Human occupation of Madagascar pushed back 2500 years

Past research concludes that human occupation of Madagascar was established around 500 C.E. in village communities by people of both Indonesian and East African heritage. Evidence for earlier visits is scattered and contentious, but recent archaeological excavations in northern Madagascar reveals a site containing microlithic stone technologies related to foraging for forest and coastal resources.

A flawed chronology

Chipped stone microliths from Lakaton’i Anja. Image: PNAS

The evidence for human occupation prior to 500 C.E. does exist but is mainly circumstantial. Pollen and charcoal from fires suggest vegetation change linked to human activity around 2000 years ago, while cut-marks on animal bones push the date back to 400 BCE and possibly as far back as 2200 BCE. But until now there were few artefacts that could be used to establish the presence of humans on Madagascar.

The new study examined a rock shelter where the researchers – led by the late Robert E. Dewar of Yale University – unearthed scores of flaked stone items made from materials brought from some distance away.

“Flaked stone items recovered primarily from washing and sorting are very small, a majority from a range of crypto-crystalline silicates, which we term ‘chert,’ and a minority of a volcanic glass which we term ‘obsidian’,” the authors write, noting that there are no known sources of obsidian in northern Madagascar. “Some of the fragments and flakes have pot-lid scars attributable to either deliberate heating, which improves flaking, or accidental burning.”

Using carbon dating techniques, the researchers were able to place an age on the stone tools of 3,500 to 4,400 years, corresponding to approximately 1460-2370 BCE. They also bear a striking resemblance to artefacts from this period found in Africa, the Middle East, and South-east Asia.

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