The Mikea are one of the last peoples left in Madagascar – and indeed the entire world – practicing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They are thought to number no more than 1,500, most of whom live within the forests here, hunting animals like birds and tenrecs as well as gathering fruits and tubers from their surrounding habitat. Although leading lives far removed from most Malagasy (a term denoting any person from Madagascar), the Mikea are not entirely nomadic. Some groups engage in farming practices, cultivating corn and manioc during the dry season.
The Mikea’s lifestyle and relative isolation from other peoples has led to them achieving an almost mystical reputation with other Malagasy, who incorporate them into myths and legends associated with the traditional spirits of the forest. Dance, music and mask-making form key parts of their spiritual lives, and the Mikea also practice a kind of polyphonic communication based on hiccups and falsetto voices which marks them out yet further from Madagascar’s other peoples.
Some believe the Mikea to in fact be descendants of the mythical Vazimba, the original inhabitants of Madagascar who are said to have colonised the island over 2,000 years ago. Researchers have reached a less fantastical but no less compelling conclusion: that the Mikea are instead descended from villagers who fled their homes to escape from invading armies in the mid-20th century, villagers who then remained in the forests and adopted a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in order to survive.
Today the Mikea continue to practice their traditional way of life, and at least for those living within the borders of Mikea National Park, their customs are mostly protected from the encroachment of the modern world. When exploring the park’s savannahs and spiny forests, look for traces of this fascinating people: holes bored into baobab trees to serve as water reservoirs, huts made from grass, clay and tree bark, or bee hives harvested for their honey. With luck, you may be able to meet the Mikea yourself, and come to understand their connection to the natural world that is unique among inhabitants of Madagascar.