EDITORS' CHOICE > The Journey across the Indian Ocean

The Indonesian Man

The Journey across the Indian Ocean

Around 1,200 year ago, seafarers from South Kalimantan journeyed across the Indian Ocean and landed on the island of Madagascar in Africa. The 7,600-kilometer sea voyage later resulted in a colony of Austronesian people on the island to the east of the African mainland.

The journey was made by a group of weavers, outrigger canoe makers, xylophone players, blacksmiths and farmers. These people developed the cultural artifacts of Madagascar, and their culture can still be seen today.

"Many of the weaving motifs in Madagascar are similar to those found in Sumba (East Nusa Tenggara), with the traditional cloths colored in red, white and black," said geneticist Herawati Sudoyo-Supolo from the Eijkman Molecular Biology Institute of the Higher Education, Research and Technology Ministry. The institute has conducted field research in Madagascar.

Ancient paddy-farming techniques, including plowing the fields using buffalo-drawn plows, are still found in Madagascar. A number of vegetables from the Indonesian archipelago are also cultivated on the island, including sweet potato, taro, mung bean and banana. A 2016 paper by Alison Crowater and a team from Queensland University in Australia cites that the paddy and mung bean from Nusantara came to Madagascar 1,200 years ago.

Aside from evidencebased on cultural artifacts, undeniable traces of a diaspora of Indonesian people in Madagascar are similarities of language and genetics. Findings in genetic research by the Eijkman Institute in cooperation with a number of experts, published in the May 18, 2016, edition of the Nature Scientific Reports journal, underpin this point.

"The language of the people in Madagascar is rooted in the language of Southeast Barito, which is now used only by the Dayak Ma'anyan people. However, genetically, the people of Madagascar are not closely related to the Dayak Ma'anyan," said Pradiptajati Kusuma, one of the paper's authors.

Pradipta, a researcher at the Eijkman Molecular Biology Institute, is finishing his doctoral study at the University of Toulouse in France. In his research the winner of scholarships from the Education and Culture Ministry and the French Embassy in Indonesia focuses on the Austronesian migration to Madagascar.

Tracing the autosomal DNA of the Dayak Ma'anyan population and comparing it to the population in Madagascar revealed that the genetic structure of the Dayak Ma'anyan population is of a homogenous genetic background that is different from the genetics of other populations in Kalimantan. The Asian genetic background of Madagascar's population is more varied.

This shows that the Asian genetic background of the people in Madagascar is a genetic mix of several distinct peoples from what today is the Indonesian archipelago, who migrated by sea around 1,400 to 1,000 years ago.

"PCA analysis shows that the population of Madagascar is not in the same category as the Dayak Ma'anyan population, but is instead categorized by individuals of other Kalimantan populations, including several Dayak populations in South Kalimantan that have yet to be identified," Pradipta said.

According to Herawati, numerous studies have shown that Indonesian traces in the genetics of the Madagascar people are more complex than previously thought. There are traces of people from East Kalimantan, South Sulawesi and even Nusa Tenggara. "Genetically, the people of Madagascar is closest to the Bajau people (seafarers from the Indonesian archipalago) right now," he said. It is possible that they borrowed the Dayak Ma'anyan language or at least that they temporarily settled in South Kalimantan before journeying to Madagascar.

Apart from the predominant Dayak Ma'anyan lexicon, there are also elements of Malay in the language of Madagascan people, including rantau (journeying), which becomes ranto, gigi (teeth) becomes hihi and pipi (cheek) becomes fifi. Apart from that, there are Javanese words, such as rama (father), which is still spelled rama, alas (forest), which becomes ala, raden (male nobility) becomes rahadyan, tumut (follow) becomes tumutra. Words from the Bugis language include huta (chew), which becomes ota, while leha (go) becomes loka, matua (elder) becomes matoa and utti (banana) becomes untsi.

Further research is necessary to establish which population groups are the genetic ancestors of the people of Madagascar, Herawati added. "The paper manuscript on this subject has been accepted for publication in an international journal that will be published this week," said Herawati, who also serves as Eijkman Institute deputy director. This latest research can hopefully serve as the final piece in the puzzle of the origins of the Indonesian ethnic groups that became the ancestors of the people of Madagascar.

Ocean journey

Despite the linguistic and genetic proof of the early settlement on Madagascar by people from the Indonesian archipelago, the migration process is still much debated. New Zealand geneticist Murray Cox, who focuses on Mitochondrial DNA, said in 2012 that early colonization of Madagascar was done by a small group of around 28 female people from Indonesia. Murray Cox also contended that the early colonization of Madagascar might have occurred accidentally, for example due to shipwreck.

However, given that the migration period to Madagascar is in line with the golden period of the Sriwijaya kingdom, Pradipta said, it could be that the migration was related to the era's trade activities.

What is clear is that, in those days, our ancestors already had excellent skills in navigating the oceans. The seafaring capability of those ancestors, as was written by marine historian AB Lapian (2008), can be seen in the wealth of sailingvessels from the time: sampans, catamarans of the arumbai and jukung type, traditional galai war ships, and others.

These types of boats reflect the rich treasure of mediums by which our ancestors conducted inter-island connections and even ocean journeys. Moreover, Lapian wrote, sailors from the archipelago were adept at reading the wind and using stars for navigation.

It was from ancient Indonesian sailors that Greek navigator Hippalus learnt the secrets of the monsoon wind that swept from the Arabian seas towards the Indian coast and further to East India (Nusantara) from October to April. Conversely, winds blow from the Indonesian archipelago to India and the Arabian seas from April to October.

Two marine kingdoms, Sriwijaya (7th century) and Majapahit (13th - 16th century), also offer real proof of early Indonesians' maritime capabilities, apart from other coastal kingdoms that established trade connections with India, China and Arabia for centuries with spices as their main commodities.

This marine tradition remained strong until the 16th century, with the onset of the arrival of Western people to the region of today's Indonesia. People from the northern coast of Java back then were famed as shipbuilders, so much so that when Portuguese governor general Alfonso de Albuquerque left Malacca in 1512, he brought 60 Javanese shipbuilders along with him.

Ironically, if our ancestors traversed the Indian Ocean and reached Madagascar 1,400 years ago, our shipping fleet today is controlled by foreigners. Since 1987, as data from former Maritime and Fisheries Affairs Minister Rokhmin Dahuri shows, Indonesia has shelled out an average US$16 billion every year to pay for the services of foreign shipping companies for export and import purposes. Some of them even operate inter-island routes in Indonesia.


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