The Bezanozano are believed to be one of the earliest Malagasy ethnic groups to establish themselves in Madagascar, where they inhabit an inland area between the Betsimisaraka lowlands and the Merina highlands. They are associated with the vazimba, the earliest inhabitants of Madagascar, and the many vazimba tombs throughout Bezanozano territory are sites of pilgrimage, ritual and sacrifice, although the Bezanozano believe the descendants among them of these most ancient of ancestors cannot be identified or known. Their name means "those of many small plaits" in reference to their traditional hairstyle, and like the Merina they practice the famadihana reburial ceremony. There were around 100,000 Bezanozano living in Madagascar in 2013.
The slave trade and commerce with European trading vessels along the east coast of Madagascar in the 18th century greatly enriched the Bezanozano and led to the emergence of major trading towns such as Ambatondrazaka and Moramanga in their homeland of Ankay. They were initially forced into vassalage by king Andrianampoinimerina of the Kingdom of Imerina in the late 18th century and then fully subdued and colonized in 1817 by his son, King Radama I.
Under Merina rule, the Bezanozano were heavily forced into unpaid labor to transport goods between the Merina capital of Antananarivo and the coastal port of Toamasina, leading to massive depopulation of the Ankay region and impoverishment of the villagers. The name Bezanozano became synonymous with "slave". Efforts to improve economic opportunities for the Bezanozano began following French colonization in 1896, and after independence in 1960 a local movement emerged to abandon notions of historic class affiliation that were holding communities back. Today agriculture remains the primary livelihood of Bezanozano villagers.
The Bezanozano were only briefly an organized polity and do not share a strong internal cohesive identity. Their name means "those of many small plaits" in reference to their traditional hairstyle. The center of the Bezanozano community at its height in the late 18th century was the town of Ambatondrazaka. There were around 100,000 Bezanozano living in Madagascar in 2013.
Gender roles in traditional Bezanozano families are strictly defined. Men are the active participants in discussions about public affairs, and are responsible for house construction, earning money to pay for basic family needs, and preparing the paddy fields for planting. Women are responsible for weaving, tending crops, collecting water, tending the hearth and preparing meals. Similarly, women were traditionally expected to follow behind when walking with a man. Bezanozano men working as porters used to believe that if a woman passed in front of him while he worked, he would be injured the next time he attempted to carry a load.
The Bezanozano cultivate rice in terraced, irrigated paddies and prefer not to cut down virgin forest, as they contain vazimba tombs and other natural sites favored by spirits and are the home of the fady-protected indri lemurs. The neighboring Betsimisaraka, however, tend to seek out new forest to cut down for fresh pasture and planting, and consider uncultivated land as unclaimed.
This difference of perspective has led the Betsimisaraka to encroach on land that the Bezanozano believe belongs to them, producing some tension among bordering communities.
Indirect speech, discretion, tact and avoidance of conflict mark verbal expression and social interactions among the Bezanozano, similar to the highland Merina but in contrast with the Betsimisaraka of the east coast.
The Bezanozano speak a dialect of the Malagasy language, which is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language group derived from the Barito languages, spoken in southern Borneo.
Most Bezanozano practice the veneration of ancestors (razana), who in ritual were sometimes referred to as zanahary (gods). They recognized the existence of male and female zanahary, who were effectively the most ancient and most powerful of all the ancestors, and who were invoked anonymously and collectively under the zanahary title in order to avoid excluding and thereby offending any ancestor. The tompontany (masters of the land) are the vazimba, the island's earliest inhabitants; they are distinct from the razana in that it is believed impossible to trace the descendants of these ancestors. All ancient tombs or earthen tomb-shaped mounds are believed to be those of vazimba and so are sites of pilgrimage, sacrifice and ritual to appease their spirits and request their favorable intervention. The Bezanozano also believe in sorcery and fear witchcraft. Although Protestant missionaries and churches became established in the Ankay region particularly in the later 19th century, Merina settlers constitute the majority of Christians in the region; very few Bezanozano have converted to Protestantism.
In Ambatondrazaka and among certain other Bezanozano communities, consumption of pork has historically been fady. The Indri was probably considered taboo in many Bezanozano villages, where it may not be killed or eaten, must be freed if trapped, and must be buried with the same rites as a person.
The Bezanozano traditionally bury their dead in stone tombs. Like the Merina, they practice the famadihana reburial ceremony. Funerals are celebrated by drinking large quantities of rum.
The Betatoato is a dance that is unique to the Bezanozano.
Honey is collected from the forest and sold at market or roadside stands. Historically honey had an important role in Merina royal rituals, and the Bezanozano were considered the best honey collectors. Agriculture remains the principal livelihood for Bezanozano villagers, who grow rice, corn, beans and other staples; a practice specific to this region is vary verina, the growing of rice on a higher terrace and the growing of beans and corn on the terrace below it. The historic impact of Merina colonization of the Ankay region continues to be felt, with the majority of wealth and much of the most valuable land concentrated in the hands of Merina families.