Fossils and Taboos: What to expect when doing paleontological fieldworks in Madagascar

By Tsiory Andrianavalona

I’ve been working in the field of Nosy Makamby, a small island off the coast of Madagascar, since 2010. On a typical day, I wake up early and dress in my trekking shoes, a wide straw hat on my head, trousers and a long-sleeve T-shirt to hide every single surface of my skin from the burning hot sun of this northwestern part of Madagascar.

Nosy Makamby is a gem for paleontologists working on Miocene sedimentary formations in Madagascar. This small island is geologically rich, its sedimentary layers are very fossiliferous, and our discoveries until now are very encouraging. The proximity of the sea also brings in fresh breezes which are very welcome under the hot sun of August. I do love my job–it allows me to work with amazing teammates and discover my country from North to South. As a scientist, I tend to be objective and rational, but through my paleontological field experiences, I was exposed more than once to unusual situations that are tightly tied to people’s beliefs.

Team at work in Nosy Makamby (Photo credit: Tsiory Andrianavalona)

Like many places in Madagascar, Nosy Makamby has its share of taboos (or “fady” as we call it in Malagasy). The first time our team came to work in the island, the local guide warned us about multitude of practices that, according to his tribal beliefs, would bring us bad luck if not respected.

The Sakalava–a tribe living in this part of Madagascar–strongly believe that if we disregard those fady, the ancestors will harm or punish us by jeopardizing our work or hiding the fossils from us. As with many places on the west coast of Madagascar, it is forbidden to point at any spot with your finger–you must bend it if you want to gesture towards something. It is also prohibited to dump any kind of trash in the mainland–unfortunately, this also includes going to the bathroom, which requires a lot of “creative solutions”.

Taboos also affect our diet in Nosy Makamby: peas and peanuts are forbidden (too bad for those of us who brought some peanut butter energy bar for snacks!) When it comes to the core of our paleontological work in the field, people in rural regions often become suspicious when they hear that we are digging to find “old bones”, as bones are sacred for the Malagasy people, and represent their ancestors.

Because of these concerns in our paleontological sites, our scientific team always takes the time to teach and explain to people about our work before we start digging. We explain that we are not stealing the bones from a tomb, but are looking for the remains of extinct animals.

” Vatolahy” representing the ancestors surrounded by gifts (rum, honey, candies, coins) in the fomba site. (Photo credit: Tsiory Andrianavalona)

Often, before we are permitted to work in a certain location, we work with the community to make what they called a “fomba”–a ceremony to ask permission from the ancestors to dig in their land. Fomba vary by location, but in Makamby they tend to be very elaborate. Team members plus a local guide sit around what they called “vatolahy”–two stones that represent the ancestors. The local guide then calls the spirit of the ancestors, asks them to be kind and to give us a fruitful field season, and once his speech is done we present a number of “gifts” (e.g., candies, honey, coins, sugar, rum) in front of the stones to honor the ancestors. It’s only after completing this fomba, that we can begin our fieldwork.

These local customs may not have much to do with the paleontology we go into the field to accomplish, but they are a very important part of life in the field. They also contribute to the adventure side of our work and makes for unforgettable anecdotes to share.

Featured image at the top of the post:  Team members after completing the” fomba” to ask permission to the ancestor according to Sakalava’s tribe beliefs (Photo credit: Jean Luc Raharison)

Tsiory Andrianavalona is a paleontologist from Madagascar and a National Geographic Young Explorer whose passion for ancient life forms and environment of the past led her to work on Madagascar’s fossil sharks. She is also dedicating her efforts to inspire interest and love for STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematic) fields among kids and youth who are, not only the next generation of scientists, but also Madagascar’s future important decision and change makers.

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