These ideas are sort of integrated in the larger picture by Roger Blanch.  They seem to think that there was an older population in Madagascar, a little bit like the Bushmen or Hottentot population in South Africa, the Khoisan population.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
In fact in the Malagasy mythology they talk about the Vazimba, a sort of a pygmy like people that were there before the current genetic mix?

SANDER ADELAAR
Yeah, the trouble with that is it can be anything and everything and it can have developed in Africa.  You don't know what to do with that but, yes, that could point to an older population.  Ultimately one the possibilities is that this refers to an older population in Madagascar itself.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
You're listening to Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I'm Eric van Bemmel.  Our guest on this episode is linguistic researcher, Sander Adelaar and we're talking about the curious origins of the people and language of the island nation of Madagascar.  Now in recent years there's been a genetic exploration of the Malagasy people of Madagascar.  Matt Hurles and colleagues in 2005, Sergio Tofanelli and his colleagues in 2009 looked at the paternal and maternal ancestry of the people of Madagascar looking at mitochondrial DNA on the maternal side and the Y chromosome on the paternal side.  
They seemed to find that the people on the island are of mixed ancestry, African and Indonesian.  Perhaps on the coast you get more of an African appearance, dark skin and curly hair.

SANDER ADELAAR
Especially the west coast of course but also the east coast to some extent.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
On the inland, sort of highland areas, you get people who look more like Indonesians look today.

SANDER ADELAAR
Yes.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
But they share the language of Malagasy which is spoken by something like 91 per cent of the people and the question still remains when did the mixture and where did the mixture happen?  I understand that there are some people who believe that the Indonesians came and the Bantu Africans came and they mixed on the island.  Others say no, the mixture happened on the mainland and then there was a movement on to the island.  That's something of course I guess we can't answer that question but if it did happen as some researchers speculate, that the Bantu and Indonesian peoples genetically mixed on the mainland, then moved to Madagascar subsequently, why is there no linguistic or genetic evidence of Austronesia on the mainland?

SANDER ADELAAR
Well the best answer I can give is probably that Africa is changing too.  Before Bantus came to East Africa there were of course already people living in East Africa and there were Cushitic people.  Some groups are still there and there were probably also Khoisan type people, like the Bushmen and Hottentot in South Africa.  There are some very small pygmy groups, they are all over west Africa and central Africa but even in East Africa you find a few remnants of an earlier pygmy type population.
Those people might all have been assimilated to the Bantus.  We don't really know at this point but it complicates the picture of an Austronesian arrival to East Africa because if the end result of a cultural assimilation is that almost everyone is Bantu in East Africa that might be the answer to the problem, why are there no traces of Austronesian presence on the East African coastal area.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
So going back to Malagasy, it's primarily an Austronesian language with influence of Bantu and Arabic, et cetera.

SANDER ADELAAR
Yes.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
You argue that there's also Malay words in there.  Can you tell us about that?

SANDER ADELAAR
Well 300 years ago the first explorers from Europe to Southeast Asia were already aware that there was something between Madagascar and Indonesian and in the beginning of the 18th century there was this linguist, Relandus from the Netherlands and he actually said there are similarities between Malagasy and Malay, that Malagasy have taken chunks, words and other things, from Malay.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Now just to be clear Malay is also an Austronesian…

SANDER ADELAAR
It's an Austronesian language.  It's the hegemonial language politically speaking of Indonesia and Malaysia and it actually also had quite a bit of influence in the Philippines at the time.  So first people knew that there was something but they thought that it was borrowing and there was no notion of genetic relationship, that languages could be related in the same way more or less as people would be related with all the vagueness that goes along in both cases, I should say.  That awareness started to kick in much later in western academic thinking, in scientific thinking.
So only in the 19th century did people really start thinking about a relationship between Madagascar and Malay in terms of genetic relationship of languages.  Then you get another problem.  Malagasy was clearly related to all those Indonesian languages that are related to one another.  Altogether there are something like 1200 Austronesian languages and they all have something in common with their family member in Madagascar so to speak.  It becomes like looking for a needle in a haystack because Malagasy has some words in common with any of these languages.
So it was only in 1951 that a Norwegian missionary linguist actually wrote a thesis showing that Malagasy, while related to all the Austronesian languages, it was actually most closely related to a sub sub group, the members of which were along the Barito River in South Borneo.  That had a few problems as well because while the linguistic case could be made the anthropologists couldn't do anything with it.  The argument was sheer linguistic.  Now how is that possible?  Well the people speaking Malagasy had undergone all kinds of influences in Indonesia before they left.
So while their language was still related to the languages in the south east Barito area their way of life had become more general Indonesian and had borrowed all kinds of cultural influences from other Indonesian areas and they also borrowed loan words from all kinds of languages.  If you look in the Malagasy language all terms that have to do with the sea, maritime terms, winds, cardinal directions, fish names, boat technology terms, most of these words are actually from Malay.
So you clearly get the impression that here is a people that came from the interior of Borneo or somewhere else, not a sea bound culture and every maritime term that they have they've borrowed from someone else.  So that gives you the impression that well it wasn't a pristine group from the roots of Borneo that had never met anyone else and then migrated to Madagascar and if their language has already so many non-genetic but borrowed elements from all over Indonesia then you can imagine that their culture was also a little bit more cosmopolitan when they arrived and that is actually why the anthropologists can't see what is so typically Borneon about the Malagasy culture today.  
Also very little research has been done in Borneo.  So what do you compare with what?  For instance, someone in the 1930s looked at musical instrument on one particular island in Indonesia, Sulawesi and he made maps.  He made an atlas of musical instruments.  No one ever did that for Borneo and of course the variety of musical instruments is considerable on Sulawesi.  Now then someone looked at Madagascar and found a few musical instruments that were actually in Sulawesi.  
So a musicologist will probably be more prone to believe in a link between Madagascar and Sulawesi because of the tunnel vision that has been created by the fact that Sulawesi is so well documented, whereas the rest of Indonesia much less.  The problem with anthropology is that there are so many aspects of human existence that are being compared.  You've got literature, you've got religion, you've got language actually, the material culture, the way they eat, the way they hunt.  There is too much for an anthropologist that he has or she has to compare to another culture if they want to do the same as linguists do.
Anthropologists don't have a clear comparative historical method like linguists have.  Their subject matter doesn't allow them to have that.  For them it's not so obvious what you see from a linguistic perspective.  Now the archaeologists had another problem.  That is that if you look at the archaeology of Madagascar you find typically east Bantu coastal archaeology.  So basically the Austronesian element wasn't there, it was wiped out.  It was over layered and therefore they didn't see any reason to go with the linguistic argument.  They couldn't deny nor approve of it and historians didn't have any historical record so they didn't want to go along with a theory that was based on linguistic evidence only.  So the historical linguistic argument was very isolated.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Until the geneticists came along?

SANDER ADELAAR
Well many geneticists had already done tests but they were very often on a one to one basis.  Like look at the Polynesians and look at the Malagasy, yes there is a commonality and then someone else would come along and say look at the Javanese and look at the Malagasy, yes there must be a relation.  Yes, this is commonplace.  

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Again, a tunnel vision?

SANDER ADELAAR
A tunnel vision, yeah.  Then in 2005 Hurle and his team took samples of DNA in several points of the Austronesian world.  At least two points were in Borneo.  One in south Borneo, one in north Borneo and it clearly showed that the Malagasy DNA scored considerably higher with that of Borneo than of any other Austronesian area.  So that became then a significant contribution to the comparison.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Now what do the people in Madagascar, if you go to the streets of Antananarivo, the country's capital city, if you ask someone there where do your people come from, what would they answer?

SANDER ADELAAR
Most people through minimal education would probably know that there is an Indonesian and an African component.  Most people know that and people are usually reasonably obsessed with their history and where they come from and they can also see that they are different from Africa in many respects and certainly the Africans can see that it's not a run of the mill African culture over there, an African language.  It's not Bantu but it has been politically exploited.  
The history of Madagascar is such that the central highlands started to expand at a certain point and they subjugated the other parts of Madagascar.  Then the French came.  The capital was in the central highlands, in the Merina highlands, the Mern highlands as they say, and the French perpetuated that hegemonia of the Mern.  Now the other Malagasy people didn't always like that and resisted that and wanted to have their autonomy back and didn't want to be ruled by the French but later on they also didn't want to have the Mern back as the hegemonial force in Madagascar.
So there have been many presidents and when there is a Mern president then you see that the Asian arguments gets more currency than when it's a coastal president.  The coastal presidents tend to emphasise the African origins.  At one point there was a president who said that all that talking about us coming from Asia may be the Indonesians and the Austronesians come from Madagascar?  Why not?  He wasn't interested at all in scholarly argument but he needed to use archaeology and history for his own benefit and it was basically directed against the central highlands.
So yes, it has the potential of becoming politicised and being used against the opposition group.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Sander, we're going to have to leave it there and we thank you for being our guest on Up Close today and giving us a linguist's perspective of human migration and the case of the Malagasy in particular.  Thank you.

SANDER ADELAAR
Thank you.

ERIC VAN BEMMEL
Sander Adelaar is a Principal Fellow of Asia Institute here in the University of Melbourne, Australia.  For those interested in hearing more on a related topic in episode 122 of this podcast we discuss technical aspects of the genographic project led by the National Geographic Society and IBM and which uses massive amounts of genetic information to re-construct human migratory history.  That's on episode 122 of Up Close.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is brought to you by marketing and communications of the University of Melbourne, Australia.
This episode was recorded on 18 January 2011 and produced by Kelvin Param and me, Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Ben Loveridge.  Up Close was created by me and Kelvin Param.  Thanks for listening.  Until next time, good bye.  

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2011 the University of Melbourne.


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