Betsileo people



The Betsileo are a highland ethnic group of Madagascar, the third largest in terms of population. They chose their name, meaning "The Many Invincible Ones", after a failed invasion by King Ramitraho of the Menabe kingdom in the early 19th century.



The most elevated part of Madagascar's central highlands (sometimes called the "high plateau"), comprising the homelands of the Merina (Imerina) and the Betsileo, extends some 600 kilometers from north to south (roughly between 18° and 22° S), with a maximum width of 200 kilometers. The Betsileo homeland spans approximately 40,000 square kilometers of the southern half of that area. One officially leaves southern Imerina and enters Betsileo country by crossing the Mania River, located at 20° S. The Betsileo capital is the city of Fianarantsoa. Besides the Merina to the north, the Betsileo's immediate neighbors are the Tanala to the east, the Bara to the south and southwest, and the Sakalava to the west and northwest.

Betsileo map

Identification. The Betsileo (Bts) are one of approximately twenty "ethnies," or ethnic units, into which Madagascar divides its population. The Betsileo began to use that term for themselves after their conquest by the Merina in the nineteenth century. Around 1830, their ancestors were incorporated as Betsileo Province, the sixth major subdivision of the Merina Empire, which conquered much of Madagascar. Before that date, several statelets and chiefdoms administered what is now the Betsileo homeland. The most prominent of those polities were Lalangina in the east and Isandra in the west.

Like other Malagasy, the Betsileo routinely use the words fomba (culture, customs) and fomban-drazana (ancestral ways of doing things) in discussing their culture and indicating its traditional nature and distinctiveness. "Tanin-drazana" (the land of the ancestors) is the word for "homeland."

Demography. The Betsileo population—408,000 in 1900 and 737,000 in 1964—stands around 1.5 million in the mid1990s. Supported by a productive rice-based economy and a diversified diet, the Betsileo rate of population increase, well above 3 percent per year, is one of the highest in Madagascar. As population has increased, Betsileo have migrated widely to other parts of Madagascar, including the extreme north.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Betsileo share with other Malagasy a linguistic and cultural descent from the Proto-Malagasy, a mixed African-Indonesian population that began to settle the island between 2,000 and 1,500 years ago. The Proto-Malagasy were most probably an oceangoing population who participated in a vast Indian Ocean trade network that tied Indonesia to points east and west. To the west, the Proto-Malagasy traveled along the Indian, Arabian, and East African shorelines, eventually reaching Madagascar, where the most ancient settlements have been found in the north, dating to around A . D . 500. A hybrid gene pool has been enriched over the centuries as Malagasy populations, especially on the coasts, have remained in an exchange system linking them to East Africa and even Arabia. This has led to the tremendous diversity in physical types observed among present-day Malagasy, including the Betsileo.

Malagasy languages and dialects are more closely interrelated than are the Romance languages derived from Latin. All of the former descend from Proto-Malagasy, a member of the Western Indonesian Subgroup of the Malayo-Polynesian Language Family. The dosest linguistic relatives of the Malagasy languages are spoken in southeastern Borneo; they include Maanyan and other languages and dialects in the Barito area.

The Proto-Malagasy soon differentiated into three groups, one in the north, one in the west and south, and the third—which includes the Betsileo—in the eastern and central parts of the island. There was a later split between east and central (Betsileo, Merina, Bezanozano, Sihanaka) subgroups. Merina (also known as Malagasy, the national language) is the closest linguistic relative of the Betsileo dialect; northern Betsileo is as closely related to Merina speech as it is to southern Betsileo speech.



The Betsileo live in hamlets, which surround villages. From north to south, the major administrative centers are Ambositra (northern Betsileo), Ambohimahasoa and Fianarantsoa (central Betsileo), and Ambalavao (southern Betsileo). Smaller towns, also with administrative and market functions, stand between these small cities and the village level. There is no standard size for Betsileo villages, which range from seventy-five to several hundred inhabitants. The usual rural settlement pattern is one of villages and hamlets located on high ground above valleys where rice is cultivated. Streams and rivers flow through these valleys, providing water and alluvial soils from rainy-season flooding, and, once canals have been constructed, water for irrigation of many of the rice fields. There is often a striking visual contrast between the bareness of a village, the houses and red ground of which stand out in the absence of trees, and the vivid colors of the vegetation below—the rice in the valleys and terraces and the secondary crops growing between the village and the rice fields. More rarely, settlements are located high in the hills above or below elaborate spring-fed rice terraces. Even more mountainous sites, atop massive granitic outcrops, were occupied in the past for purposes of defense.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Betsileo are peasants—agriculturists in a state-organized society. They grow rice, their preferred and staple food, on permanent plots that are cultivated with a single annual rice crop from year to year. Some fields are irrigated; others are rainfall-dependent. The irrigated fields may be transplanted in October; the others depend on the advent of November rains. Humped zebu cattle are essential to agriculture as most Betsileo practice it. Their dung, collected in stone semisubterranean corrals, is used as fertilizer. The cattle are attached to carts and used to pull plows and harrows, as well as to trample flooded fields after they have been plowed and tilled. There has been a historic shift from cattle (pastoralism) toward rice (intensive agriculture) throughout the Betsileo homeland, a trend that is most evident in the north and east. In the south and west especially, some Betsileo still breed and raise cattle, but most buy them in markets. Cattle are used to store wealth, as a means of production in the rice economy, and for ceremonial slaughter.

The Betsileo supplement a diet of rice and beef with other livestock (pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, turkeys; formerly goats and sheep) and many secondary crops: sweet manioc, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, taro, beans, cape peas, peanuts, maize, greens, tomatoes, onions, and bananas. Tobacco is grown as a cash crop. The Betsileo grow their own coffee and have many fruit trees, both tropical (e.g., mango, guava, passion fruit) and temperate (orange, lime, peach, plum, apricot). Occasional fishing is done in streams and rivers; eels are prized.

Industrial Arts. Houses are made of varied materials, including wattle and daub, bricks, and wood. The best houses are painted or whitewashed and have two or three stories, four to six rooms, tile roofs, and at least some brick or wood. The poorest houses have a single story with one or two rooms; their frames are wattle and daub and their roofs are composed of long grass collected on hillsides near the village. Works in stone dot the Betsileo landscape. These include monoliths raised to commemorate particular events, memorials of people who have died outside their homeland, and family tombs. The most common tomb is a rectangular semisubterranean structure rising about a meter above ground level. The Betsileo hire Merina masons to build their tombs. Modern tombs are of cement; more traditional structures are of small stones, like those used in the cattle corral. Along two or three walls inside the tomb are the beds (between six and nine) where the ancestors are deposited.

Trade. Coastal and interior Malagasy, including the Betsileo, have been linked for centuries through trade (including the slave trade), migration, raiding, and other kinds of contact and exchange. During the seventeenth century, southern highlanders were gradually exposed to various effects of the presence of European traders on the coasts. The emergence of the Sakalava as west coast subsidiaries of the Europeans eventually affected the highlands, as the Sakalava and other western-southern groups sought booty for trade through raiding. Europeans appear to have begun to exchange firearms with coastal Malagasy around 1660 to 1670 (Kent 1970); several decades were to elapse before firearms, exchanged for slaves, reached the Betsileo heartland. During the eighteenth century, muskets, bullets, and gunpowder became standard exchange items for cattle and slaves.

Market towns have a long tradition in central Madagascar, dating at least from the nineteenth century. Today varied products and produce, including beef and bread, are sold at weekly markets held throughout Betsileo country. Market towns hold market on the same day each week, and a given village usually has access to at least two such market towns. Ambalavao, in southern Betsileo country, has one of Madagascar's largest cattle markets. Cattle are taken there from the pastoral south and west (often by members of other ethnic groups, such as Bara and Antandroy) and are bought and taken as far north as I merina.

Division of Labor. On average, the Betsileo expend about 1,700 hours of human labor annually to farm one hectare of Tice land, and about 1,400 hours for the average household rice holding. A division of labor by age and gender is marked in the cultivation and preparation of rice. Before transplanting, an activity performed by women, takes place, fields are flooded. Young men drive cattle through the flooded field and excite them to a frenzy, and, as the cattle trample the field, they produce a mud of even consistency in which rice seedlings are transplanted. Armed with the characteristic angady, a long-handled spade (used also in bund cleaning and the maintenance of irrigation ditches), older men then arrive to break up clumps of earth the cattle have missed. At harvest time, men cut the rice, which women carry to the threshing floor, where they stack it. Older men and women stand on the stacked paddy stalks, stomping so as to compact the pile. After the paddy has dried, younger men thresh, against rocks, and older men use a stick to beat the paddy stalks to remove the remaining grain. All household members work together at winnowing and transport to the granary (as they do in weeding, the most arduous task in rice cultivation). Each day, women use mortars and pestles to pound the rice to remove the husks, and they cook and serve meals. Young boys and old men are the usual cattle guardians. Women tend other animals, especially fowl. The Betsileo lack pronounced gender stratification. Both men and women have been rulers. The Betsileo mention both in their genealogies and ancestral rites. Men and women of various ages sell produce in the marketplace and keep the cash they receive.

Land Tenure. Associated with localized corporate descent groups are estates consisting of tombs, houses, rice fields, water rights, woods (sometimes), and land used to graze cattle and cultivate secondary crops. The original settlers of an area are considered the owners or caretakers of the land. Later immigrants have obtained land through purchase, grants, and government distribution programs. Land may be sold and registered in an individual's name, but in areas where corporate descent remains strong, individuals are discouraged from selling land to nonrelatives. Legal disputes over access to land are common. Status differences are evident in landownership and house type. Older men, who control land, labor, and other strategic resources, also have the most elaborate homes.



Kin Groups and Descent. Betsileo kinship and descent is ambilineal (optative, nonexclusive), with a strong patrilineal bias. Most marriages are (patri)virilocal. A Betsileo is simultaneously a member of several descent groups. One is the local descent group, with whom a man resides and cultivates his main rice field, usually from his father's or father's father's estate, although fields may also be inherited through the mother. After marriage, a woman retains membership in the local descent group of her origin. When she dies, a delegation from her village will ask that she be buried in her ancestral tomb there. Such a request is usually denied, and she is buried in her husband's family tomb.

Aside from one's primary membership in a mostly patrilineal local descent group, a Betsileo (man or woman) also belongs to several totally ambilineal tomb-focused descent groups. People have the right to be buried in any tomb in which they have an ancestor. This can (in theory, but rarely in practice) extend back to eight great-grandparents. Betsileo maintain their membership in tomb groups by contributing to their construction costs and upkeep. Despite ambilineal rights, the social organization of the dead people in the tombs is patrilineally skewed because most people are buried in the tomb of their local descent group.

Descent groups are named; many are supralocal, with branches in several villages. The more prominent ones span regions and ancient political divisions. Some villages have a single named descent group; others have two or more. Each local descent group has its own tomb. Sometimes the coresidence of multiple descent groups in the same village is a continuation of phratry organization of the past, when three to five local descent groups banded together for defense or were united in the same political division (perhaps as an advisory council for a chief). In some villages (especially among recent migrants or descendants of slaves) descent is unimportant as an organizing principle.

In a 1966-1967 survey, 998 named descent groups were identified in the Betsileo homeland, spanning 1,300 settlements (Kottak 1980). About half of them existed only as local descent groups, confined to a single village. Another 154 spanned just two villages, whereas 244 were present in between 3 and 9 villages. Only 83 (less than 10 percent of the total) appeared as local descent groups in 10 or more villages. Just 16 named descent groups spanned 50 or more of the villages in the sample, with the largest and most geographically dispersed located in 183 villages. The larger and more expansive groups are those that have played major historic roles, as nobles and senior commoners (see "Social Organization"). The smaller groups include junior commoners, migrants, and descendants of slaves.

The Betsileo use fictive kinship rituals (e.g., that establishing blood siblinghood, vaki-ra ) to convert nonkin (including people from other ethnic groups, such as the Bara) into structural analogues of blood relatives. Fosterage (usually of relatives) is common; adoption (of nonrelatives) is allowed but rare.

Kinship Terminology. The Betsileo use generational terminology for the parental generation and Hawaiian terminology for Ego's generation. Siblings' children and own children are called by the same term ( zanaka ), as are children of the grandchild generation ( zafy ). Kin terms recognize age differences among siblings, distinguishing between older ( zoky ) and younger ( zandry ). The cross-parallel distinction, which does not show up in cousin terminology, is, however, implicit in the terms that brothers and sisters use for their siblings of the same and other gender. Raha- means "same," and ana- denotes "difference"; lahy means "male" and vavy, "female." Thus men refer to their brothers as rahalahy (same, male), and women refer to their sisters as rahavavy (same, female). Men's sisters are anabavy (different, female) and women's brothers are anadahy (different, male).

The Betsileo use teknonymy. Many parents change their name when a child (usually the first) is born. The terms for father and mother are ray and reny. 1f the child is named "Talata" (born on Tuesday), the father and mother will become "Rainitalata" (Tuesday's father) and "Renitalata" (Tuesday's mother), respectively.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. When Betsileo marry, a steer ( vodiondry; lit., sheep's rump) is traditionally given by the family of the groom to the family of the bride. Preferentially and usually, postmarital residence is patrivirilocal, but the couple may reside in the wife's village if land is more abundant or if men are scarce. Since French conquest, marriages have been registered with the government. In the past, polygyny was associated with wealth and political status. Wives usually resided in different settlements; men with multiple rice fields often maintained wives and family households in each location. Marriages are arranged and may be with cousins, except that marriage is tabooed for the children of sisters. There are few first-cousin marriages, which the Betsileo believe lead to impaired fertility and hereditary maladies. Marriage is permitted between members of different local branches of the same named descent group. Older women play a key role in arranging marriages. There are cases of infant betrothal; husbands are usually a few years older than their wives. Trial marriages are common, and couples may begin living together as teenagers. Frequently, a marriage is formalized only after the woman becomes pregnant. By custom, the first child is supposed to be born in its mother's village, where the husband does brief bride-service. The marriage is formalized when a party from the husband's village goes to the wife's village to bring her and the child back to his village, where they reside virilocally. Divorce is permitted, but uncommon. Status considerations are important in arranging a good marriage, and there is a tendency toward stratum endogamy (see "Social Organization").

Domestic Unit. There is no standard or ideal Betsileo household. Nuclear families occupy, on average, 40 to 45 percent of the households in a village. Expanded-family households are common in wealthier villages. Older people, who tend to head such households, control the larger fields and can support more people, including adult children, grandchildren, and foster children. Single-person and couple households tend to be found more often in poorer villages. Households go through a developmental cycle; those that begin with nuclear families often become expanded or couple households, depending on wealth and kin networks. Ultimogeniture governs the inheritance of houses. The youngest child tends to remain in the parental household longest and stay on after the death of one or both parents.

Inheritance. Most men eventually inherit (part of) their father's estate, but Betsileo may also cultivate fields inherited through the mother. The disposition of land and other resources is subject to national law, but most estates are cultivated and passed on in accordance with tradition. When an old man dies, his oldest son customarily allocates the estate among himself and his brothers, usually taking the most productive field for himself. Because a women is expected to have the benefits of her husband's estate, she generally receives no rice fields of her own; however, husbands and sons of such a woman are sometimes allowed to cultivate her ancestral estate (and reside with or join her local descent group) if need is great, or if her father has few male heirs, or none. The inheritance rights transmitted through women are guaranteed in national law and can be enforced legally when kin become enmeshed in a legal dispute.

Socialization. Enculturation is an informal process that goes on in the community rather than principally in the parental household. Besides parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings are important socializing agents. It is common for a child to be fostered by an aunt, uncle, or grandparent for several years. Discipline of children is neither marked nor severe. For generations, education has been highly valued, and most boys and girls study through primary school. Under the French, and continuing for several years after independence, many Betsileo children learned both French and Malagasy languages. As a result of nationalization programs of the 1970s and 1980s, French instruction lagged. It is not unusual today for high school graduates to speak only Malagasy.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Betsileo have a complex system of social stratification. Social distinctions dating back a century or more continue to have salience. Indigenous rulers, nobles, and their descendants are called hova Betsileo; commoners are known as olompotsy, and slave descendants may be called hovavao. Domestic slavery was widespread in Madagascar until the French declared its end in 1895. People were enslaved as prisoners of war and for certain crimes. Eventually, slaves were sold in markets; slave status was inherited. Like other Malagasy with a history of slavery, the Betsileo avoid (as they must, by law) the highly stigmatized term andevo, but slave ancestry remains a cause for shame and discrimination. Within the commoner stratum, there is an important distinction between junior and senior commoners. The latter were important advisors to—and checks on—the power of Betsileo chiefs and rulers. Today there is little or no evident wealth contrast between descendants of nobles and those of senior commoners. The tendency toward stratum endogamy is most marked for slave descendants.

Political Organization. For about three centuries, the Betsileo have lived in state-organized societies, first under their own rulers (sing. mpanjaka —the general Malagasy term for chief, king, or queen), after 1830 under Merina administrators, and subsequently, following its annexation of Madagascar in 1896, under the rule of France. The Malagasy Republic gained independence in 1960. There has been a marked deterioration of state control since the 1970s.

The main political units in the southern highlands before Merina conquest were Lalangina (east), Isandra (west), and the various statelets and chiefdoms of Arindrano (south). The largest of the southern highlands polities were Isandra and Lalangina. The process of state formation had advanced furthest in the latter. South of these were the six formerly independent polities that the Merina overlords eventually designated collectively as Arindrano: northern and southern Vohibato, Tsienimparihy, Manambolo, Lalanindro, and Homatrazo. In the eighteenth century, the commitment to agriculture was greatest in Lalangina and northern Vohibato, although wet-rice cultivation was spreading south and west.

Social Control. In addition to formal political organization (rulers, chiefs, their agents, and those of modern government) social control is a feature of the kinship system. Men are obliged to work for their fathers and older brothers. The oldest son is said to replace the father. Modern village chiefs, who fill formal government positions, have limited authority; often they are mere "errand boys," young men chosen by the elders to deal with external authorities. Real local authority is vested in the village elders, male and female, who have regular meetings to hear cases, discuss issues, and make decisions.

Conflict. Among the chiefdoms and petty states of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, war and raids were endemic, as fortified sites attest. The more effective Betsileo polities (especially Lalangina) maintained internal security, which was extended under the Merina, French, and early Malagasy Republic regimes. At present, with the collapse of state control, cattle rustling and banditry pose a serious threat to law and order in Betsileo territory. Legal disputes, especially over land, are common; they are usually resolved—often after protracted litigation—in formal courts in administrative towns.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Christian missionaries have been active in Madagascar since the nineteenth century, and most Betsileo are either Catholics or Protestants. The Betsileo also continue to observe many aspects of their pre-Christian religion. Their supernatural realm includes beings, powers, and forces. Among the beings are deities, souls, ancestral spirits, ghosts of evildoers and legendary beings, and spirits of nature and water. The pre-Christian Betsileo recognized a creator god (still invoked to initiate ceremonies), Andriananahary or Zanahary, but he had little to do with human affairs. Christian missionaries chose another Malagasy deity, Andriamanitra, the sweet lord or fragrant prince, as equivalent to the Christian God. The Betsileo also recognize a manalike efficacious force called hasina —a sacred essence that flows from the land through ancestors to living people and into the sociopolitical order.

An exuberant ceremonial season spans July and, especially, August, the agricultural off-season. The largest ceremonies center on ancestral tombs. Besides funerals, which occur throughout the year, the most important ceremonial event is a famadihana —an occasion to enter tombs, remove, and rewrap corpses. Among the Betsileo, the most lavish famadihana occur when a new tomb is inaugurated, and mortal remains are carried to it from one or more old tombs. When large groups of people assemble for funerals and ceremonies, cattle are slaughtered, and meat is distributed.

Religious Practitioners. The knowledge that diviners, curers, and witches have of words, techniques, paraphernalia, and persons is dependent, in part, on their manipulation of hasina. Witches may cause illness and death from a distance by manipulating occult powers; sorcerers use actual poisons. Hasina has a malicious aspect, called fiery, which can be used to attack people and the social order. The dualism of the concept permits its use in explaining both illness and curing and both the quality that makes something taboo ( fady ) and the force that punishes taboo violations.

Specialists among the Betsileo include curers and diviners (see "Medicine"), as well as astrologers, who calculate "day and destiny." For a newborn child, an astrologer routinely determines—on the basis of the day, date, time of birth, and zodiac sign—that child's lifetime horoscope ( vintana ). Astrologers suggest ways of combating dangerous or unfortunate destinies. Astrology is also used to set dates of ceremonies and to schedule and coordinate agricultural activities.

Arts. The major traditional Betsileo art was the weaving of raw silk coverings called Jamba; these served as colorful mantles for the living and funerary shrouds for the dead. Through the early twentieth century, there was an active husbandry of silkworms in southern Betsileo country. In Tsienimparihy, one of the Arindrano statelets, the ruler collected silk as tribute and oversaw the manufacture and distribution of lamba landy, the most magnificent shrouds, due individuals of high status on burial. Factory manufacture has by and large supplanted the local weaving of lamba. As noted, Merina masons have taken over Betsileo tomb manufacture; Merina musicians also play at Betsileo funerals and ceremonies. The Betsileo have abandoned their traditional tattooing (Dubois 1938), but women still coif elaborate hairdos.

Medicine. Betsileo cosmology recognizes no conditions or events that lack cause, and causes are often personalistic. Diviners determine causes by examining patterns of seeds and beans as they fall in a gridlike setting. Diviners function as diagnosticians and curers; they are paid for their work. Causes of illness, sterility, diminished prosperity, or other misfortune include malicious use of occult powers by living people, ancestral displeasure, infringement of taboos, spirit possession, loss of soul, and action by ghosts. Once a diagnosis is made, the diviner suggests a course of action designed to effect a cure. This usually requires sacrificing an ox. Medical specialists also prepare, dispense, and prescribe concoctions made from native roots, barks, leaves, and pieces of wood, sometimes obtained from colleagues in the Tanala forest. A variety of these remedies is available in local markets.

Death and Afterlife. Upon death, at least two spirits leave the body. One goes to Ambondrombe, a mountain in Tanala country to the southeast, or nowadays to heaven or hell, and has no more to do with the living. The other ( ambiroa ) stays nearby, wandering the hills, occasionally invading homes and dreams. Ambiroa are summoned to receive offerings from the living at the start of any tomb-centered ceremony, the focus of Betsileo religion.