The Malagasy people are the result of the intermingling of immigrants. The original immigrants are believed to have been members of an Afro-Malagasy race that lived on the East African littoral. Later arrivals were Africans, Arabs, and, much more recently, immigrants from Europe, China, and India.
The distinct African ethnic groups now recognized represent the political groupings forged before the arrival of the first Europeans. The major ethnic groups, according to 1998 numbers, are the Malayo-Indonesian (Merina and related Betsileo), Cotiers (mixed African, Malayo-Indonesian, and Arab ancestry—Betsimisaraka, Tsimihety, Antaisaka, and Sakalava). The Merina (about 25% of the population) and Betsileo (about 12%) live in the central highlands and show evidence of Asian origin, while the coastal peoples, such as the Betsimisaraka, Tsimihety, and Sakalava, are of predominantly African origin.
The Merina have been the ascendant group since the late 18th century. The course that colonialism took in Madagascar strengthened their domination of the political and intellectual life of the island. Resentment of the Merina and their dominant position by the other ethnic groups is still a source of social unrest.
There are also significant numbers of French, Indian, Creole, and Comoran peoples.