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The archeological site of Antongona             Source: Photo by Tom Brouns

Antongona and the Mystery of the Early Madagascans


Madagascar is an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa and is most famous for its exquisite environment and unique wildlife, especially lemurs. It is the 4 th largest island in the world. One of the most important archaeological sites in Madagascar is Antongona and yet, its origins and story remain largely a mystery.

The History of Antongona, Madagascar

Madagascar was settled by a diverse range of people. Those who settled on the east of the island were predominantly of Austronesian descent, from what is now modern Indonesia, especially Javanese and Malays. There was also an influx of people from the east coast of Africa from the 9 th century AD, which included Somalians, other African nationals, and Arab traders. The modern population is descended largely from African and Arab settlers.

The location of Antongona, Madagascar (Google Maps)

The arrival of the Europeans in the 1500s upset Malagasy society as they were involved in the slave trade. Slave raiding led to a great many battles between the island’s tribes and clans, and the island was divided by conflicts from the 1500s to the late 1700s, until the emergence of a unified kingdom.

It was during these turbulent years that Antongona was built. As there is little documentary evidence, much of the history of the site is still unknown. It was originally a defensive structure that was built to shelter the population during the frequent wars. The oral tradition state that the local people would flee to Antongona for protection during raids. The walled village of Amborano was built within the precincts of Antongona.

In all likelihood, this stronghold of a local tribe later became part of the first true Madagascan kingdom founded by the Merina dynasty.

An old proverb may provide some insight into the demise of the stronghold as it states: “we are tired of Antongona fires”. This is said to refer to the fires lit by those under attack to signal their allies. There were many false alarms. On the one occasion that those within Antongona actually did come under sustained attack, their allies assumed that it was another false alarm. The raiders looted the site and probably enslaved any inhabitants they did not slaughter.

The Remains of Antongona and the Merina Dynasty

Antongona consists of two archaeological sites that date from the 1500s to roughly 1800. The two areas, which are walled and fortified, are 984 ft (300m) apart. They are set on two high, rocky hills which was of great strategic value and offers an expansive view of the surrounding plain. Both sites are accessed by narrow, winding sets of flagged steps. The steep approach to the gates is narrowed by earthen works and to access Antongona, there are seven gates to pass through. These designs were used to obstruct and deter even the most determined attacker.

The two royal wooden houses of Antongona (Photo by Midvale2)

The two royal wooden houses of Antongona (Photo by Midvale2)

Inside the walls lie the remains of various buildings of the former village. There are also two royal wooden houses built in a traditional Malagasy style, which were based on the designs of the tombs of early Madagascan kings. The site has a museum is dedicated to the history of Merina kingdom and its culture.

Getting to Antongona

The site is located some 24 miles (36km) east of the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. It can be reached either by hired car or as part of a guided tour. There is a great deal of walking during the tour of the sites, approximately 5 miles (7km). It is possible to visit the heritage sites at any time of year, but it is best to avoid the rainy season.

Lemurs of Madagascar ( ptashkan/ Adobe Stock)

Lemurs of Madagascarptashkan/ Adobe Stock)

There is also a Lemur Park and a number of other attractions nearby.


Top image: The archeological site of Antongona             Source: Photo by Tom Brouns

By Ed Whelan


Dewar, R. E., & Wright, H. T. (1993). The culture history of Madagascar. Journal of World Prehistory, 7(4), 417-466

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Esoavelomandroso, F. (1984). M adagascar and the neighbouring islands from the 12th to the 16th century. General History of Africa, 4, 597-613

Available at:

Middleton, K. (Ed.). (1999). Ancestors, power, and history in Madagascar (Vol. 20). Brill

Available at:

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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