Despite a common language – Malagasy – the population of Madagascar can be described as very heterogeneous. Mainly 18 ethnic groups can be distinguished. These indigenous peoples or tribes with predominantly Asian roots have developed their own traditions and have preserved them to this day, which is expressed in architecture, dance and music, handicrafts and linguistic peculiarities. They are also to be separated from one another geographically. Probably the most important group – the Merina – with more than 25% of the total population lives mainly in the central highlands, while the Betsimisaraka, for example(12-15% of the population) live on the east coast and the Sakalava (7% of the population) live on the west coast. The “thorn men”, who represent the Antandroy ethnic group, are at home in the arid south as semi-nomadic cattle breeders. The Chinese group is now the numerically largest group of the minorities (approx. 70,000 – 100,000). Lately there has been an increasing number of anti-Chinese resentments among the population. Due to the colonial history of Madagascar, there are also several thousand French people in the country, some of whom have been living in Madagascar for several generations – some as retired foreign legionnaires.
The main delimitation criterion when differentiating between the ethnic groups is the spatial concentration or the regional density of individual groups with a common historical past. The great variety among the Malagasy population can be explained by the different waves of immigration in different epochs and by their different regions of origin, whereby historically separated kingdoms have also formed. In Malagasy the different groups of the population are called “Foko”. In addition to the large groups, subgroups can also be distinguished from one another, which, although not recognized as an independent focus, are nonetheless characterized by a common way of life. These include the Mikea, the Vezo (a fishing people in southern Madagascar) and the Zafimaniry.
The Merina are certainly to be mentioned as the most important population group. They are descended from Indonesian-Malay immigrants and still resemble their Asian ancestors today. As rice farmers in the highlands, they developed a monarchy with a complicated caste system and built a powerful kingdom.
According to mathgeneral, the Betsileo can also be described as a numerically larger ethnic group of Madagascar. Like the Merina resident in the highlands and of Indonesian-Malay descent, however, several subgroups or former subordinate kingdoms (Isandra in the west, Lalangina in the east, Arindrano in the south and Manandriana in the north) are described within the ethnic group, which in the past also included armed conflicts among themselves were entangled. They were subjugated in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Merina, who claimed ownership of the regions inhabited and cultivated by the Betsileo. The center of the Betsileo is still the city of Fianarantsoa.
The Betsimisaraka with approx. 12-15% of the total population of Madagascar settle the east and south coast of the island. Through early contacts with Europeans, they were able to technically defend themselves against the warlike Merina. As today’s unit, the Betsimisaraka originally emerged from four coastal tribes that were united in the 18th century by Ratsimilaho (1694-1750), the son of the Madagascan Queen Antavaratra Rahena and a pirate. The Betsimisaraka resisted the French most violently of all population groups, especially because they had forcibly recruited the people to build railways.
The Bara live in the southern part of the highlands with the city of Ihosy as their center and are probably descended from African Bantu. They are traditional cattle breeders and worship the Zebu cattle like no other tribe in Madagascar.
In the Tolagnaro area, the Antanosy live as cattle breeders and rice farmers. This small tribe is mainly of Islamic faith. Her knowledge of astrology and medicine points to her likely Arabic origin.
The Tsaratsanana Mountains in northern Madagascar are home to the Antankarana, a small tribe of shepherds and farmers who may have split off from the Sakalava in the 16th century. The Antankarana are of the Muslim faith, which they have individually modified and interpreted over the centuries.
The Sakalava are known for their rich culture. They live in an extensive settlement area on the west coast between Mahajanga and Morondava. Traditionally, their territory was divided into the two kingdoms of Menabe and Boina. The Sakalava were at war with the Merina for a long time, but finally submitted to the power of the king Andrianampoinimerina.
The numerically rather small group of the Tanala lives in the eastern interior between the Antaimoro and the Betsileo. They are considered refugees of various ethnicities who probably hid in the forest and still live there today from collecting honey and growing coffee and rice. Similar to the Bezanozano and the Sihanaka, they operate slash and burn.
The Sihanaka (“people from the swamp”) seem to have arisen from scattered Merina and Betsimisaraka members and colonize the region of Lac Alaotra, where they mainly cultivate rice.
The Bezanozano as a numerically large tribe – related to the Betsimisaraka and the Sihanaka – are at home in the area around Moramanga between the coast and the highlands. They are considered to be one of the first ethnic groups in Madagascar and are associated with the “vazimba”.
The Antaifasy are only a small group who live on the south east coast near Farafangana and whose origin is unclear. Apparently, the Antaifasy are very different from other ethnic groups and maintain a rich cultural asset that is strongly determined by taboos (“fady”).
Many Islamic elements can be found among the Antaimoro living on the east coast near Manakara. The relatively small tribe is famous for inventing their own paper, which is still produced in the Ambalavo region today, and for developing their own font, Sorabe.
The Antaisaka, with whom they share many cultural elements to this day, split off from the Sakalava in the 17th century. Nevertheless, they are to be viewed as an independent group, as they have developed their own traditions, e.g. complex marriage taboos.
The Antambahoaka are the smallest ethnic group in Madagascar. They are probably descended from King Raminia Rabevahoaka, who immigrated from Mecca in the 14th century, and settle mainly on the east coast around Mananjary.
The Antandroy, known as the thorn people, are a tribe of semi-nomads who live in the hot thorn savannah of Madagascar’s south and live mainly from raising cattle. Traditionally they are often clad with spears and loincloths and seem to come from another era. However, they are also known for their kitesurfing skills.
The shepherds and farmers of the Mahafaly who live on the southwest coast near Ampanihy are known for their artistically designed grave monuments. These are adorned with wooden grave poles (“Alo-Alo”) that carry a carved sculpture. The Mahafaly maintain a separate cultural asset, which also includes the worship of fetishes.
The first President of Madagascar – Philibert Tsiranana – was a representative of the ethnic group of the Tsimihety, who live in the central region of the Northern Province. This very large Foko makes a living from growing rice and raising cattle.
The Zafisoro, like the Antaifasy, are at home on the south east coast. Their dialect is still very similar to the barito languages spoken in Borneo.