Officially the Republic of Madagascar and previously known as the Malagasy Republic is an island country in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa. The nation comprises the island of Madagascar (the fourth-largest island in the world), and numerous smaller peripheral islands.
Following the prehistoric breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana, Madagascar split from the Indian peninsula around 88 million years ago allowing native plants and animals to evolve in relative isolation.
Consequently, Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot; over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth. The island’s diverse ecosystems and unique wildlife are threatened by the encroachment of the rapidly growing human population and other environmental threats.
The first archaeological evidence for human foraging on Madagascar dates to 2000 BC. Human settlement of Madagascar occurred between 350 BC and AD 550 by Austronesian peoples, arriving on outrigger canoes from Borneo.
These were joined around AD 1000 by Bantu migrants crossing the Mozambique Channel from East Africa. Other groups continued to settle on Madagascar over time, each one making lasting contributions to Malagasy cultural life.
The Malagasy ethnic group is often divided into 18 or more subgroups of which the largest are the Merina of the central highlands.
Until the late 18th century, the island of Madagascar was ruled by a fragmented assortment of shifting sociopolitical alliances. Beginning in the early 19th century, most of the island was united and ruled as the Kingdom of Madagascar by a series of Merina nobles.
The monarchy ended in 1897 when the island was absorbed into the French colonial empire, from which the island gained independence in 1960. The autonomous state of Madagascar has since undergone four major constitutional periods, termed republics. Since 1992, the nation has officially been governed as a constitutional democracy from its capital at Antananarivo.
However, in a popular uprising in 2009, President Marc Ravalomanana was made to resign and presidential power was transferred in March 2009 to Andry Rajoelina.
Constitutional governance was restored in January 2014, when Hery Rajaonarimampianina was named president following a 2013 election deemed fair and transparent by the international community.
Madagascar is a member of the United Nations, the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.
Madagascar belongs to the group of least developed countries, according to the United Nations. Malagasy and French are both official languages of the state. The majority of the population adheres to traditional beliefs, Christianity, or an amalgamation of both.
Ecotourism and agriculture, paired with greater investments in education, health, and private enterprise, are key elements of Madagascar’s development strategy.
Under Ravalomanana, these investments produced substantial economic growth, but the benefits were not evenly spread throughout the population, producing tensions over the increasing cost of living and declining living standards among the poor and some segments of the middle class.
As of 2017, the economy has been weakened by the 2009–2013 political instability and quality of life remains low for the majority of the Malagasy population.
In the Malagasy language, the island of Madagascar is called Madagasikara [madaɡasʲˈkʲarə̥] and its people are referred to as Malagasy. The island’s appellation “Madagascar” is not of local origin, but rather was popularized in the middle ages by Europeans.
The name Madageiscar was first recorded in the memoirs of 13th-century Venetian explorer Marco Polo as a corrupted transliteration of the name Mogadishu, the Somali port with which Polo had confused the island.
On St. Laurence’s Day in 1500, Portuguese explorer Diogo Dias landed on the island and named it São Lourenço. Polo’s name was preferred and popularized on Renaissance maps.
No single Malagasy-language name predating Madagasikara appears to have been used by the local population to refer to the island, although some communities had their own name for part or all of the land they inhabited.