The people of the region with the best claim to be its indigenous inhabitants are the Antankarana, the “people of the rocks” – a reference to the widespread scenery of limestone pinnacles or tsingy. With a long history of trading contacts with Arabia, East Africa and especially the Comoros, the Antankarana were some of Madagascar’s earliest converts to Islam, incorporating the teachings of the Koran into traditional customs. By the early eighteenth century, however, they had mostly become subjects of the much more numerous and hierarchical Sakalava of the west coast, whose aristocracy extracted tribute from the locals until a century later when they themselves were subjugated by the all-conquering Merina.
The Tsimihety – traditionally non-hierarchical pastoralists, whose name means “People who don’t cut their hair” – mostly live a little to the south of the Antankarana. Their most famous son was the independent country’s first president, Philibert Tsiranana.