Madagascar is a land of extraordinary cultural richness. It's a place where ancestors are as much a part of the present day as they are of the past; where in many areas taboo and tradition takes precedence over the law; and western-style religion is freely mixed with beliefs in sorcery and unparalleled funerary customs.
Contrary to what you might expect, there is some debate over who first settled Madagascar. Some anthropologists believe Madagascar was first settled 2000 years ago by Indonesians, not black Africans, and that mainland Africans did not arrive in Madagascar until a later date. Others suggest that the people of Madagascar descended from Indonesians and Africans who mixed prior to their arrival on the isolated island. Regardless, most experts agree that Madagascar's inhabitants arrived relatively recently (there is no evidence of a stone age in Madagascar and the island was settled around the time Polynesians reached the planet's most isolated islands) and that subsequent migrations have brought other groups (like Arabs and Indians) into the mix.
The mixed origins of Malagasy (the name for the people of Madagascar) has produced an interesting set of cultures that draws from southeast Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East. Peter Tyson (The Eighth Continent) notes that "The Indonesian element in Malagasy culture is the most predominant, with the language [Malagasy is most closely related to a dialect from Borneo], rice culture, and belief in the ancestors [see "razana" below]" but the African influence is evident with the widespread obsession with Zeba cattle (Zebu are "humped" cattle originally from India and known by the scientific name Bos indicus), while Arab origins can be seen in some of the belief systems, trading patterns, and Arabic language elements (names of months and days of the week; words for money, books, and musical instruments). Within the country, people's physical appearance, religious practices, and traditions are highly regional -- the strongest bond between Malagasy is sharing a common language.
Today there are more than 20 ethnic groups in Madagascar from the Indonesian-looking Merina in the highlands to Arabic Antaimoro on the eastern coast. To learn more of Madagascar's ethic groups, I highly recommend the Bradt guide along with The Eighth Continent.
Countries Studies content:
Population and Ethnicity
Peoples of the East Coast
Peoples of the West Coast
Peoples of the Central Highlands
Peoples of the Tsaratamana Massif and the Southwest
Minorities in Madagascar
Traditional Beliefs and Religion
Social Structure and Family