Tag - Prehistory

Prehistory of Sri Lanka 1 : the beginning of a long journey

Chandima Bandara Ambanwala

Department of Archaeology & Heritage Management, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka, Mihintale.


Translated by: Chryshane Mendis

Chandima Bandara Ambanwala


Sri Lanka stands out as one of the foremost amoung the few countries in the world with a continuous written history. Since the introduction of Buddhism from India, Buddhist scholars keen on writing down the history of the Sasana had written the Deepavamsa, Mahavamsa and various other chronicles and literature continuously from the 3rd century BC up to the present.  The main aim of the early literature was to record the history of the Sasana in the island thus the recording of human settlements did not seem important to the writer. According to the great Chronicle Mahavamsa, the human habitation of the island called Lanka took place with the arrival of Prince Vijaya. Accordingly, most scholars of history believe the island was made a human settlement with the arrival of immigrants from North India speaking an Aryan language around the 5th century BC. Prof.Senerath Paranavitana believed the pioneers for the cultivation of Indo-Aryan settlers were Traders. Certain scholars also suggest that the island was colonized by the Tamils who made South India their homeland. But historical and archaeological investigations have provided little evidence to prove this theory. There are also other theories on the human colonization of the island but are neglected due to the lack of a strong basis for them.


By the time of Emperor Ashoka of India, the Sinhalese who had come from North India speaking an Aryan language had by this time settled in many parts of the island and begun agriculture, farming, industries, and trade for their living and had developed their lifestyle to a considerable level. From this background, the history of Sri Lanka could be revealed from local and foreign sources. Taking it simply, before Sri Lanka was settled by immigrants from North India, was the island inhabited? Or according to the Mahavamsa and North Indian literary sources such as the Divyavadana, Sinhalavadana was the island inhabited by supernatural people who could change their form as they wished? During the past 125 years due to the limitless efforts of both local and foreign scholars, these questions have been answered to a considerable extent by Archaeologists and other experts. But the knowledge generated from such studies has mostly been limited due to it either being in English or being introduced only to Archaeology (Special) students in Universities. This knowledge, created by the usage of public funds for the discovery of the past of our people and not being made known to the general public is a matter of concern. There is a great need for the study of the prehistory of Sri Lanka to be made known to the society as the prehistoric man being not only the ancestor of our people but also forming the base for the formation of our proud history.

There is little opportunity for the school students to study the story of the prehistoric man who made his home in the island more than 2500 years ago.  There is even less opportunity for the general public in this regard. Through this article, I hope to give a brief introduction to the story of the prehistoric man of Sri Lanka who lived thousands of years ago and how our ancestors interacted with the environment for their survival. The continuing of an academic work on the internet needs comments from readers. Hence kindly note that the continuing of this article series depends on the positive and negative feedback received.

History and Prehistory

In the study of human history, if a time period could be studied using written records or literary sources, it could be considered as History. Scholars in general state that the written evidence in Sri Lanka starts from the 3rd century BC. It is believed that the Brahmi script used by Emperor Ashoka in his letters of the Dharma was introduced to the island with the arrival of the Most Ven. Mahinda and thus the people learnt the art of recording. As these incidents took place in the 3rd century BC, it is accepted that the written records start from around that period. (But Dr. Siran Deraniyagala has been able to rationally prove that the use of script in the island dates back 2-3 centuries prior). Inscriptions using such script can be found in the thousands throughout the island on rock shelters offered to monks. Some of the best examples of these can be found in Anuradhapura from sites such as Mihinthale, Vessagiriya, and also in Sithulpavva. As said before, it is accepted that these inscriptions belong to the 3rd century or later and through these inscriptionsPalaeolithicwe could get a good understanding of our history. Accordingly, the period from the writing of such inscriptions up unto the present can be stated as History or the Historic period.

Skeleton of Balangoda Man excavated from the area of Bellanbandipalassa in Ambilipitiya during the 1950s. (Taken from The Pleistocene of Ceylon by Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala)

As such the period before writing or the period before the historic period is known as the Prehistoric period. Though the Deepavamsa, Mahavamsa and other literary sources stats briefly of this period, the information given cannot be believed or understood properly. Certain sources describe Yakshyas (demons) and Nagas (snakes) like humans living in the island. Archaeologists have identified an intermediate period between Historic and Prehistoric periods known as the Proto-historic period. This period can be identified as a period where evidence of a certain form of writing is found but cannot be distinguished as a proper form of communication. This Proto-historic period can also be called as the dawn of the historic period. It is believed that the people living in this era were quite familiar with iron technology, animal husbandry, and small-scale agriculture. From archaeological evidence, this Proto-historic period existed approximately 1000 B.C. to 300 B.C.

An individual studying prehistory will not be able to take information and data from literary sources as this predates the historical period. Therefore they will have to rely on non-literary sources for data and information. The non-literary sources would be human and animal bones, stone tools, food leftovers, coal, parts of plants, pollen, landscape, soil layer etc. In archaeology these are known as material factors and prehistory is totally based on such sources.

Based on archaeological research conducted by various people, human settlements have been traced to over 125,000 years ago in Sri Lanka. But this knowledge is limited to only a minority of people both local and international. Accordingly, we have become a people knowledgeable of and speaking of only a 2,500 year history. As we speak of a proud heritage of a hydraulic-agrarian culture after the advent of Buddhism and achieving much during 2,500 years it is just as important to know the prehistoric and proto-historic history of Sri Lanka; because our true prehistory could be overshadowed by illusions of unsupported incompatible theories in the minds of our people destroying the reality.

Historical periods

Archaeologists have been able to divide the time period of Sri Lanka’s long history into several ages based on the socio-technological features in order to study it.  Conducting research for several years Dr.Siran Upendra Deraniyagala has been able to successfully classify the different phases of history. Based on this classification of the ages it is possible to gain a formal understanding of the history of the island. The time periods in this article are based on the following epochal classification.

125,000 B.C.(or even before) to 1000 B.C. – prehistoric age
(Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic periods)

1000 B.C. to 500 B.C. – Proto historic iron age

500 B.C. to 300 A.D. – Early historic period

300 A.D. to 1,200 A.D. –  Middle historic period

1,200 A.D. to 1,500 A.D. – Late historic period

1,500 A.D. to 1,815 A.D. – Modern historic period

In Sri Lanka and anywhere in the world, the form of prehistoric technology was stone technology.  Stone implements were the main technology of the prehistoric era and based on the various developmental stages throughout the ages, they are divided as Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic eras.  In prehistoric Sri Lanka, the prehistoric man of the Mesolithic era is famously known as the Balangoda Man. Evidence of this prehistoric man was first found in the Balangoda area by Dr.P.E.P Deraniyagala. Following the worldwide archaeological method of naming a find by the name of the location it is first discovered at, so the remains of the prehistoric man being first found from the Balangoda area was thus named as the Balangoda Man. Accordingly, any remains of the prehistoric man found from anywhere else in the island would still be called as the Balangoda Man. From the anatomical remains of the modern man found around the world, archaeologists point out the remains from Sri Lanka as belonging to some of the oldest remains ever found. The Balangoda Man led a nomadic lifestyle who hunted any animals he could catch, from baby elephants to snakes and ate all edible fruits, yams, leaves and flowers using stone implements made from rocks such as quartz, chert and crystalline.

Thus the purpose of this article is to bring to light the story of the prehistoric man beginning from 125,000 years ago or even 500,000 years ago down to us in the present, or simply the story of Man in Sri Lanka from the prehistoric times to the present.

It is important to keep in mind the following passage quoted from a 1956 publication of E. J. Wayland, a geologist who took a keen interest in the prehistoric era of Sri Lanka on the limits and complexity of this subject.

“There are so many Problems of Prehistory in the island that a Lifetime’s research would not suffice to solve all. The history Ceylon and its Peoples, Past and Present, Cannot be represented by a volume,
but only by a Library” 

The prehistory of Sri Lanka and her people should not be learned just for the comforting of the mind but also to create a path of rehabilitation for the future.

Fa-hien Cave (Pahiyanlena), another habitat of the Balangoda Man

List of references (this article has been compiled using data and information from works of scholars both local and foreign but have omitted the references within the article for the ease of reading. Therefore the writer and archaeology.lk wish to thank and honor the scholars, whose works have aided this article. If a reader finds a paragraph unclear or wishes to know a reference please use the comment option given to which the writer or this website would reply at their earliest.)

An Excavation of a Shell-midden at Pallemalla in Southern Littoral area of Sri Lanka: Some Evidence of Prehistoric Chenier Occupation in c. 4th millennium BC*

Pallemalla in Southern Littoral area of Sri Lanka

Fig 1.1 The sites mentioned in the textRaj Somadeva1 and Sudevi Ranasinghe2

1Senior Lecturer, Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Colombo, 2Researcher, Department of Archaeology, Colombo.


A rescue excavation conducted in a prehistoric generic cialis online shell-midden identified in the littoral area of southern Sri Lanka had revealed a substantial set of information pertaining to the coastal adaptation of the prehistoric communities in Sri Lanka in c. fourth millennium BC. Seven human skeletons were excavated. The faunal remains associated with the prehistoric levels at the site show a wide range of exploitative selection of the prehistoric subsistence pattern in the dry-arid maritime littoral eco zone of the country. The article presents a preliminary account of the discovery.


Cheniers are a distinctive coastal landform appearing in the tropical regions in association with lagoon environments. Morphologically they are low height ridges, which comprise of shell or shelly sand formed on coastal wetlands. The geological characteristics of Cheniers were first described by Russell & Howe (1935) and subsequently the formation processes of this geological feature have been widely discussed (e.g. Chappell & Grindrod, 1984; Augustinius et al., 1989; Anthony, 1989; Zhao, 1989; Short, 1989). The major morphological characteristic of the Cheniers is their association with coastal wetlands of marshy mangroves (e.g. Price, 1955). The low height relief of such formations is well drained and form elevated plains, which separate from the wet and muddy local surroundings. These morphological characteristics had profoundly influenced the habitational choice of the coastal prehistoric groups resulting in a tendency for the appearance of seasonal/temporary prehistoric camps on Chenier ridge surfaces. However these physical characteristics were not the only reason for the attraction of the prehistoric groups to select such locations for occupation and one of the other crucial factors is the abundance of food resources including marine molluscs and seaweeds in the vicinity (Bell, 1981; Hogarth, 1999). Several such prehistoric shell-middens bordering the Indian Ocean waters have been archaeologically examined. A notable example is the case reported from the coast of Oman peninsular that has been dated to the 5th millennium BCE (cleuziou, 2004: 141).


Fig 1.2: A graph showing the annual rainfall in the south and southeastern Sri Lanka

The formation of culturally induced middens on coastal ridges is the result of prehistoric human occupations. Prehistoric shell-middens comprise discarded shells of different shell species together with the residues of other exploitable marine species. The existence of faunal remains of different terrestrial animal species in Pallemalala (see below) may suggest a prevalence of a mixed mode of subsistence strategy perhaps triggered by the environmental constraints. Cyclical droughts are experienced even today in the area and the occurrences of such events have been historically documented as well (Sammohavinodani 316-317).

Exploitation of a wide variety of alternative resources by the prehistoric coastal populations has been reported from different regions in the world (e.g. Minc and Smith, 1989: 11; Hall, 1986: 5).


Pallemalala is a hamlet situated in the southern littoral area of Sri Lanka (Fig 1.1). Administratively it belongs to the Hambantota district of the Southern province. The annual climatic regime of the area is severely dry and arid signified by the mean annual rainfall of < 1000 mm. The annual temperature variations of the area are outlined below (Fig. 1.2 & 1.3).

The present hamlet lies about 1.5 km north of the sea in the landward direction. At some places between the sea and presently inhabited area, several patchy pockets of lagoons are discernible. The most prominent geo-morphological characters of the landscape are those lagoons and the formation of a shell-bed. The shell-bed appearance is a common coastal geo­morphological character of the area from Tangalle to Bundala (Fig. 1.4) in southern Sri Lanka. They appear as highly concentrated pockets of shell accumulation and sometime extend up to 4 km towards the landward direction. The formation of these shell-beds has been discussed in-relation to the Holocene marine geological activities. Katupotha has tended to ascribe the formation of these shell-beds with the mid-Holocene high sea-level episodes that was initiated in 6240 BP. It resulted in;

‘………the bulk of the shell valves of these shell beds have been piled up by exceptional storm wave action on mounds, in lagoons and lake bottoms…..’ (1995: 50).


The annual temperature fluctuations in the south and southeastern Sri Lanka

Fig 1.3: A graph showing the annual temperature fluctuations in the south and southeastern Sri Lanka


The shell bed area from Tangalle to Bundala

Fig 1.4: The shell bed area from Tangalle to Bundala (after Katupotha 1995).

However the formation of the shell-beds has been broadly considered as a major coastal morphological indicator of the Younger or Older Peron episodes of sea-level fluctuations. In the Pacific region, the Younger Peron beaches of 3m ( msl) has been dated to 49003600 BP (Fairbridge, 1976: 533) while those of similar character in Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Ahmad, 1972: 185) and Maharashtra and Saurashtra of western India have secured parallel dates (Agrawal and Avasia et al., 1973: 15). Deraniyagala (1992: 701) has correlated the 3800 BP date obtained for the final stage of the prehistoric occupation at Matota with the dates of Younger Peron high sea level occurrence. Pallemalala shell-bed of 4.40m ( msl) seems an exception in terms of elevation but the prehistoric occupation there was earlier to that of Matota. According to Deraniyagala, the techno-complex of Matota finds are Mesolithic in character and further evidence suggest a metastasis of Mesolithic occupation along the maritime littoral area of the island. For instance, the dates c. 6660 BP for Kalametiya, c. 5330 BP for Uda Malala 4200-3800 BP for Matota, c. 3270 BP for Karagan Lewaya and c. 2950 BP for Arankallu (Deraniyagala, 1992:692) shows an explicit continuum of the Mesolithic prehistoric occupation in the coastal areas of the island.

The discovery of the prehistoric shell midden in Pallemalala was the result of identification of an assemblage of human skeletal remains which were found during an excavation by a villager who dug the shell deposit for commercial purposes. During the first visit to the site, the team of archaeologists observed a collection of highly fragmented human skeletal remains that was piled up at the site.


Due to the insecure nature of the cultural deposit at the site it was decided to launch a rescue excavation. The Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology in Colombo made arrangement to conduct a salvage excavation at the site under the permission of the Department of Archaeology. Filed-work was carried out by a team headed by the author in a period of 15 days between 27 August and 12 September 1997. An area of 4x 3m of an undisturbed section of the site was excavated. The primary objective of the excavation was to retrieve as much data as possible before the site was completely destroyed. Two units of the prehistoric habitation at the site were unearthed. In unit 1 the settlement floor consisted of a wide scattering of food residues (animal bones) and a grinding stone (Fig. 2.1) along with the evidence of fire. Unit 2 was the burial floor (Fig. 2.2), about 50 cm below unit 1 but no artifacts were reported form this level except 7 human skeletons.


Excavated prehistoric habitation floor at Pallemalala

Fig 2.1: Excavated prehistoric habitation floor at Pallemalala


Excavated prehistoric burial floor at Pallemalala

Fig 2.2: Excavated prehistoric burial floor at Pallemalala


The soil profile of the excavated area at the site.

Fig 3.1: The soil profile of the excavated area at the site.


Two lithostratigraphic units were observed down to a depth of 1.2 meters from the surface. In the midst of those two, there was the shell deposit feature identified as a Chenier formation (Fig. 3.1). The first lithostratigraphic unit consists of the topsoil layer, which does not exceed 60 cms in thickness. This blackish grey soil has a high percentage of organic matter derived from the continuous leaf-fall. Its formation seems allochathonus. The surface of this layer is inhabited mainly by the scrub jungle vegetation and rarely by stunted trees and grasses. No other bed intrusion was observed

within this layer formation. Its cultural content is very low limited to few Black and Red ware potsherds and a fragment of a terracotta bead.

The second lithostratigraphic unit was the bottom layer of the site situated beneath the lower interface of the shell deposit. It was identified as the floor of the ancient lagoon or the marshy tract and was devoid of any cultural material.

The shell deposit

The maximum thickness of the shell deposit observed in the excavated area was approximately 0.7m. At the thickest point, its upper interface is about 60 cm below the surface ( 4.40 msl.). The shell deposit is mixed with a sandy-clay soil extremely hard to excavate. Several burnt patches observed in a cross-section of the shell deposit, suggests that various activities had occurred during different short time-intervals. Some of the charred bone fragments and stone implements scattered in association with these burnt patches compel one to infer that these fire events were culturally induced signatures of the prehistoric human use of that shell deposit.

Majority of the shell species in the deposit are homogenous and belong to the bivalve molluscs family of Pelecypoda. The notable sub-species present in the deposit are Mactra complanata Deshayes (Thin, fragile, rather flat, triangular shell: anterior and posterior margins about equal in length, lower margin regularly arched. White, covered with thin yellowish periostracum) and Mactra turgida Gmelin (Strongly inflated, triangulo-ovate shell covered with thin brownish perio stracum. As this is worn away shell is polished white) (Kirtisinghe,1978:37).


Majority of the artifact are chipped quartz implements and they were deposited together with their waste products. The stone tool assemblage is microlithic in nature including a few varieties of lunates, semi lunates, backed bladelets and bladelet nucleus (Fig. 4.1). A grindstone was also discovered from the habitation floor (Fig. 2.1 above). It has a smooth surface that reflects an intensive use and perhaps it suggests a possible move towards the exploitation of floral resources (e.g. Deraniyagala, 1971:88). However the lack of palaeobotanical remains prevents any further conclusion in this regard.



Fig 4.1: Excavated stone implements (quartz) at Pallemalala.

Human skeletons

Seven complete human skeletons have been unearthed with only a single female present in the collection. The collection of fragmented bones (n = 462) unearthed by the illegal diggers, represents 7 individuals including 5 females.

The flexed position of three skeletons is clearly discernible (Fig. 2.2 above) though the position of the rest could not be inferred due to the dispersed nature of the bones. Some of the skeletons were without the skull and it is very difficult to understand whether this was purposely done at the time of the inhumation or it was the result of a post- burial disturbance activity. The ethnographic observations point out that human skulls even today are used in the villages to perform some demonic rituals. However comparisons between these aspects is not possible without in depth study, though it could form a base for an argument.

Anthropometric studies of the skeletal remains suggest that there are three age groups among them ranging between 20yr to over 45yr (20yr / 35-45yr / 45>yr) (Ranaweera, 2002). The Odontometric studies of the stratigraphically excavated skeletons have pointed out that the Trigonid area and the Talonid area percentage (TRA %) of the mandibular molars are smaller than that of the contemporary population but the crown area values of the mandibular molars and the maxillary second molar are large (Peris and Somadeva et al., 2002). In sum, together with other physical attributes of the anatomy, the prehistoric population of Pallemalala could be ascribed to the anthropological genre of the Homo sapiens balangodensis identified and named after the discovery of 12 prehistoric human skeletons from Bellanbandipalassa in Sabaragamuva Province (Deraniyagala, 1958) that is Homo Sapiens sapiens (Kennedy, 1974).

Faunal remains

Besides several shell species a few varieties of fish are also present among the aquatic species. They all are Scombridae species including Euthynnus affinis, and Katsuwonus pelemis which probably characterizes the off-shore fishing. These variety of fishes are abundant during the southwestern monsoon (May to August). With the benefit of this knowledge it can be argued that the seasonal prehistoric camps preferably appeared in the coastal areas of this part of the country during the summer seasons.

Among the identified terrestrial species, except the monkey, the others are (Bubalus bubalus, Cervus unicolor, Axis axis ceylonensis, Sus scrofa cristatus, Tragulus miminna, Herpestes sp, Lessimys punctata, Melanochelys trijuga, Varanas sp.) still-hunted for consumption in the area. Perhaps monkeys would have been hunted for consumption at that time as suggested by the findings from the other prehistoric sites in Sri Lanka (e.g. Deraniyagala, 1992; Adikari and Karunarathne, 1994). According to the observations of the early 20th century ethnographers, the Vadda aboriginal people of the dry zone Sri Lanka were efficient hunters of arboreal species especially monkeys (Seligmann and Seligmann, 1911: 201-2; Spittel, 1961: 31).


The dates of the site are still being processed. However a temporary timeframe could be established using the Radiometric dates obtained for nearby locations of the same deposit. Two such dates (4050 ± 60 yr. BP un-calibrated, half-life 5568 ± 30, lab no. HR 122 & 4650 ± 70 BP un-calibrated, lab no. HR 268) have been published by Katupotha (1988a; 1988b) and it suggest that the prehistoric occupation here was around 4500 BCE. This range of dates is more or less comparable with that of Matota on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka (Deraniyagala, 1992). Further northwest of the Indian Ocean, chronometric ally comparable are the dates obtained for the similar shell-midden sites discovered in Oman peninsular such as Ra’s ai-Hamra (RH-5), Wadi Sahab (GAS-1), Ra’s al-Khabbah (KHB-1) and Suwayh (SWY-1). A single radiometric date obtained from an organogenic soil sample from the site at Wadi Sahab (GAS-1) provided a late sixth millennium date (5127 ± 80 un-calibrated Gx-17881) (Ganltier et al. 2005: 19). Wadi Sahab date is closer to the radiometric date (5780 ± 80 un-calibrated, HR 120) assigned for the prehistoric shell midden discovered at Hungama about 30 km west of Pallemalala (Katupotha, 1995).

The data unearthed from the prehistoric site at Pallemalala are limited but it emphasizes the importance of conducting further research focusing upon the coastal adaptation of the prehistoric groups in Sri Lanka.


The authors are greatly indebted to Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, former Director General of Archaeology and Dr. Senerath Dissanayake, the Director General of Archaeology for their genial support and encouragement to conduct the excavation and the post-processing work. Thanks should also go to Mr. Oshan Fernando of the Department of Archaeology for his drawings of the stone implements and Mr. Jude Perera for his identifications of the faunal remains. Maps and other computer cartography have been done by Mrs. R. P. Fernando of the GIS unit of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology. The excavation was conducted under the funding support of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Colombo.


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* First published in Ancient Asia, Vol 1 (2006) and republished here with permission from Ancient Asia.

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