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."
Location. 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.
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.