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Rice is highly valued across Madagascar. It’s the main dietary staple, but is also viewed as sacred and life sustaining. To study rice in Madagascar is to study a web of relationships between the living and the dead, other plants, animals, landscapes and histories. Despite the importance of rice for highland communities today, little is known archaeologically about how and when rice was introduced to the region or its subsequent role in highland life. Our project works to address this. We are an international team of archaeologists, based in Madagascar, the US, Canada and the UK.

Linguistic, genetic and archaeological evidence suggests that the wet rice grown in highland Madagascar (Oryza sativa) was imported as part of the movement of Austronesian speaking people from island southeast Asia to Madagascar in the first millennium CE. As yet it is unclear when it arrived in the highlands, which are now characterized by elaborate rice terraces and irrigation systems. Archaeological evidence and oral histories collected in the 19th century suggest that there was intensification of irrigated rice agriculture probably over the course of the 16th to 19th centuries. Oral histories record the significance of irrigated rice for the emergence of the powerful king Andrianampoinimerina in the late 18th century. He claimed:

“rice and I are the same; I have no equal but rice”

“…izaho sy ny vary no mitovy; tsy mba manana namana aho, fa ny vary no nama’ ko.”

The development of large-scale irrigation systems required the careful administration and organization of labor. Rafolo Andrianaivoarivony has shown how water management systems in the intensively irrigated area around Betafo today are carefully managed to distribute water to different families. In so doing the flow of water maps out the politics and hierarchies of descent.

The history of rice irrigation is thus intimately involved with socio-political distinction. Andrianampoinimerina’s claims to power elaborated pre-existing distinctions between lineages and their histories. This is not to say that irrigation drove these changes in social organization however. Archaeological research by Henry Wright and colleagues shows that although irrigated rice became more important in the 15th-16th centuries, most of the large-scale irrigation projects appeared much later, once Andrianampoinimerina’s state was established.

Our project takes a multidisciplinary and landscape based approach to look at the questions of when and how irrigated rice cultivation appeared in the highlands, and its role in the emergence of new socio-political formations. In this we build on the work of previous scholars, archaeologists and historians. We plan to map the intensively irrigated landscape around Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo, using mid-20th century aerial photographs and satellite imagery in an attempt to record and reconstruct the historic irrigation network around the city. This will be paired with analysis of select irrigation features, together with radiometric dating of them where possible, using Optically Stimulated Luminescence.

We’re also undertaking excavations at the fortified hilltop town of Ambohidahy, dating to the 15th century, a key period for understanding the transition to the more intensively farmed landscapes of the highlands that are familiar today. This is combined with off-site sampling of soils near known archaeological sites of different periods to build up a picture of the changing landscape from the first human occupation to the 19th century.


With thanks to our funders: National Geographic (2012-15 and Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy 2018-20)

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