The earliest inhabitants of the mountains of central Madagascar, perhaps as long as two thousand years ago, are believed to have been the Vazimba who, it’s speculated, either originated in East Africa (where the Swahili still have stories about a mysterious, nomadic people of that name) or came from the ancestral wellspring of the Malagasy language, which has been confirmed as southeastern Borneo on the other side of the Indian Ocean. Whether the Vazimba were African or Indonesian migrants, they certainly arrived from somewhere else and lived by hunter-gathering, and later by subsistence farming and herding, treading relatively lightly on the Madagascan environment for several hundred years, before the hierarchical and militaristic Merina subjugated and absorbed them. Since there is no archeological evidence for any human habitation in the highlands before about 1200 AD, the pseudohistorical of the Vazimba may have its origin with the people who now call themselves Merina in the telling of their own story. There is also a small contemporary ethnic group of southwest Madagascar who call themselves Vazimba and who may be descended from refugees from the highlands.
The Merina, Madagascar’s largest ethnic group – traditionally rice farmers and traders – arrived in successive waves of migration from the Indonesian archipelago, following ancient trade routes linking the coasts of the Indian Ocean. Their own history describes the conquering and assimilation of the Vazimba, and they traditionally hold this ancestral people in great respect. By the late eighteenth century the Merina were united under a single monarch and they steadily expanded their empire to control and partly enslave most of the peoples of the island through the course of the nineteenth century, only to become themselves subjects of the French after 1895. Stratified, class-conscious and land-owning, nineteenth-century Merina society was a useful tool of French imperialism. However the French tended to sideline the large Merina population with elite or royal ancestry (many communities had their kings, queens, princes and princesses) and tended to favour the so-called hova, or commoners, whose own most powerful families had acted as civil servants in the royal governments and as Merina prime ministers.
Further south, notably focused around Fianarantsoa, are the Betsileo, who also had a very stratified society and their own royalty (confusingly, also known as hova). They were effectively absorbed into the Merina empire in the early nineteenth century (Fianar became the Merina’s second capital in 1830), and with their rice-growing expertise helped drive the highland economy. Today, the Betsileo maintain their distinct identity partly through a long tradition of crafts and musical instruments and music-making.