Despite its closeness to Africa, linguistic and DNA research indicate that Madagascar’s inhabitants originated between 350 BC and 550 AD in Borneo and Polynesia. Later, in 1000 AD, migrants from East Africa crossed the Mozambique Channel, followed by Arabs, Indians, and Chinese immigration. Malagasy culture, as well as their look and dress style, is a fusion of civilizations.
Madagascar is a member of the African Union, but was suspended from membership between 2009 and 2013. Political unrest in Madagascar occurred in 2002 and again between 2009 and 2010, resulting in a drop in tourism, but the situation was addressed to the satisfaction of the international community in 2010 with the adoption of a new constitution and free and fair presidential elections in 2013. For the foreseeable future, any remaining political problems are likely to be addressed calmly with words rather than coups or other extreme measures.
Madagascar separated from India 88 million years ago, and as a consequence of its lengthy isolation, it is home to a vast variety of unique plant and animal species, with over 90% of its animals and 80% of its flora found nowhere else on the world. Some ecologists refer to it as the “eighth continent” because of its uniqueness.
The enormous and ancient baobab trees, the distinctive spiny forests of the south, over 800 kinds of orchids, and the diminishing rain forests are just a few of Madagascar’s approximately 15,000 plant species. Human activity has harmed the ecosystem, especially fires used for agricultural reasons, and about 90% of the island’s natural forest has vanished since people arrived.
The island’s animal life is similarly remarkable, with over 100 kinds of lemurs, almost all of which are rare or endangered. Over 300 species of birds, 260 species of reptiles, and a large variety of amphibians and invertebrates live on the island.
Tropical rainforests may be found on the island’s eastern, or windward side, whereas tropical dry forests, thorn forests, deserts, and xeric shrublands can be found on the western and southern sides, which are in the rain shadow of the central highlands. Because of Madagascar’s historically low population density, the dry deciduous rain forest has fared better than the eastern rainforests or the high central plateau.
Tropical along the coast, temperate inland, and desert in the south, the climate is tropical along the coast, moderate interior, and arid in the south. The southeastern trade winds, which originate in the Indian Ocean anticyclone, a center of high atmospheric pressure that shifts its location over the ocean periodically, dominate the weather. There are two seasons in Madagascar: a hot, rainy season from November to April and a milder, dry season from May to October. The climate varies greatly depending on height and location in relation to prevailing winds. The east coast has a sub-equatorial climate and the highest rainfall, averaging 3,500 mm (137.8 in) yearly due to its direct exposure to the trade winds. This area is known not just for its hot, humid environment, which is home to tropical fevers, but also for the devastating cyclones that hit during the rainy season, mostly from the Mascarene Islands. The central highlands are noticeably drier and colder due to their height, since rain clouds release most of their moisture east of the island’s highest peaks. Thunderstorms are frequent in the central highlands during the wet season, and lightning is a significant threat.
Between November and April, Antananarivo gets almost all of its average annual rainfall of 1,400mm (55.1 in). The dry season is nice and bright, although a little cold, particularly in the mornings. Frost is uncommon in Antananarivo, although it is frequent at higher altitudes.
The terraced rice fields of Madagascar’s central highlands (left) give way to tropical rainforest along the eastern coast (center), which is flanked by the Indian Ocean’s beaches (right).
Madagascar is the world’s 46th biggest nation and fourth-largest island, covering 592,800 square kilometers (228,900 square miles). The nation is mainly located between 12°S and 26°S latitudes, and 43°E and 51°E longitudes. To the east, the French territory of Réunion and the nation of Mauritius, as well as the state of Comoros and the French territory of Mayotte to the north west, are neighboring islands. Mozambique, to the west, is the closest mainland country.
Around 135 million years ago, the supercontinent Gondwana broke apart, separating the Madagascar–Antarctica–India landmass from the Africa–South America landmass. Around 88 million years ago, Madagascar separated from India, enabling flora and animals on the island to develop in relative isolation. A narrow and steep escarpment spans the length of the island’s eastern shore, holding most of the island’s surviving tropical lowland forest.
A plateau in the middle of the island, to the west of this ridge, rises from 750 to 1,500 meters (2,460 to 4,920 feet) above sea level. These central highlands, which are the most densely populated part of the island and are characterized by terraced, rice-growing valleys lying between grassy hills and patches of the subhumid forests that once covered the highland region, are traditionally the homeland of the Merina people and the location of their historic capital at Antananarivo. The increasingly dry landscape to the west of the hills eventually slopes down to the Mozambique Channel and mangrove swamps along the coast.
The highest peaks in Madagascar are found in three notable highland massifs: Maromokotro 2,876 m (9,436 ft) in the Tsaratanana Massif, Boby Peak 2,658 m (8,720 ft) in the Andringitra Massif, and Tsiafajavona 2,643 m (8,671 ft) in the Ankaratra Massif. To the east, the Canal des Pangalanes is a 600-kilometer-long network of man-made and natural lakes linked by canals constructed by the French slightly inland from the east coast (370 mi).
Dry deciduous woods, prickly forests, deserts, and xeric shrublands may be found on the western and southern sides, which are in the rain shadow of the central highlands. Madagascar’s dry deciduous woods have fared better than the eastern rain forests or the ancient woodlands of the central plateau due to lower human concentrations. The western coast has numerous sheltered ports, but silting is a significant issue caused by material transported by rivers traversing the vast western plains due to high levels of interior erosion.
Madagascar’s population was projected to be 22 million in 2012. In 2009, Madagascar’s yearly population growth rate was about 2.9 percent. From 2.2 million in 1900 to an estimated 22 million in 2012, the population has increased dramatically.
54.5 percent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 64, with 42.5 percent of the population being under the age of 15. The population above the age of 65 accounts for 3% of the overall population. Only two general censuses have been conducted since independence, in 1975 and 1993. The island’s most heavily inhabited areas are the eastern highlands and eastern shore, which contrast sharply with the sparsely populated western plains.
Over 90% of Madagascar’s population belongs to the Malagasy ethnic group, which is split into eighteen ethnic sub-groups. According to recent DNA studies, the typical Malagasy person’s genetic composition has about equal parts Southeast Asian and East African genes, but certain groups’ genetics indicate a preponderance of Southeast Asian or East African origins or some Arab, Indian, or European heritage.
The Merina of the central highlands, who make up the biggest Malagasy ethnic sub-group at about 26% of the population, have the strongest Southeast Asian roots, whereas some groups among the coastal peoples (collectively known as côtiers) have comparatively greater East African origins. The Betsimisaraka (14.9 percent) and Tsimihety and Sakalava ethnic sub-groups are the biggest coastal ethnic sub-groups (6 percent each).
Madagascar has Chinese, Indian, and Comorian minorities, as well as a tiny European (mainly French) population. Emigration has decreased these minority groups in the late twentieth century, sometimes in large waves, such as the departure of Comorans in 1976 after anti-Comoran rioting in Mahajanga. Malagasy peoples, on the other hand, have not emigrated in large numbers. Since independence, the number of Europeans has decreased, falling from 68,430 in 1958 to 17,000 three decades later. In the mid-1980s, Madagascar had a population of 25,000 Comorans, 18,000 Indians, and 9,000 Chinese.
Traditional religion, which emphasizes connections between the living and the razana, is practiced by about half of the country’s population (ancestors). The veneration of ancestors has led to the widespread practice of tomb construction, as well as the highlands practice of the famadihana, in which a deceased family member’s remains are exhumed, then rinsed and re-wrapped in fresh silk shrouds, also known as lambas, before being re-interred in the tomb. The famadihana is a time to honor the memory of a cherished ancestor, reuniting with family and community, and enjoying a festive environment. Residents from nearby villages are often invited to the celebration, which usually includes food and rum, as well as a hiragasy troupe or other musical entertainment.
Adherence to fady, taboos that are maintained throughout and beyond the lifespan of the individual who sets them, also demonstrates reverence for ancestors. It is commonly thought that honoring ancestors in this manner allows them to intercede on behalf of the living. Misfortunes, on the other hand, are often ascribed to ancestors whose memories or desires have been forgotten. Zebu sacrifice is a traditional way of appeasing or honoring the ancestors. Furthermore, the Malagasy believe in a creator deity known as Zanahary or Andriamanitra.
Christians make up almost half of the Malagasy population, with Protestants slightly outnumbering Roman Catholics. The first Christian missionaries were brought to the island in 1818 by the London Missionary Society, who constructed churches, translated the Bible into Malagasy, and started to convert people. Queen Ranavalona I began persecuting these converts in 1835 as part of an effort to limit European cultural and political influence on the island. Queen Ranavalona II, her successor, turned the court to Christianity and supported Christian missionary activities in 1869, destroying the sampy (royal gods) as a symbolic rupture with traditional beliefs.
Many Christians now combine their theological views with traditional ancestor-honoring practices. They may, for example, ask a Christian priest to conduct a famadihana reburial or bless their deceased at church before continuing with traditional burial rituals. The Malagasy Council of Churches, which includes Madagascar’s four oldest and most important Christian groups (Roman Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar, Lutheran, and Anglican), has long been a powerful political force.
Newer religious organizations, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, are quickly expanding in rural regions, establishing intellectual discussion groups, clinics, and churches.
On the island, Islam is also practiced. Arab and Somali Muslim merchants introduced Islam to the island in the Middle Ages, establishing numerous Islamic schools along the island’s eastern shore. The acceptance of Islamic astrology and the use of Arabic writing and foreign phrases expanded throughout the island, but the Islamic faith failed to take root in all but a few southeastern coastal towns. Muslims now make about 7% of Madagascar’s population, with the majority living in the northern regions of Mahajanga and Antsiranana. Sunni Muslims make up the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Malagasy Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis, and Comorians make up the Muslim population. Hinduism was brought to Madagascar more recently via Gujarati immigrants from India’s Saurashtra area in the late 1800s. At home, the majority of Hindus in Madagascar speak Gujarati or Hindi.