PARIS (AFP) - Several dozen Indonesian women founded the colonisation of Madagascar 1,200 years ago, scientists said on Wednesday in a probe into one of the strangest episodes in the human odyssey.

Anthropologists are fascinated by Madagascar, for the island remained aloof from mankind’s conquest of the planet for thousands of years.

It then became settled by mainland Africans but also by Indonesians, whose home is 8,000 kilometres (5,000 miles) away.

A team led by molecular biologist Murray Cox of New Zealand’s Massey University delved into DNA for clues to explain the migration riddle.

They looked for markers handed down in chromosomes through the maternal line, in DNA samples offered by 266 people from three ethnic Malagasy groups.

Twenty-two percent of the samples had a local variant of the “Polynesian motif,” a tiny genetic characteristic that is found among Polynesians, but rarely so in western Indonesia. In one Malagasy ethnic group, one in two of the samples had this marker. If the samples are right, about 30 Indonesian women founded the Malagasy population “with a much smaller, but just as important, biological contribution from Africa,” it says.

The study focussed only on mitrochondrial DNA, which is transmitted only through the mother, so it does not exclude the possibility that Indonesian men also arrived with the first women. Computer simulations suggest the settlement began around 830 AD, around the time when Indonesian trading networks expanded under the Srivijaya Empire of Sumatra.