The settlement of Madagascar is one of the most unusual, and least understood, episodes in human prehistory. Madagascar was one of the last landmasses to be reached by people, and despite the island's location just off the east coast of Africa, evidence from genetics, language and culture all attests that it was settled jointly by Africans, and more surprisingly, Indonesians. Nevertheless, extremely little is known about the settlement process itself. Here, we report broad geographical screening of Malagasy and Indonesian genetic variation, from which we infer a statistically robust coalescent model of the island's initial settlement. Maximum-likelihood estimates favour a scenario in which Madagascar was settled approximately 1200 years ago by a very small group of women (approx. 30), most of Indonesian descent (approx. 93%). This highly restricted founding population raises the possibility that Madagascar was settled not as a large-scale planned colonization event from Indonesia, but rather through a small, perhaps even unintended, transoceanic crossing.