Change, continuity and cultural identity as traced through the people and place of Ambohimanga, Madagascar
This thesis is about the Tsimahafotsy Merina of Ambohimanga, Madagascar, and the relationship between their collective concept of cultural identity and the cultural landscape in which they live. The Tsimahafotsy, once the dominant cultural group on the island have, over the last century, lost their political and social dominance, yet they remain united in a position of perceived privilege and power, a situation which inspired my thesis question: How did the Tsimahafotsy Merina build and maintain such a distinct, coherent and enduring sense of cultural identity in spite of significant and prolonged forces of change? I argue that the Tsimahafotsy have built and maintained their position as a result of a shared concept of socio-cosmic order in which they hold a dominant position, with their ancestors and tradition serving as a mediating mechanism to excessive change. Although the Tsimahafotsy appear to have undergone significant political, economic, social and cultural transformations from the early phases of their history to the present, evolution has in fact been conservative and additive, and the fundamental imago mundi upon which the Tsimahafotsy's collective identity is based has therefore remained consistently intact. I attempt to demonstrate that the cultural landscape of Ambohimanga has played a significant part in creating and maintaining this "ideal" socio-cosmic order over time, through its role as a powerful communication system. The order has been explicitly and symbolically mapped onto Ambohimanga's cultural landscape (an integral part of the Tsimahafotsy's everyday and ritual lives) as it slowly and additively evolved from the early phases of Tsimahafotsy history to the present. As with their political, economic, social and cultural world, the forces of change that the Tsimahafotsy have encountered have exerted influence over Ambohimanga's cultural landscape, but this has been largely surface change. When we peel back the layers by considering archeological and anthropological sources together (a method I call "archaeological anthropology"), a fundamental continuity of meaning for those initiated into this powerful visual language is revealed. Thus, as a result of their conservative approach to change, the visual vocabulary of Ambohimanga's cultural landscape has remained comprehensible to the Tsimahafotsy, and its meaning consistent - thereby playing a significant role in the Tsimahafotsy's rise to a position of domination in Imerina and Madagascar, and maintaining their collective image of themselves as privileged and powerful despite current political and economic realities.