Madagascar Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The island of Madagascar is famous for its ecological diversity, but its ethnic diversity is just as fascinating. In this lesson we'll talk about the major ethnic groups of Madagascar, and see what this means to the nation today.


Islands that are geographically isolated tend to be pretty interesting. Perfect example: the island of Madagascar. Madagascar is actually the fourth largest island in the world, situated off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Thanks to its isolation, it's home to some unique things, like giant moths, spiders with silk ten times stronger than Kevlar, and of course, lemurs! The human societies that call Madagascar home are pretty cool too.


Ethnicity in Madagascar

Like many large islands, Madagascar is home to a surprising amount of diversity with up to 18 distinct ethnic groups, depending on who you ask. Researchers disagree on the degree of difference between some of these groups, based on a long history of interactions between various world cultures on the island. Despite its proximity to Africa, most archaeologists actually think that the first people to arrive on the island came from Indonesia, which had a stronger sailing culture and could cross the Indian Ocean by around the 8th -9th centuries CE. Various African groups made it to the island later, as did Arab sailors who entered the Indian Ocean in the following centuries. So, how do we categorize this ethnic diversity? Some scholars argue that the vast majority of people in Madagascar actually belong to a single ethnic group called Malagasy, which is also the name of one of the official languages of the nation. The Malagasy ethnicity describes people of the island who display mixed African, Indonesian, and Arab ancestry, so it's not very specific, and not all researchers like using that term.

The term Malagasy broadly applies to all ancestrally indigenous ethnic groups of Madagascar

More Specific Ethnic Groups

If we want to break down the Malagasy population a bit more concretely, there is at least one common way to do so. The ethnic populations ancestrally indigenous to Madagascar can be divided into two groups. First are the Malayo-Indonesian ethnicities, which claim more genetic heritage from Indonesia and Malaysian than anywhere else. These ethnic groups tend to be centered in the highlands of central Madagascar, away from the coasts. The largest of these groups are the Merina, who make up roughly 26% of the total population. The Merina ethnic group is very closely related to ethnic groups of Indonesia and along with other Highlander groups may be amongst the oldest on the island. The Merina are also noted for maintaining a degree of political dominance across Madagascar's history, and there is some resentment between them and other (mostly non-Malayo-Indonesian) ethnic groups in the country. The Sihanaka and Betsileo are other major ethnic groups that belong to this Highlander category.

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