Prehistory of Sri Lanka 6: Paleolithic period

Chandima Bandara Ambanwala

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

Translated by. Chryshane Mendis

Chandima Ambanwala

The name Paleolithic simply means the Older Stone Age. As stated in the first article in this series, several periods within the prehistoric period can be identified. The common feature of these periods is the use of stone implements. In this way based on the development of stone implements, several periods could be identified. Accordingly the Paleolithic period can be identified with the early developmental stage of stone implements. This article would deal with this first prehistoric period and its development in Sri Lanka.

In the Paleolithic or the Older Stone Age, man begins to use his mind to create stone implements for his day to day needs. In the history of prehistoric humans, the Paleolithic period represents the longest time period in comparison to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods which are relatively short time periods. The Paleolithic period in Sri Lanka dates between 250,000 to 70,000 years ago as studies have shown but with new evidence being found at present, it is believed that this period could extend to 1.6 million years ago.

The Paleolithic, which extends to a long period of time, has been further divided into 3 sub periods by archaeologists and anthropologists; as the Lower Paleolithic, Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic periods.

Prehistoric archaeologists further study the beginning of the Paleolithic period as a separate period called the Eolithic period which means the very first period of the beginning of the Stone Age. Although there was no use of human intelligence to craft and shape stones during this time, they had used the naturally occurring stones for their own purposes such as to fight off enemies or to crush different things. The use of stones without pre-preparation to break fruits from trees even at present could be stated as an example for this. Out of the rocks believed to belong to the Eolithic period, the usefulness of rocks weighing above 5kg has been questioned by archaeologists. However at present archaeologists and anthropologists consider the Paleolithic period as the beginning of human culture.

Evidence of the Paleolithic period has been found in countries of the African continent, from Europe, and from India. But the lack of proper evidence from Sri Lanka on this period has been an obstacle to archaeologists till recent times. During the early period of prehistoric research in the island, that which was during the colonial period, from amoung the stone tools collected by different people at different times, some stone tools were stated as belonging to the Paleolithic period or the even earlier Eolithic period. As this information was not based on proper studies of the artefacts and as this data is not in line with the now expanded knowledge base of prehistory, it is hard to take their ideas into account.

As Dr. Siran Deraniyagala has shown, the data on prehistoric man could be found in 3 types of deposits in the island, they are 1) the Ratnapura river basin deposit of the lowland wet zone, 2) the coastal alluvial deposits and sand dunes of the Iranamadu formation in the semi-arid zones and 3) the rock-shelters and open-air sites of the lowland wet zone. Out of these the second category, the gravel layer along the coast of the semi-arid zones belonging to the Quaternary period is one of the most important locations that yields prehistoric evidence. Due to erosion these deposits have turned from a dark red to a reddish brown. This deposit which is spread in a large area was first identified by E. J. Weyland as Plato deposit and later known as the Iranamadu Formation – IFm.

The Iranamadu Formation in Kudiramalai

This is an Eleonite layer which is thought to be decayed ancient sand dunes. Within this layer could be found minerals such as feldspar, garnet, pyroxene, and amphibole constituents. Geologists believe it is due to the chemical reactions of these that have given this layer its red colour and other features. But imaginary ideas and folk lore of the people state the features of this layer are due to the works of a supernatural human of the past.

This formation identified by archaeologists as the Iranamadu Formation can be found on the coastal areas of the Northwest, North, Southeast and South of the island. The red colour soil formation at Ussangoda was subjected to many studies by local scholars. By concretion and structure a similar formation could be found on the Indian mainland along the East and Southern coast known as Terri sites by Indian scholars. Comparative studies on the Terri sites and the Iranamadu Formation have shown similar geological and chemical structures.

The Iranamadu Formation in Sri Lanka (Taken from the internet)

Places where the Iranamadu Formation could be found:

– Along the Northwest and Northern coast from Pallama to Pulmaduwa.

– Along the Southeast and Southern coast from Ambalanthota to Pothuvil Komari

Research into the dating the age of this soil formation was begun in 1972 by the Archaeological Department under Dr. Siran Deraniyagala. Although the Iranamadu formation was explored as a whole, special studies were conducted in 50 identified sites. Through these surveys it was dated to be between 250,000 to 125,000 years old based on the environmental and prehistoric Paleolithic evidences.

Some of the important locations studied by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala is mentioned below:

In the Northwest the areas between Wilpattu National Park and Aranakallur of Pomparippu, Mullikulam, Marichchukandi, Seelawaturai, Murukkan, Madhu, Andankulam, Wellankulam / Arinakallu, Wanathiwila, Ilawankulam, Puliyankulam / Arinakallu, Puttalam, Thabbova, Kalladi, Madurankuli, Bangadeniya, Pallama, Adigama, Anamaduwa.

In the North, Maankulam, Nawa (new) Kokavil, Iranamadu, Elephant Pass/ Maankulam, Iranamadu, Parani (old) Kokavil, Muriyakulam, Kachchamikulam, Olumadu / Maankulam, Nawa Kokavil, Murikandi, Maradankulam, Uilankulam, Thunukkai, Wellankulam, Pallawarayan, Kadadu, Puunakari, Paranthan, Pudukuduirruppu, Oddusudan, Nadunkarni, Puliyankulam.

In the Southeast and Southern regions between Bundala to Ruhunu National Parks, Minihagalkanda, Okada, Panama, Pothuwal / Bundala, Thelula, Thissamarama, Hambanthota,  Ambalanthota, Hungama,  Ranna, Thalanga / Bundala, Angunakolapalessa, and Ambilipitiya were such areas subjected to study by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala.

Through these explorations and investigations it could be stated without doubt that there were prehistoric settlements more than 125,000 years ago. The most important evidences were found along the coast of Bundala. These prehistoric human settlements belonged to the Middle Paleolithic period of stone technology based on the Quartz and Chert stone tools found there. This sand and gravel layer from further studies has shown to be between 250,000 to 500,000 years old.

It is important at this point as the writer believes for a brief summary on the archaeological excavations that yielded these finds. Below is a summary of the excavations of two locations of the Iranamadu Formation in the Bundala area (Bundala-Wellegangoda – 49c & Bundala-Pathirajawela – 50a).

First location – Bundala : Wellegangoda (49c)

The gravel layer of this location in southern Sri Lanka is at present about 8 meters above the present sea level and covered with a sand layer of about 4 meters thick. An area of 1.8 x 1.8 meters was excavated here by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala and several layers of soil were identified which contained traces of human settlements. The stone tools found amoung the 3 main soil layers identified here have deteriorated over time and thus made it hard to study their special features; but they were clearly identified as prehistoric stone tools by archaeologists.

Cross section of the 49c site excavation

The stratigraphy at site 49c is as follows; this information is taken from the work  Prehistory of Sri Lanka by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala.

I – bedrock

II – basal gravels

III – sandy loam of red latosol

X – recent drifting sands

III  has been studied under 13 levels, this layer is approximately 400 centimeters .

III – 1 is about 30-40cm in depth and is the upper most layer of red latosol. Its composition is 70% sand, 6% silt, and 20% clay.

III – 2 is about 30cm in depth and is a level of red latosol with a composition of 58% sand, 7% silt and 35% clay.

III – 3 same detail as the 2nd level and composition is 57% sand, 3% silt and 40% clay.

III – 4-9 same details as the above.

III – 10 composition is 68% sand, 8% silt and 24% clay.

III – 11 composition is 73% sand, 11% silt and 20% clay.

III – 12 composition is 73% sand, 8% silt and 19% clay.

III – 13 the lowest level of red latosol composition is 72% sand, 7% silt and 21% clay.

II – the gravel foundation with about 6-15cm in depth.

I – the bedrock

Second location – Bundala : Pathirajawela (50a)

The basal gravel layer in this region is about 15 meters above the present sea level. Through assessment under absolute chronological dating this level was dated to 125,000 years old. Through archaeological excavations conducted here, stone tools belonging to the Paleolithic period and dating to around the same time period were found. Prof. Sinvi of the Physics laboratory of India examining the soil layer found above the gravel level under the PL dating method has dated it between 74,000 – 64,000 years old. Amoung the stone tools found from this gravel layer, non-geometrical quartz microliths too were found. Studies in this location have shown that a meter of the soil level would have taken 3,500 years to form, therefore according to Dr. Siran Deraniyagala’s assessment; the lower most level of this soil layer could be more than 500,000 years old.

Cross section of 50a site excavation

The stratigraphy at site 50a is as follows:

I – bedrock

II – basal gravels

III – sandy loam of red latosol

IV – stratum of lagoon molluscs

V – colluvial red latosolic loam

X – recent drifting sands

Small stone tools found from the Iranamadu excavation

Amoung the stone tools found from this location, the flake stone tools found from Pathirajawela date between 125,000 to 75,000 years ago whereas the stone tools found from Wellegangoda are dated to around 80,000 years ago. It is believed that the species that created these tools were early Homo sapiens.

Medium sized stone tools found from the Iranamadu Formation

Through this excavation no other cultural or anthropological evidence was found apart from the stone implements. The tropical climate that prevailed in this region has completely erased all such traces. On the other hand during the excavations, sensitive methods that could have unearthed delicate evidence such as pollen was not used during this excavation and thus would have obstructed the finding of such evidences. However with the guidance of Dr. Siran Deraniyagala and International support through the Department of Archaeology, a future programme is being developed to investigate these sites using delicate methods of excavation.

During this period, the population density in the dry zone was thought to be 0.8 – 1.5 per square kilometer whereas the wet zone would have had a population density of 0.3 per square kilometer, hence in comparison with the dry zone, the wet zone would have had a low human population. This data has been taken from the information of the hunter-gatherers of South and Southeast Asia.

Large stone tools from the Iranamadu Formation

According to the archaeological investigations into the Iranamadu Formation, at least during the last hundred thousand years, during the warm periods there was a wet climate with heavy rainfall and during the cold periods the climate was a dry.

No evidence of plant remains that could have made up their diet was found thus no idea can be formed on their dietary habits. This is because as stated above, due to the tropical climate no such traces could have survived and also as mentioned earlier through these excavations no proper samples of such evidences were looked into.

The land bridge between India and Sri Lanka (taken from the internet)

As stated in the beginning of this article, the region of the Indian subcontinent has yielded much evidence on the Paleolithic period and amoung them are not only stone tools but also human remains. And it can be assumed that animals and even humans migrated between Sri Lanka and mainland India through the land bridge which joined the two landmasses. It is the idea of geologists that during the last million years, for at least 800,000 years due to the reduction in sea level India and Sri Lanka would have been one landmass.

Dr. Siran Deraniyagala has stated many years back that the sand dunes found along the coast in the North and Southeast may contain evidence of prehistoric humans of more than 300,000 or even 500,000 years old.

The oldest evidence of human habitation in the island is from the Iranamadu Formation in the North. These can be relatively dated to around 500,000 years ago. The evidence of human settlements found in the Minihagalkanda area of the Southeast of Sri Lanka could be relatively dated to around 250,000 years ago.

The Vivaparimalai limestone caves in Manipai near Point Pedro

Due to new evidence found from the Jaffna area in 2010 the arrangement of the Paleolithic period of Sri Lanka has been transformed. In 1984 Prof. S. Krishnarajah had excavated a place known as Vivaparimalai in Manipai area near Point Pedro and found several stone tools. These stone tools were identified as Hand axes and were made of Chert. The place where these were found is a location of limestone caves. Until 2010 these were not examined properly due to the civil war in the North. But after the war during an archaeological survey of the area these stone tools were shown to Dr. Nimal Perera who is an expert on prehistoric stone tools and was the then Acting Deputy Director General of the Archaeological Department. After investigating them he concluded that they were Hand axes belonging to the Acheulean technology of stone tools. Afterwards these were shown to Dr. Siran Deraniyagala and he too confirmed these as Acheulean tools. Accordingly these stone tools dated between 500,000 to 1.6 million years old and are believed to have been made by Homo erectus. Based on this, these could be placed in the Lower

Stone tools from the Manipai area which are thought to be Acheulean Hand axes

Paleolithic period. Therefore it was evident that the Acheulean culture which has been identified throughout the world had spread to Sri Lanka as well. As the available evidence is insufficient to clearly conclude this, it is one of the Department’s future aims to launch a proper methodical investigation into this.

As stated in this article the earliest human settlements identified are through the Paleolithic period. Accordingly although the Paleolithic period in Sri Lanka is faint, sound evidence could be found through archaeological excavations. However in order to get an acute idea on this period and the humans that lived, more and more archaeological investigations need to be carried out.



Prehistory of Sri Lanka 7 : the Pleistocene flora and fauna of Ratnapura

Chandima Bandara Ambanwala

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

Translated by. Chryshane Mendis

Chandima Ambanwala

The Pleistocene epoch is a scientific time period in geology which formed millions of years ago. During much of this epoch the world was covered under ice. This Pleistocene epoch had its effects on Sri Lanka as well according to geologists; Dr. Paul Edward Pieris Deraniyagala had conducted the most number of researches into this period in Sri Lanka. The details and results of his investigations into this epoch were included in a thesis which won him his Doctorate from Harvard University in the US. Based on that important thesis his book The Pleistocene of Ceylon was published by the Department of National Museums in 1958 (P.E.P. Deraniyagala (1958), The Pleistocene of Ceylon, Natural History Series, Ceylon National Museum, Ceylon). According to him this epoch would have been from 1.8 million years to 12,000-10,000 years ago.  All due credit for the present knowledge on the Pleistocene epoch amoung the scholarly society in Sri Lanka belong to Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala (He is the son of famous historian and Civil Servant Paul. E. Pieris and his son is the notable prehistorian and former Director General of the Archaeology Department Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala). Before and after him, no Sri Lankan could be found with the interest to explore this important aspect of prehistory which is a sad situation. But the effort by Kalum Nalinda Manamendra-archchi out of the modern scholars to the study of fossils from the Rathnapura area must be appreciated. The difficulties in finding evidences, the lack of faith in the evidences revealed, inability to properly date the evidences, and the difficulty in identifying the context in which the finds are found can be stated as some of the factors that discourage scholars in the study of this period.

Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala

At 65,610 km2 Sri Lanka is one of the large islands in the Indian Ocean and during the Pleistocene epoch studies have shown that the island was joined to the mainland of the Indian Subcontinent. Due to the cold temperatures of this epoch the scattered glaciers caused the water level to fall and thus much of the places under water today was land during this time. Due to the drop in sea levels Sri Lanka and India was combined for the last time about 7,000 years ago. During the last 500,000 years the island was joined with the Indian mainland several times. According to some scientists during the past 1 million years the two lands were one landmass for most of the time. When the sea level fell approximately 70 meters, Sri Lanka and India was connected by a land bridge of about 100 km in width. Thus this land bridge caused species to inter-migrate between the two lands.

Kelum Nalinda Manamendra-archchi

At the end of the Pleistocene in Sri Lanka as a result of the rising temperatures the ice sheets that covered the world began to melt away. With the melting of the ice sheets the different materials found on the surface of the earth were mixed with the water and were deposited in low areas. Thus along with the alluvial deposits formed, environmental material on the surface through

The Pleistocene of Ceylon

anticline formations have been deposited in these low depths. Thus human and animal remains on the surface had been washed down and embedded in these deposits. The gem and seam deposits and other deposits of Rathnapura and other adjoining areas were created through the above process.

Found below is a comparison of this state of the Pleistocene with that found in the Alps mountain range by Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala. These ideas have been expressed by Dr. Deraniyagala with regard to the glacial periods of Gunz, Mindel, Riss and Wurm and also the warmer interglacial periods.

The soil layers of the gem and seam deposits of Rathnapura and the surrounding areas are the results of the melting of the ice from the mountainous areas. The fossilized remains of fauna and flora of that time or even before are preserved within these layers. In the process of excavating these seam deposits for gem stones, fossils of plant and animal life are usually found. Some of the main places that produce fossils in the Rathnapura alluvial deposits are Gatahaththa, Balangoda, Ambilipitiya and Kalawana. The gravel layer with such data is usually between 6 inches to 3 feet in depth and rarely exceeds 3 feet. The alluvial deposits can be found 12-40 feet deep and at certain places like Rakwana it is found 108 feet below the surface but certain places may also contain these deposits on the surface as well. Based on the data collected thus far, the details of the soil layers of a normal Rathnapura alluvial deposit can be stated as below.

            1 ½ feet – humus

            3 feet – loam

            5 feet – black clay

            5 feet – greyish clay

            3 feet – clay with fossils

            1 ½ feet – sand

            1 ½ feet – gravel

            ½ feet – mineral gravels with large amounts of fossils


It is evident that certain layers containing fossils have been re-deposited due to the process of glacierization. According to the above it is hard to ascertain that these would have been deposited in a regular/methodical way as certain deposits have been found which were thought to be very old but contained pearls, pottery and iron of much later periods. Such deposits show a disturbed nature therefore because of this it is difficult to properly date the deposits chronologically.

A gem mine in Rathnapura (image taken from

In the middle of the 1930s under the supervision of P. E. P. Deraniyagala from the National Museums (in 1939 he was made Director of National Museums), investigations were carried out into the alluvial strata that contained gem stones in the Rathnapura deposits. From then until 1963 the fossils of animal and plant life were subjected to investigation by Dr. Deraniyagala. By examining the fossil records found within these layers, a high knowledge on the species that lived during the Pleistocene was developed and amoung them identifying animal species that have gone extinct and those that are still living.

Below is a list of the large number of spices that have gone extinct.

Scientific name Common name Features
1 Geoemyda trijuga sinhaleya A species of tortoise Can be larger than the present ඝණ කටු සහිත ඉබ්බා tortoise
2 Trionyx punctate sinhaleya A species of tortoise  Can be larger than the present මෘ දු කටුව සහිත ඉබ්බා
3 Crocodylus sp. A species of Crocodile A more slender head than the present crocodile
4 Hypselephus hysundricus sinhaleyus A species of Elephant Comparable to the Indian sub-species.
5 Palaeoloxodon namadicus sinhaleyus A species of Elephant Could be a smaller species than the Indian sub-species.
6 Rhinocerus sinhaleyus A species of Rhinoceros A single horned Rhinoceros
7 Rhinocerus kagavena A species of Rhinoceros A single horned Rhinoceros
8 Hexaprotodon sinhaleyus A species of Hippopotamus A Hippopotamus very similar to Hexaprotodon palaeindicus of the Narmada region but with 6 teeth in the front.
9 Hystrix sivalensis sinhaleyus A species of Porcupine Relatively small in size.
10 Homopithecus sinhaleyus A hominid species From a gem mine in the Karangoda area of Ratnapura.
11 Homo sinhaleyus A hominid species From a area close to Ratnapura.
12 Elephas maximus sinhaleyus A species of Elephant Now extinct.
13 Leo leo sinhaleyus A species of Lion A lion much larger than the present Indian lion.
14 Muva sinhaleya A species of Sambur Small in size.
15 Sus sinhaleyus A species of Wild boar 2/3 the size of the present Wild boar in Sri Lanka.
16 Bibos gaurus sinhaleyus A species of Bison Shorter small horns than the present Indian bison.
17 Gona sinhaleya කුළුමීමා Could be the ancestor of the කුළුමීමා Bos indicus that inhabits the North Central Province.
18 Tatera sinhaleya A species of Rat This species had longer and broader teeth than the present Rat in Sri Lanka.
19 Axis axis ceylonensis Spotted deer The present spotted deer.
20 Rusa unicolor Sambar deer The present Sambar.
21 Bubalus bubalis migona Buffalo The present Buffalo.

Number 10 & 11 in the above, Homopithecus sinhaleyus and Homo sinhaleyus respectively are two of the most important fossil finds. An ancestor of modern humans, the fossil of Homopithecus sinhaleyus which was an incisor tooth was found from a gem mine in the Karangoda area of Ratnapura.

The tooth belonging to Homopithecus sinhaleyus and the skull fragment above the left eye of Homo sinhaleyus. (Images by Kalum Nalinda Manadendarachchi )

The enamel of the tooth has turned black and is semi-cylindrical at the bottom which enlarges when going up. The deposit stratification of the site that contained this fossil is given below:

6 feet – black mud

 6 feet – laterite soil

3 feet – organic materials and sand

 1 ½  feet – blue clay

1 feet – fine white sand

 ½ feet – hardened sand

1 feet – Gem gravel with fossils (the layer in which these fossils were found)

Decayed rock


The fossil of the hominid Homopithecus sinhaleyus was found along with the fossils of Hexaprotodon sinhaleyus, Rhinoceros kagavena, Elephas maximus sinhaleyus, Axis axis ceylonensis, and Rusa unicolor unicolor and through the Uranium dating method were dated to the same period.

Below is a result of the comparison of the incisor tooth of Homopithecus sinhaleyus with the same of a modern Gorilla and Human.

The extinct Hypeselephas hysundricus

Through this comparison it is proven that this belonged to an ancestor of modern humans and also it shows close resemblance to those of Pithecanthropus robustus of Java and Gigantopithecus blacki of China. Further Prof. A. Raymond of the University of Kyle? Through his great knowledge on the subject has stated this to be a fossil of an ancestor of humans.

The fossil of Homo sinhaleyus was found in a location close to Ratnapura and make up the bone fragment of the skull above the left eye. Along with this, the fossils of Hexaprotodon and Elephas maximus sinhaleyus and the deposit stratification of the site that contained these fossils are given below:

            3 feet – humus

            2 ½  feet – laterite soil

            4 feet – blue clay

            1 ½  feet – organic material and mud layer

            2 feet – black sand

            ½ – 2 feet – Gem gravel with fossils (the layer in which these fossils were found)


When taking the measurements of this bone fragment, the eye cavity was found to be relatively small, thus based on these measurements Dr. Deraniyagala has stated that this could be compared to the Neanderthal humans.

The relative age of the fossils of the Ratnapura deposits can be determined through comparison. Therefore the assumptions can be arranged as below:

  1. Hexaprotodon is older than Elephas maximus sinhaleyus.
  2. Hexaprotodon can sometimes be even older than Rhinoceros kagavena.
  3. Hexaprotodon, Elephas maximus sinhaleyus, Rhinoceros kagavena are same period/contemporary. There is a high possibility that the incisor tooth of Homopithecus sinhaleyus is of the same period as them.
  4. Rhinoceros kagavena can be twice as old as Elephas maximus sinhaleyus and also a bit older than

There are also plant fossils found from these deposits and according to the radiocarbon dating done by the TATA Corporation of India, the below results were arrived at:

  • Mesua species more than 47,000 years BP (Before the Present)
  • Largestroemia speciosa 7520 +/- 150 BP

These plants can even be found at present in this region.

The now extinct Rhinocerus sinhaleyus that lived during the Ice Age ( K.N. Manamendra-archchi)

The fossils found from the gem mines of Ratnapura share a comparison with those found in the regions of Swahilik and Narmada basins of India as shown by Dr. Deraniyagala. These regions of India belong to the Middle Pleistocene epoch.

Through this we could get a sound knowledge on this historical time period which is the Pleistocene. But as shown above due to the re-depositing, it is an obstruction to dating these finds accurately. But with modern technological developments it is important to re-examine these fossils; this could be done through the collaboration of future archaeologists, archaezoologists and geologists which could yield more important evidences.


Fa Hien-Lena Prehistoric Cave – Earliest Modern Humans From South Asia

By Dr. Nimal Perera

Fa Hien-lena, one of the largest habitable rock shelters in Sri Lanka, is situated in south-western Sri Lanka, at Yatagampitiya of the small township of Bulathsinhala near Horana in the Kalutara District, approximately 75 km southeast of Colombo (80 12’ 55” E 6 38’ 55” N). Popular belief has it that the famed Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Hien sojourned there while on his pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak.

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Fa Hien-Lena Prehistoric Cave on Google Maps

The site lies in the foothills abutting the coastal plain and is a complex of interconnected rock shelters developed in a coarse crystalline gneiss cliff. The entrance faces east and is easily accessed along a short, fairly steep, path. From the entrance, one is afforded a view of Sri Lanka’s central hills through the gem-bearing strike valleys of Ratnapura. The mouth has a width of c. 30 m and an average height above the cave floor of 20 m. The interior extends for c. 10 m into the cliff. Secondary lowland forest adjoins the cave complex, the primary rainforest having been cleared for plantations at the turn of the twentieth century.

Fa Hien-Lena Prehistoric Cave

Archaeologically, the site was initially recorded in 1968 by the then Assistant Commissioner of Archaeology of the Department of Archaeology of the Government of Sri Lanka, Dr S.U. Deraniyagala, when it was being used as a Buddhist cave temple. Subsequently, it was reserved for future archaeological investigations once adequate resources become available. This did not materialise until 1986 when W.H. Wijeyapala, then Assistant Commissioner in charge of excavations, commenced excavations as part of stage 5 of Deraniyagala’s prehistoric research design titled ‘The systemic interaction of man and environment in prehistoric Sri Lanka’, in which a series of rock shelters excavations were conducted. Shelter A, the larger of the two at the site, was first excavated to a depth of over 6 m. It yielded a consistent mass of what appears to be roof-fall flakes or decaying bed-rock throughout the profile, without any indubitable trace of early human habitation.

Shelter B, a smaller subsidiary shelter located approximately 20 m east of the main chamber (Shelter A), proved to be far more productive. Excavations conducted in 1986, and subsequently in 2009-2012, have yielded a secure sequence of human habitation deposits dating from c. 48,046 to 4422 years ago, including reports of South Asia’s oldest habitation deposit associated with anatomically modern humans (tables 1 to 4).

In 2008 and 2009 a fresh excavation of Shelter B commenced under the direction of Nimal Perera with a view to enhancing further the stratigraphic and chronological resolution achieved by Wijeyapala in the 1980s. This involved the collection of additional radiocarbon samples throughout the layers excavated by Wijeyapala as well as an excavation of layers underlying the basal layers excavated by Wijeyapala.

During the 2009 excavation
During the 2009 excavation
Identifying the stratigraphy

Table 1. Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dates from the 2009 Fa Hien-lena excavations

Sample number 
Context* Total Dose Rate (mGy a-1) Equivalent Dose (Gy) Apparent age (ka)
88/89 3.13 ± 0.13 35.8 ± 0.8 12.3 ± 0.6
(high De)
88/89 3.13 ± 0.13 71.7 ± 2.7 22.9 ± 1.3
91/92 2.63 ± 0.12 103.5 ± 4.5 39.3 ± 2.5
(TL-low De)
91/92 2.63 ± 0.12 105.2 ± 3.96 39.9 ± 2.3
(TL-average De)
91/92 2.63 ± 0.12 162.6 ± 32.6 61.7 ± 12.4

*Samples collected in the 2009 excavation, beneath the ‘rock floor’ of Wijeyapala (1997). OSL 1 were taken from c. 50cm below this datum while OSL 2 were taken from 75cm below this datum.

Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating and sediment analysis were undertaken in collaboration with Ian Simpson and Nikos Kourampas of the University of Stirling, Scotland to provide additional chronological insight. The dating results from these excavations can be seen in Tables 1.

Table 2: Radiocarbon determinations from the 1986 excavation
The samples are bulk radiocarbon measurement made of charcoal. All samples have been calibrated using the OxCal 4.1 software and IntCal 13 calibration curve.

Sample Layer Lab. Code Measured Calibrated (cal. years BP) (OxCal 4.1, IntCal13)
B-N5-2 2 Beta-33297 4750 ± 60 5594-5322
B-M6-2 3 Beta-33293 6850 ± 80 7916-7570
B-N6-2a 3a Beta-33298 7100 ± 60 8020-7794
B-M7-3 4 Beta-33295 24,470 ± 290 29126-27872
B-N7-3 4 Beta-33299 30,060 ± 290 34656-33686
B-M7-5 4a Beta-33296 32,060 ± 630 37912-34764
B-M6-6 5 Beta-33294 33,070 ± 630 38826-35828

Table 3: Radiocarbon determinations from the 2010 excavation
Calibrated radiocarbon dates from 2010 excavations at Fa-hien-lena. The radiocarbon dates are all AMS determinations. All the samples have been calibrated using the OxCal 4.1 software and IntCall 13 calibration curve.



Context Measured Conventional Calibrated (cal. years BP) (OxCal 4.1, IntCal13)
BYP2010/CX NE/N-4, O-4, 107 107 3910 ± 30 3870 ± 30 4422-4248
BYP 2010 CX NE/O-4, P-4, 108 108 33,260 ± 240 33,220 ± 240 38,333-36,690
BYP2010/CX NE/N-4, O-4, 109 109 10,220 ± 40 10,150 ± 40 12,096-11,768
BYP2010/CX NE/N-4, O-4, 110 110 36,950 ± 300 36,910 ± 300 42,036-40,980
BYP 2010 CX NE/0-6, 0-6, 116 middle 116 4870 ± 40 4800 ± 40 5710-5482
BYP 2010 NE/O-4, 118 118 31,770 ± 190 31,750 ± 190 36,136-35,191
BYP 2010 CX NE/O-4, P-4, 119 119 10,300 ± 40 10,250 ± 40 12,380-11,844
BYP 2010 CX NE/ O-4, 126F 126 37,260 ± 310 37,230 ± 310 42,228-41,258

Table 4: Radiocarbon determinations from the 2011/2012 excavations
The radiocarbon dates are all AMS determinations. All the samples have been calibrated using the OxCal 4.1 software and the InCal 13 calibration curve

Sample Context Measured Conventional Calibrated (cal. years BP) (OxCal 4.1, IntCal13)
135 135 4860 ± 30 4820 ± 30 5653-5488
136 136 7010 ± 30 6970 ± 30 7935-7762
138 138 7750 ± 40 7720 ± 40 8595-8430
139 139 10,390 ± 40 10,350  ± 40 12,419-12,062
141 141 10,440 ± 40 10,340 ± 40 12,530-12,120
142 142 10,500 ± 40 10,430 ± 40 12,590-12,236
144 144 10,330 ± 40 10,290 ± 40 12,386-11910
145 145 32,920 ± 240 32,890 ± 240 37,912-36,300
146 146 No result No result N/A
BYP-O3-152 152 7030 ± 40 6990 ± 40 7954-7763
152 152 7300 ± 40 7240 ± 40 8180-8020
153 153 7040 ± 40 6900 ± 40 7955-7791
159 159 43,030 ± 720 43,000 ± 720 48,046-45,028
174 174 10,490 ± 40 10,440± 40 12,575-12,150
175 175 34,610 ± 320 34,600 ± 320 39,876-38,490
237 237 10,460 ± 40 10,390 ± 40 12,549-12,131

Layer 1, at the top, comprises brown silty sand with mid to late Holocene occupation debris mixed with recent artefacts, due to levelling of the floor. Beneath it, Layer 2 consists of light brown-grey silty sand with a high density of the cultural material, and the fractional remains of two interred individuals coated with red ochre. Four radiocarbon determinations from the layer 2 would date it to the Mid- Holocene, based on calibrated determinations of approximately 5.5 ka. The next layer down, Layer 3, is a light brown, loose sandy silt which is rich in cultural material. Four early Holocene radiocarbon dates have been secured on charcoal (tables 1 and 3): c. 7700 cal BP, 7800 cal BP, 8100 cal BP and 7800 cal BP.

Phase IV cannot currently be directly related to any of the layers recognised during the 1986 excavation. It corresponds to contexts 139, 237, 142, 144, 174, 237, 109 and 119 as recognised during the 2010 excavation. This phase can be characterised as a period of intensive terminal Pleistocene habitation at the site dated to around 12,000 years cal BP based on a consistent series of eight radiocarbon dates. It is noteworthy for a complete but highly fragile and fragmentary human skeleton, in a set position in an intentionally dug pit, which has been directly dated to around 12,000 cal BP. Since the skeleton was fragile and fragmentary, Dr Jay Stock of the Bioanthropology Department of the University of Cambridge visited the site, catalogued the remain and took them to the University of Cambridge where they are currently being consolidated, reconstructed and studied.

Fragmentary human skeleton (2010)
Soil Stratigraphy
Stratigraphy of the excavation

Beneath the terminal Pleistocene habitation deposits, Phase V (layers 4 and 5 of the 1986 excavation) consists of a series of layers and contexts spanning a lengthy period from c. 47,000 to 28,000 cal BP. This period of Late Pleistocene occupation is dated by a consistent series of radiocarbon determinations from the 1986, 2010 and 2012 excavations. The deposits contain stone artefacts along with preservation of faunal remains and a partial human interment. Specifically, Layer 5 (as identified in 1986) produced an association of fragmentary human remains assigned to anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) by the eminent American bio-anthropologist Prof. Kenneth Kennedy and his team at Cornell University. Dated to c. 38,000 years ago, these are the earliest anatomically modern human remains known from the whole of South Asia. The lowermost deposits – namely contexts 159, 126, 110, and 108 (as identified during the 2010 and 2012 excavations) – are suspected to correspond to the earliest known occupation by modern humans in Sri Lanka (and possibly the whole of South Asia).

In summary, as can be seen from the available dates (tables 1 to 3), Fa Hien-Lena documents a lengthy period of habitation during the Late Pleistocene prior to the LGM, and between the terminal Pleistocene and the middle Holocene. However, it lacks any dated evidence of occupation during the LGM (c. 28,000 to 13,000 cal BP), suggesting this was a hiatus in the occupation sequence.

The excavations have revealed considerable evidence of the technology employed by the prehistoric occupants of Fa Hien shelter. The great majority of the artefacts are made of quartz, with a much smaller proportion made of organic materials such as bone, antler and shell. Compared to other rock shelters in Sri Lanka, the stone artefact component is relatively meagre, the reason for which is still under investigation. The lithics are dominated by waste products from the manufacture of finished tools, often comprising small quart flakes of less than 2 cm in length. Noteworthy amongst the lithic finds are grindstones smeared with red ochre and hammer-stones. As with the stone artefacts, bone and antler tools are present from the lowermost layers upwards. These comprise predominantly single- and double-ended bone and antler points, commonly with abraded or polished ends. They are small, and remarkable for their high degree of workmanship, notably a fine serration along the edge of one of the points.

Prehistoric Bone Tool
complete flake
Stone Tools (Microlithic)

A large assemblage of faunal remains was recovered from the excavations, including molluscs, from the initial up to the final habitation phase. The faunal remains are well preserved and shed important light on the environment and subsistence patterns of hunters and gatherers in equatorial South Asia between c. 47,000 and 4500 years ago. Fa Hien-Lena’s prehistoric inhabitants foraged a broad spectrum of plant and animal resources derived from their rainforest environment. In order to understand more detail of this subject, Stable Isotope Analysis is currently being undertaken by Patrick Robert of the Oxford University, and the preliminary results indicate isotope values that are consistent with the rainforest environment of Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone. Further clarification of the specific Carbon, Oxygen and Nitrogen isotope values will hopefully provide more detail and context in the future.

Shark Teeth
Shark Teeth

It is noteworthy that remains of the miniscule lagoon habitat mollusc Potamides cingulatus have been found in the habitation deposits from as early as c. 20,000 years ago. This species occurs by the millions on lagoon flats in the inter-tidal zone. The only likely mechanism by which they could have reached Fa Hien-Lena is as inclusions in rock-salt which would have been transported from the lagoons situated in the southeast of the island over 100 km away.

Prehistorians believe that ornaments and exotic items mark a form of symbolism associated with anatomically modern humans. Beads of marine shell and shark vertebrae, shark teeth and a shell pendant from the earliest cultural layers were found in the Fa Hien-Lena excavations. These findings indicate personal adornment in Sri Lanka from c. 38,000 years ago onwards. They are among the earliest dated markers of symbolic practices (apart from Africa) anywhere in the world.

Lagoon Molucs

Fa Hien-Lena rock shelter is of global importance for understanding the physical and cultural evolution of anatomically modern humans, particularly in the context of South cum Southeast Asia. The deposits contain a sequence of habitation by equatorial rainforest hunter-gatherers from around 47,000 years ago, including skeletal remains which constitute the earliest known remains of anatomically modern humans in South Asia. The deposits also demonstrate evidence of fully modern behaviour in terms of mortuary practices, stone tool technology and symbolic artefacts such as beads and red ochre.

Visit by Dr. Siran U. Deraniyagala (2010)
School children visiting the site

Photo credit: Department of Archaeology and Dr. Nimal Perera

Selected Bibliography

  • Perera, H. Nimal (2010), Prehistoric Sri Lanka, Brish Archaeological Reports, Int. Ser. 2142 Oxford: Archaeopress.
  • Perera, H. Nimal (2015), The importance of Sri Lanka’s wetzone rockshelters. In: S. Dissanayake, Rev.  P. Chanaloka, N. Kodituwakku, (eds). Archaeology of one hundred twenty five years of Sri Lannka, Department of Archaeology, Colombo. (P. 104-117).
  • S. U. Deraniyagala (1992), The Prehistory of Sri Lanka: An Ecological Perspective, Volume I & II, Department of Archaeoloygy, Sri Lanka.

Prehistory of Sri Lanka 5: the modern period of Prehistoric research in Sri Lanka

Chandima Bandara Ambanwala

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

Translated by. Chryshane Mendis

Chandima Ambanwala

When looking at the history of prehistoric research in Sri Lanka, the last stage could be considered as the modern period which began from 1969. When going through the prehistoric explorations conducted during this period and their findings, it could be stated as the golden age of prehistoric research in Sri Lanka. The archaeological excavations and analysis methods was revolutionized by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala in 1969 with the excavations of the near Image house (Gedige) of the Citadel area of Anuradhapura, which could be seen as the inaugural step into this modern period. The contributions made by the scholars who came through the free education system in the country could be seen during this period, and the most important resource person being Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala. At the beginning of the modern period, all research on the prehistory of the country was done through the Department of Archaeology under the leadership of Dr. Siran Deraniyagala. Also during this period could be observed the contributions of foreign scholars invited by the Department or in collaboration with them. From the 1990s prehistoric research was being centered on the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) of the University of Kaleniya.

In studying the contributions of the scholars of prehistory during this period, the works of Dr. Siran Deraniyagala takes much importance and from here on would follow the activities carried out into the prehistory of Sri Lanka by Dr. Deraniyagala.

Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala

The son of Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala (discussed in the previous article) and Prini Molamure, he was born on the 1st of March 1942 and received his primary and secondary education at St. Thomas College Mount Lavinia. He received his Bachelors of Arts in the subjects of Architecture, Sanskrit and Latin from the University of London in 1963 and his Masters in 1966 from the same University. He completed his Postgraduate Diploma in Archaeology from the University of London and also received the ‘V. Gorden Childe’ award for the best archaeology student of the year. Between the years 1964 to 1976 he was trained in practical and theoretical aspects of prehistory under leading archaeologists of England, France and India. In 1968 he arrived in the island and joined the Department of Archaeology as an Assistant Director of excavations and explorations. For more information see the eJournal Dinithi-Sri Lanka Archaeology authored by the author and a team including Dr. Deraniyagala.

Prehistory of Sri Lanka: An Ecological Perspective

Siran Deraniyagala, began his entry into the prehistoric study by reexamining the snail shells and bones of previous excavations. From the 1969 Citadel excavations at Anuradhapura to conducting various prehistoric, proto historic and early historic excavations and gaining further theoretical knowledge, through his father’s guidance; he received his PhD from the Harvard University in USA and produced one of the most excellent prehistoric thesis from all Asia titled ‘Prehistory of Sri Lanka: An Ecological Perspective’ (this has been published in two parts in the Archaeological Department’s memorial thesis series and has been the handbook for Prehistoric research in Sri Lanka).

From 1969 Dr. Siran Deraniyagala focused on a more organizational study using modern techniques and methods. Accordingly the first step taken at the Citadel excavations at Anuradhapura was the gathering of all known scientific data under the topics a. logical elements, b. chronology, c. technology, d. subsistence, e. settlements, f. arts, g. practices and duties, h. social organization, i. physical anthropology and j. palaeo environment to which he investigated and analyzed them under a new foundation thus creating a new path in research methodology.

The Iranamadu formation and  cave deposits first identified and studied by the early scholars such as E. J. Weyland and P. E. P. Deraniyagala were used for the initial surveys and excavations. These excavations were focused on the soil layer found on the island. This initiative could be stated as a foremost initiative in world archaeological excavations. In these excavations taking example from matrix chart method, various excavations were carried out in which the digs were conducted in such a way that every single artifact could be retrieved. According to this method, there were 3 excavations conducted in the study of prehistory:

A. Bundala-Wellegangoda 8m deep static gravel terrace of red latosol of decayed prehistoric sand dunes

B. Pathirajawela 15m deep gravel terrace covered by red latosol of sand dunes.

C. Bundala-Lewagangoda 25m deep gravel ground covered by red latosol.

The Archaeological Stratification method in excavations was first introduced by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala in the inner city excavations of Anuradhapura in 1969 and also at the Mesolithic settlement of Bellanbandi pallessa in 1970.

Examining prehistoric facts in respect to environmental and geological factors of the island was conducted during this period with much focus on the geological changes during the Quaternary period. Siran Deraniyagala is responsible for steering the study of the prehistory of Sri Lanka in a new path with a broad inter-disciplinary perspective. Focusing on the developments in the United States and Europe, Dr. Siran Deraniyagala strived to acquire those technology and knowledge for archaeological excavations in Sri Lanka and collaborated with many foreign scholars such as the famous physical anthropologist Keneth A. R. Kenndey. Dr. Siran Deraniyagala also initiated research collaborations with other Asian countries such as India, Java and Sumatra and also Australia. Accordingly studies were conducted comparing the red soil found from the Terri Sites in South India and the red soil from the Iranamadu formation in Sri Lanka which revealed valuable information. Further important research was conducted on the Mesolithic man of Sri Lanka in comparison with foreign primitive human tribes such as the Kadar, Malapandam, and the Venchu. During this period it could be observed that studies were conducted in the coastal areas, the central hill and Horton Plains and also parts of the wet zone.

For these programmes Dr. Deraniyagala created a surveying and excavation team grooming the officers under him into resource persons in the fields of lithic analysis, soil stratification, and chronological dating. This grooming of a future research team could not be seen from the previous periods of prehistoric exploration. Some of the excellent scholars of this grooming are W. H. Wijepala, Nimal Perera and Alfred De Mel.

Dr. W. H. Wijepala (left), Dr. H. Nimal Perera (center), &  Prof.Gamini Adikari (right)

Much of the problems of the Paleolithic period were answered under the studies conducted by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala and through the archaeological excavations of the Iranamadu formation (IFm), and Minihagalkanda in the Yala National Park, he showed that there was a definitive Paleolithic period in the island and this was dated to be 125,000/250,000 years ago. He was also able to gather information of the environment and human cultures during the Pleistocene epoch as identified by P. E. P. Deraniyagala.

Alfred De Mel

Out of all these the most important being the painting of the complete picture of Sri Lanka’s Mesolithic period which was until then a vague drawing, based on excavations conducted in the wet zone (eco zone D) such as the Beli Lena in Kithulgala, Batadomba Lena of Kuruwita, Bulathsinghala Fa-hian Lena, Aththanagoda Alulena, Horton Plains, Bellanbandipellassa in Embilipitiya, and Ravana cave. Details on the physical anthropology of the Mesolithic man, his food habits, lifestyle, technology, his rituals, the environmental conditions in which he lived and various other aspects was revealed through these excavations.

Dr. Siran Deraniyagala has been able to logically portray the island’s history from the prehistoric age through the proto historic to the historic age. The archaeological researches led by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala have been able to find some of the oldest evidences of modern man in all of Asia thus bringing Sri Lanka to the spot light in prehistoric research. Further these researches were able to prove with evidence the world’s first use of geometric microlithic technology (more than 32,000 years ago) from Sri Lanka. Similar evidence of these is only found in a handful of sites in the African continent and from one site in East Asia. Taking to account all these findings Dr. Siran Deraniyagala has been able to compose a chronological order of the prehistory of the island.

As a scholar of the island’s prehistory for a long period, he has made many classifications regarding this period with one of the most important classifications being that of the stone tools done by studying over 2 lakhs of stone implements found throughout the island. The magnitude of this classification can be seen when comparing the previous classifications of stone tools in the country. For this classification a stone tool is checked for 1. Provenance, a self explanatory contextual attribute, 2. trimming, 3. Plan-Form (blank contour), 4. Apparent Function, 5. Used Marks, 6. Raw material, 7. Cross-section and 8 Size.  Through this classification the stone tools of Sri Lanka can be divided into 19 classes and these classes can be further divided into 115 types (await a complete description on stone tools in this series).

The most significant scholar of the modern period of prehistoric research in the island, Dr. Siran Deraniyagala has worked over 40 years on the study and investigations of prehistory and continue to assist in the study of prehistory as a consultant and resource person. Apart from prehistory he continues to conduct researches on the proto historic and early historic periods. As stated by the American Anthropologist Journal as the handbook of Sri Lankan prehistory his Prehistory of Sri Lanka: An Ecological Perspective and as long as the study of Sri Lanka’s prehistory survives, the revision of the works of Siran Upendra Deraniyagala is an inevitable fact.

Dorawakakanda Athabandi Lena in Warakapola

W. H. Wijeyapala who was a former Assistant Director Excavations and the former Director General of the Archaeological Department under the guidance of Dr. Siran Deraniyagala excavated the Bulathsinghala Fa-hian lena, Aththanagoda Alulena, Kithulgala Beli lena, and Warakapola Dorawakakanda. In 1980 he put forward a classification of bone tools in the island which was based on the stone tools classification of Dr. Deraniyagala. Through the excavation of the Dorawaka kanda site in Warakapola, evidence was found on the little known Neolithic period of Sri Lankan prehistory. Information on the research done by Dr. Wijepala can be found in his unpublished theses which are Mesolithic Stone Technology of Sri Lanka, a study of the Stone Implements from Beli-lena (Kithulgala), a Dissertation submitted for the MA (Archaeology) Held by the University of Peradeniya and New Light on the Prehistory of Sri Lanka; In The Context Of Recent Investigations At Cave Sites, a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Peradeniya (1997). These can be found in the main library of the Peradeniya University.

Dr. H. Nimal Perera, the former Deputy Director General of the Archaeology Department too under the tutelage of Dr. Siran Deraniyagala conducted many excavations with the most important ones being the Kuruwita Batadomba lena, Embilipitiya Bellanbandipalessa, and the Mini Ethiliya site close to Hungama, conducted in 2005. His research could be found in the book Prehistoric Sri Lanka: Late Pleistocene rockshelters and an open-air site published by the British Archaeological Report.

Prof. Gamini Adikari of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) of the Univeristy of Kaleniya too has made an important contribution to the exploration of the island’s prehistory in the recent past. Some of the notable excavations conducted under him are the excavations of the dry zone in sites such as Pothaana, Aligala, and Pidurangala which are close to Sigiriya and also sites of the wet zone such as Pilikkuththuwa, Warana, and Aththanagalla Alawwa Pothgul lena of the Gampaha District. The information and data collected from his excavations of the sites around Sigiriya could be found in his Postgraduate thesis which is in the library of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR). Prof. Adikari has also explored the features at the end of the Mesolithic period known as the Post-mesolithic period.

Pothgul Lena in Alawwa, Gampaha

Dr. T. Rathnasiri Prematilake a Paleo-botanist of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology also has conducted several important explorations into the prehistory of the island. Conducting research into the Quaternary period environment; through research conducted in the Horton Plains he was able to show that cereal was cultivated there over 13,000 years through pollen evidence. Thus giving evidence on Neolithic activity in the island through the examination of paleobotanical evidence.

In the modern period of prehistoric research it could be seen that various new fields are opening up for research, once such field which is at a very developed level is that of Archaeozoology. The foundation for this field was laid by Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala who was originally a zoologist and was carried forward by the scientist P. B. Karunarathne. At present this unique field is headed by his student, zoologist Kalum Nalinda Manamendara-arachchi. Jude Perera of the Department of Archaeology who is a student of Kalum Manamendara-arachchi is also another scholar in this field. Under the guidance of Prof. Gamini Adikari and the supervision of Kalum Nalinda Manamendara-archchi, the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology has been able to establish an archaeozoology division within the institute. This field investigates the remains of different species of animals consumed by prehistoric men and those found in his environment for a scientific study and identification.

Geoarchaeology, another discipline that supplements prehistory could be seen developing through the support of foreign Geoarchaeologists and Sri Lankan professional and amature Geoarchaeologists.

Kuruvita Batadomba Lena

Also different organizations such as the Central Cultural Fund and other foreign institutions have led prehistoric surveys and excavations in the island revealing further the life of the prehistoric man.

As mentioned above, the modern period of prehistoric archaeological explorations began in 1969 and continues to this day. Although this discipline has developed to a great extent, much obstacles could be identified which creates a hindrance to the growth of this field (for further information, read the analytical research paper by the author on Sri Lanka Prehistoric Archaeology; the past, present and future).

According to the last 3 article of this series it could be seen that the large knowledge base created at present created at is the result of many peoples mental and physical commitment and their utmost dedication

Interviews Prehistory interviews Dr. H. Nimal Perera

Dr.H. Nimal Perera

Dr. Nimal Perera

Halawathage Nimal Perera, born on the 23rd of December 1953 is a prominent prehistorian of Sri Lanka and was the former Director of Excavations and Acting Deputy Director-General of Archaeology; he is currently the Director of Sabaragamuwa Province of the Central Cultural Fund.

He received his BA in Archaeology from the University of Peradeniya in 1979 and went on to receive his Masters from the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute of the University of Pune, India in 1992 and his PhD in Archaeology and Paleontology from the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia in 2007. His area of expertise is in the pre-proto and early historic archaeology of Sri Lanka and stressing on prehistoric human ecology and is the country’s expert on lithics analysis.

He joined the Department of Archaeology of the Government of Sri Lanka in 1982 as a Technical Assistant in Excavations and rose up the ranks to Director Excavations. He was trained intensively and supervised by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, the then Director-General of Archaeology and also was trained by foreign scholars such as the late Prof. V.N. Misra of India in analysis of stone tools and Prof. Salle of France at the excavations of Mahasthan, Bangladesh. He has directed a number of excavations in the late Pleistocene, early Holocene rock shelters and open air sites such as Batadomba Lena and Bellan-bandi Palassa where he pioneered application of geo-archaeological and bio-archaeological methods.

Out of his many publications, what could be considered his magnum opus is his Prehistoric Sri Lanka in the British Archaeological Report series (Oxford) which was the most important research publication on Sri Lankan archaeology during the first decade of this century. His other notable works are ‘People of the ancient rainforest: anatomically modern late Pleistocene foragers at the Batadomba Lena rockshelter, Sri Lanka’ in the Journal of Human Evolution Vol. 61 (3) which ranks in the 10th position of the top twenty articles in the World which awarded him the National Research Council Merit Award for Scientific Publication 2011, ‘First technological comparison of African Howieson Poort and South Asian Microlith Industries: an exploration of inter-regional variability in microlith assemblage’ in the Quaternary International 2014 which he Co-authored, and ‘Bone technology in South Asia from late Pleistocene rockshelter Deposits in Sri Lanka’ in Osseous Projectile Weaponry: Towards an Understanding of Pleistocene Cultural Variability VERT series, New York.

Dr. Nimal Perera at Deccan College India (seated first from right) with the late Prof. V.N. Misra (seated second from left) and Dr. Vasant Sinde (standing third from left) who is the present Vice Chancellor of Deccan College of the University of Pune, India.
Dr. Nimal Perera at the Australian National University.
Dr. Siran Deraniyagala (left) and Dr. Nimal Perera
Supervising excavations at Mahasthangarh archaeological site in Bangladesh, 1994


Prehistory of Sri Lanka 4: the intermediate period of Prehistoric research in Sri Lanka

Chandima Bandara Ambanwala

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

Chandima Ambanwala

Based on the qualitative features of the Prehistoric studies in Sri Lanka, it could be divided into three distinct periods. The previous article dealt with the beginning of Prehistoric research in the island, this article would discuss the intermediate period.

When going through the history of prehistoric research in the island, the intermediate period could be stated as starting from 1939 to 1969. The most important aspect of this period is the feature of transition in every aspect. When observing this period one could see the buildup of the theoretical features of the early period as well as the formation of a solid foundation for the modern period. The other most important aspect of this period is the emergence of local scholars in the forefront of prehistoric studies of the country unlike the early period where foreign scholars dominated the stage. This period saw systematic, organized expeditions taking place on a much larger scale than before; and also the involvement of Government institutes such as the Department of Museums in prehistoric research is a notable feature.

Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala

The most important personality during the period 1939 to 1963 was Dr.P.E.P Deraniyagala, Director of National Museums (Paule Edward Pieris Deraniyagala 1900-1976). The son of the illustrious historian and scholar Dr. Paul Edward Pieris, P.E.P. Deraniyagala showed excellence in many different fields. From Zoology to Anthropology to Prehistoric Archaeology, his contributions to the prehistory of Sri Lanka are immense. One could read the article on the eJournal “Dinithi-Sri Lanka Archaeology” by the team on P.E.P. Deraniyagala written by Kalum Manamendra-arachchi (another great scholar of this century) on his life and scholarly work. When going through the publications of Dr. Deraniyagala it is evident that his quantitative and qualitative research on the prehistory of Sri Lanka goes to a broad extent. Amoung his many scholarly literatures is The Pleistocene of Ceylon published by the National Museum in 1958 which was taken from his PhD thesis from the Harvard University of USA. The entire contributions of Dr. Deraniyagala to the history of Sri Lanka could never be presented in an article like this, but only a summary of his works to the novice reader.

He firstly began excavations of the Thudawe Galge in the Sinharaja forest and throughout the 1940s conducted excavations in sites such as Udupiyangalge, Bambaragala, Lunugala, Kukulegama, Lenama, Madolgalge, Yakgirilena with finds from stone tools to animal and plant fossils. After this he focused his attention to the Sri Pada Reserve and for the first time excavated the caves of Batadomba Lena of Kuruwita and Batathota Lena; from Batadomba Lena he uncovered stone tools and animal bones. In 1945 his attention was drawn to the Neravana Galge of Kukulegama and also of the Manda Galge in the Monaragala District.

Minihagalkanda (picture

He also conducted excavations in the Ravana Ella cave north of Bandarawela where he uncovered stone and bone tools with the most interesting find being that of the remains of a human skull. During his excavation of the Kalukoladeniya cave in Kegalle they discovered for the first time a stone tool like that of an Ax blade. This proved to be good evidence of a Neolithic implement and was subjected to study by scholars. In Bulathwatta north of Palmadulla he discovered stone implements related to the Balangoda culture. More excavations were carried out at Kabaragalge cave in Rathnapura, Alugalge in Thelula and Boradiyawala in Wilpathu.

The excavations carried out between 1956 to 1961 in Bellanbandipalassa near the Walawe River in Ambilipitiya has gone down in the pages of Sri Lankan Archaeology as one of the most important excavations. This excavation revealed 12 human skeletons, providing a good indication on the physical nature of the Prehistoric Man, hence could be said as one of the most remarkable discoveries in prehistoric archaeology in Sri Lanka. A certain amount of information on this could be found in his book The Pleistocene of Ceylon. Dr. Deraniyagala was the first to show that the Prehistoric Man had similar features of the Homo sapiens or the modern Man. Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala was the first to scientifically classify this humanoid as Homo sapiens balangodensis deraniyagala or the Balangoda Man. Hence Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala is known as the ‘Father of the Prehistoric Mesolithic Man of Sri Lanka’(although the prehistoric man is known as the Balangoda Man, he was not confined to that area only but lived in every part of the island. It is a custom in archaeology to name a first-of-its-kind find from the locality from where it was found. For example the Acheulean hand axe was first discovered in Sain-Acheul and therefore wherever in the world this is found, it is known was the Acheulean axe).

Excavation plan of Bellanbandipalassa by Dr. Deraniyagala and the uncovered human skeletons

After this Dr. Deraniyagala conducted expeditions to the Isthripura cave south east of Kandy and Ottappuwe in Wilpathu and uncovered stone implements belonging to the prehistoric age. He further investigated the Herassagala cave in Rathnapura, Budugal Lena and Dikkgal Lena. Manela Galge of Gewaragiriya in Sabaragamuwa and Kithugala Beli Lena in Kegalle too were subjected to investigations. In the Rakwana Buthkanda, Iththakanda, and Buluthota caves through a surface investigation, Quartz and Chert stone tools were found. Through excavations in the area of Hungama in southern Sri Lanka Mesolithic tools were found. This area was once again subjected to systematic excavation recently in 2005 by Dr. Nimal Perera yielding important finds.

Artifacts from the Neravana cave in Kukulegama excavated by Dr. Deraniyagala

Dr. Deraniyagala conducted research on the Veddas of Sri Lanka as well. By studying these primitive people it was possible to get an idea on the culture of the Prehistoric Man. He also focused his attention and investigation on the primitive cave paintings.

During the Ice ages between 10,000 – 1,800,000 years ago the alluvial deposits of Rathnapura belonging to the Pleistocene epoch were extensively studied by Dr. Deraniyagala revealing facts on the environment during that period. These Alluvial deposits could be divided into 3 periods, 1) the Rathnapura period, 2) the Palugahathure period (a dry marshy period),  and 3) the Colombo period (a climatic condition similar to the present). Likewise Dr. Deraniyagala focused his attention on the early geological periods of the island and conducted deep studies into them. These studies later aided in the understanding of the habitat and environment of the prehistoric man.

Much data on the Pleistocene epoch on Sri Lanka was taken from his investigations of the gem mines of Rathnapura. Some of his exceptional researches were on the extinct prehistoric animals of the Pleistocene epoch through fossils from the alluvial gem pits which sheds light on the many extinct species of animals and also species that are still living. His book The Pleistocene of Ceylon is an outstanding work in this regard with information on now extinct species such as Turtles, Elephants, Lion, and Hippopotamus. Apart from these he has shed light on two extinct humanoid species as well.

He has compared the animal fossils found from the Alluvial deposits of Pallmadulla in Rathnapura to those found in India from the Narmada river middle and upper Pleistocene deposits and the Swahilik region in Panjab and have shown similarities between the species. This shows that there has been a movement of animal species between Sri Lanka and India when they were once connected. He has pointed out that the alluvial deposits having been re-deposited have caused problems in dating the findings. The artifacts found from the gem mines of Rathnapura were first classified as the ‘Rathnapura Culture’ but later changed to the ‘Rathnapura Industry’ because to be classified as a culture there needs to be many factors whereas only technological artifacts were recovered from the mines hence them been classified as Industry.

The Acheulean hand axe culture which is found throughout the world is interestingly absent from Sri Lanka, several reasons for this have been put forward such as Sri Lanka being separated from the mainland and the none availability of Quartzite stone in the island which was used to construct these stone tools.

The stone age is divided into three ages with the Neolithic being the youngest of the three; it is so differentiated from the two preceding older periods due to the special features in the stone tools and cultural developments of the prehistoric man. It is still not accepted by scholars that a Neolithic period existed in Sri Lanka but decades before Dr. Deraniyagala had shown evidence that this Neolithic period existed.

The Balangoda Man, a sculpture by Dr.P.E.P. Deraniyagala in the British Museum (picture by Kalum Manamendra-arachchi)

The research done on this period by Dr. Deraniyagala could not be found on a proper paradigm and thus is considered a weakness in his research. But the knowledge he has created in prehistoric archaeology and various paths he opened up has proved invaluable to the modern scholar. Another important contribution of Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala was that he brought in another legendary expert on prehistory of not only Sri Lanka but in the region as well, that is his son Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala.

Even during the intermediate period the Noon brothers contributed their share of knowledge and also in 1950 Bridget Allchin had conducted a study on the stone tools of Sri Lanka. S. P. F. Senaratha of the National Museum in 1969 published a small book titled Prehistoric Archaeology of Ceylon on the prehistory of Sri Lanka and at a time where the study of prehistory is not well known, his efforts must be appreciated.

Artifacts from the Beli-Lena inner cave

S. Gunerathna, Curator in Geology and Prehistory of the Department of National Museums in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology excavated the inner cave of the Beli Lena at Avissawella and found evidence of Mesolithic period tools and animal remains. A detailed report of this excavation written by H. D. H. De Silva is to be found in the official publication of the Museum Spolia Zeylanica (1971) titled ‘Beli-Lena Athula – Another Stone Age habitation in Ceylon’. Thus we could see contribution of the National Museum in the exploration of the Prehistory of Sri Lanka.

Dr. Siran Deraniyagala comes in to scholarly sphere at the end of the Intermediate period of Prehistoric exploration thus we would be discussing his contributions under the modern period of prehistoric study.

Through the above discussion we could get an overall understanding of the intermediate period of prehistoric study in Sri Lanka. The special features of this period as stated in the beginning was the taking over of the study of prehistory by the local scholars from the foreigners, the conducting of expeditions throughout the entire island and also conducting studies in relation to geology, zoology and anthropology.


Prehistory of Sri Lanka 3: the early period of Prehistoric Research in Sri Lanka

Chandima Bandara Ambanwala

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

Translated by. Chryshane Mendis


Chandima Ambanwala

It is a known fact that different approaches need to be applied in examining a certain subject, therefore in studying a certain subject, there can be many different methods used. One successful method is by studying the contributors of that subject or the scholars that contributed to that specific filed. Accordingly from here on this article series would focus on the founders of prehistoric archaeology in Sri Lanka and the best way to appreciate them is by describing their contribution to the field. Also it is important to be aware of the hardships faced by archaeologists and other researchers in creating the knowledge we have today. Dr. Siran Deraniyagala in his doctoral thesis at the Harvard University in USA titled “Prehistory of Sri Lanka: an ecological perspective”, the section on History of Research (pages 2-22) contains an interesting stream of information and analysis and deserves an honorable mention here.

Even though knowledge of the Man of the pre-Vijayan era or the Prehistoric man is limited in the present generations, studies into to prehistory dates back to more than 125 years ago. The interest to study the Stone Age Man dates back before the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon was started in 1890 under Harry Charles Purvis Bell. It can be seen that the interest created in the prehistory of Europe in the 19th century spread directly to Sri Lanka. Excited by the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin, European scholars began to search the origins of Man moving away from the religious belief that Man was created. Though this enthusiasm was centered in Europe, the Europeans living in the island too took an interest in the Stone Age Man in Sri Lanka. The ways in which Sri Lanka’s prehistory was studied and its features, when examined shows important characteristics at different periods. Accordingly from the first study in 1885 to the present can be divided into 3 periods. They are, 1. the period from 1885 to 1939, 2. the period from 1939 to 1969 and 3. from 1969 to the present. Let us examine these different periods in brief.

The beginning

Robert Bruce Foote (image taken from God Apes and fossil Men)

The beginning of prehistoric archaeological research in India could be stated as begun from 1863 after the discovery of a Palaeolithic tool from a rock crater in the Pallawaram area of Madurai by Robert Bruce Foote of the Geological Survey of India. The writer believes that prehistoric archaeology should be studied as a unique subject or a regional phenomenon not bound by administrative boundaries (like India, Sri Lanka, Eastern Province, Western Province or cultural boundaries). Therefore the above incident could be taken as the beginning of prehistoric archaeology in Sri Lanka as well. Similarly, prehistoric research began in the island in about 1885. The founders of prehistoric research in the island were not archaeologists but scholars and professionals from different fields (archaeology had not been developed as a discipline during this time). The initial work of the early researchers was collecting of stone tools made out of Quartz and Chert found on the surface in different parts of the island. Through these findings, they provided evidence that prehistoric people using stone tools had existed in the island. In collecting and defining these tools, these researchers were spontaneous in interpreting these findings with findings in Europe.

Hand-Axe found by Robert Bruce Foote (taken from God, Apes and fossil Men)

The Entomologist E. E. Green in 1885 discovered from sites in the central hills such as Peradeniya, Nawalapitiya and Pudalu Oya stone tools of Quartz and Chert, this is one of the oldest recorded prehistoric explorations done in the island. Afterwards the cultivator John Pole discovered many more tools in places such as Maskeliya, Dimbula, Dikoya, Bogawanthalawa, Mathale, Nuwara Eliya, Madolseema, Galle, and Maankulam. In 1913 he published a detailed report on his findings. In his report, he has identified the Chert tools as belonging to the Palaeolithic period and the Quartz tools to the Neolithic period.

A Quartz stone tool found by Green in the area of Kandy

Soon after the famous Swiss anthropologist brothers P. Sarasin and F. Sarasin began their studies in the island. The knowledge gained from their research in the Celebes islands was a useful factor in commencing research here in Sri Lanka. With that knowledge, they showed that all the stone tools found throughout the island were human creations as was the view of certain western scholars that the tools were the work on nature and not man. Firstly the Sarasin brothers examined the Thelula and Galge caves of the Southern Province and found evidence of animal remains and Quartz tools. After that, they examined locations in Buthala and Okkampitiya but found no evidence.

After that, they focused their attention on the areas of the Vaddas in Bibile and Nilgala who are thought to be some of the oldest inhabitants of the island. In the meantime, they also excavated the Gangodadeniya cave which showed some results, but the special feature of this excavation was their attention to the soil layer found there. During their systematic excavation of the cave, they were able to discover a human skeleton. After this once again their excavations of Matigaha-ara cave and Gongigane cave in Akiriyankumbura showed no promising results. From here they next focused their attention to the central hills of Sri Lanka. They found stone tools on the surface in areas in Kandy and Bandarawela and also collected stone tools from the areas of Gampola, and Nawalapitiya. It is mentioned that these stone tools are now in the Basel Museum in Switzerland. The artefacts found by the Sarasin brothers and John Pole has been reexamined. Their findings from Sri Lanka were put into the report in 1909 and at a time when Prehistory was not that developed in the world; the publishing of a successful report was an important phenomenon. Through this report when comparing the tools found in Sri Lanka and those found in Western Europe, puts them to the Upper Paleolithic period and belonging to the Magdalenian culture of Europe. Based on these the research of the Sarasin brothers is very important to the study of Prehistory.

The Government’s Mineral Resource Researcher Parsons too had investigated the prehistoric era of Sri Lanka. He had excavated the Beligalge cave in the Dikmukalana tea estate of Bambarabotuwa. During the excavations, he had found human skeletal remains about 8 feet deep. Later Charles Hartley examined the soil excavated by Parsons more closely.

B. Gardner had collected stone tools from the area of Belihul Oya to the east of the Beligalge cave and conducted researches in different parts of the island. Later Lewis too carried out several researches island wide with the Urumuththa cave in the Matara District being the most prominent.

The Irrigation Engineer Henry Parker contributed a great deal to the study of prehistory by conducting several ethnological researches on the Vadda and Sinhala people. He tried to produce a logical view on the folklore of the Sinhala, Tamil and Vedda people of the island. On studying the origins of the Vadda,  he proposed the idea that they are the descendants of the Yaksha people mentioned in the Pali chronicles. Through his book Ancient Ceylon: an account of the aborigines and of part of the early civilisation, Asian Education Services, New Delhi (1909) he showed his knowledge on the many fields he looked into. He was the first to categories stone tools in Sri Lanka through the systematic excavation of soil layers of caves of Bendiyagalge in Henebaddha and Mullegama Galge.

C. G. Seligman

The anthropologist couple Charles Gabriel Seligman and Brenda Zara Seligman who have conducted some of the best anthropological research of modern times have greatly influenced modern prehistoric archaeological research. Out of the many researches conducted by them, the research on the Vaddas of Sri Lanka The Vaddas – Cambridge University Press is an important work. Through their excavations of the Bendiyagalge cave in Henebaddha they pointed out the historical periods of the cave through the analysis of the soil layers. C. G. Seligman was the first to propose the categorization of the stone tools by Quantity. The Seligman couple too had collected stone tools from the Bandarawela area just as the Sarasin brothers. They had rejected the idea that the stone implements found from this area belonged to the Palaeolithic period as suggested by the Sarasin brothers and instead stated that they belong to the Neolithic period. The stone implements excavated by them are said to be at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Charles Hartley who contributed a lot to Sri Lankan prehistory continued to excavate the Beligalge cave begun by Parsons earlier but could not reach the bed rock due to several large rocks which they encountered while excavating. Hartley had carried out his research in Bandarawela, Diyathalawa, Haputhale, Pattipola, Nanuoya, Koslanda, Ragala, Norwood, Dickwella, Radella, Dimbula, Koggala, Hatton, Maskeliya, Bagawanthalawa, Ulapane, Nawalapitiya, Gampola, Dolosbage, Peradeniya, Kadugannawa, Kandy, Puttalam, Habarana, Kurunegala, Polonnaruwa, Hambanthota, Beligalge and many other places in the island. It is shown that most of the stone implements excavated by Hartley were sent to the Archaeology and Anthropology Museum of Cambridge University and the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford University. Through his excavations, thousands of stone implements were found.

The Vaddas of Sri Lanka (taken from

Hartley was able to broaden the foundations laid by the Sarasin brothers and all the stone tools found up to that date were found to be similar to the Neolithic tools. The tiny stone tools found were called as Pigmy in 1913 and now known as Microlithic stone tools. Microlithic tools are found in locations such as Matale, Diyathalawa, Pattipola and Maha Eliya (Horton Plains) of the Wet zone or Environmental zone D and the coastal regions of Jaffna.

He was able to collect lunate shaped geometrical stone tools and also presented a categorization of the stone tools. But sadly Hartley never produced a satisfactory report on his numerous excavations.

The geologist E. J. Weyland could be identified as one of the most important characters in the early period of prehistoric archaeological exploration who took a different approach to it. He served as the Government’s Assistant Mineral Resource Researcher. Kalum Manamendra-archchi has pointed out that the greatest prehistoric archaeologist of the modern times Dr. Siran Deraniyagala has taken influence from E. J. Weyland. He has paid special attention to the impact of geological conditions and climatic conditions to the prehistory of the island. He had conducted studies in the North West in the Kala Oya and Modaragamaru plateau deposits and also in the South East from the semi-arid region of Udapothana up to Mulathivu. He has shown that the deep gravel layer found in these areas belong to the Pleistocene glacial period and the surface red sand belonged to a dry climatic condition. The red soil deposit now known as the Iranamadu Sequence by geologists and the Iranamadu Formation (IFm) by archaeologists was first studied from an archaeological point of view by Weyland. During the 1970s and 1980s, this deposit was future scientifically studied by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala. Out of the many publications by Weyland, the article “Outline of the Stone Ages of Ceylon” in the Spolia Zeylanica is a famous work. In this work, he had categorised the stone tools as the Hill series and Lowland series. The stone implements found from the Bandarawela area by researchers such as Charles Hartley were found small in size and they were classified as belonging to a period between Paleolithic and Neolithic periods and also plateau deposits inclusive lowland grades tools were large in size and made a comparison to them with the Middle Paleolithic or Mousterian period in Europe.

Kudiramale point – Iranamadu formation

Johnn Still and A. M. Horcart too have contributed to the development of prehistoric archaeology in Sri Lanka. Between 1938-39 E. C. Wormann, a postgraduate student of Harvard University investigated the coastal areas of the Northwest and collected stone tools. The implements found by him are now in the Peabody Museum in Harvard University, USA. He had examined stone implements from Bandarawela and believed them to belong to the Mesolithic period and also the Plateau deposits found by Weyland were categorised as belonging to the Mesolithic period by Wormann.

A. Noon and H. V. V. Noon further conducted excavations in the Bandarawela area and found over 2,000 stone implements which were analysed on different foundations. They have stated that all the stone tools found in the island belonged to the same culture and said it could be known as the ‘Bandarawela culture’.

Looking back at the early period of prehistoric archaeological explorations several features could be observed. 1) All research were done by foreigners, 2) and explorations were conducted by non-archaeologists but professionals of different other fields which is a very special feature and also that they have paid attention to the stone implements and anthropological factors. Another feature is that most of these excavations were conducted in the central hills of the country and that in later years that changes. However, when comparing world prehistoric archaeology, Sri Lanka has amassed a great deal of data and created a firm base for the syllabus of prehistoric archaeology. Accordingly, we could say that modern prehistoric archaeology has a firm foundation and a formal point of view.



Prehistory of Sri Lanka 2 : the geographical and geological background of Sri Lanka

Chaminda Bandara Ambanwala

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

Translated by : Chryshane Mendis

Chandima Ambanwala

Archaeology is considered a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary subject. It could be said so as the knowledge generated from other natural sciences and social sciences are used to get an overview of archaeology. When studying about the prehistoric man under archaeology, just as looking into the cultural features, the Archaeologist should also look into the environmental features around. Although the prehistoric man built a culture, as he too is an animal who depends on the environment and the culture he built is also based on environmental facts, the natural environment therefore, is important.  In the study of prehistoric man, the Archaeologist cannot get a total understanding of him by studying the cultural factors alone. Attention should be focused on the environmental factors as well. This article series which attempts to follow the story of the prehistoric man of Sri Lanka will try to give a brief understanding of the environment in which he lived or rather from which he lived in. Therefore let us take a look into the ancient environment or the geographical and geological factors of Sri Lanka.

The placement of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is separated from the Indian subcontinent by a 29 km wide strip of sea and is 8° north of the equator. The absolute location of Sri Lanka is situated between Northern latitude 50 55” – 90 51’ and East longitude 790 41” – 810 53”

Source: Google Maps

Delft, Punkuduthiv, and Analathiv are some of the many islands separate of the mainland found in the north and north west. From Point Pedro in the North to Dondra head in the south is 430 km in length and from Point Sangamankanda in Kalmune in the East to Colombo in the West is 227 km at its maximum width. Total square area of Sri Lanka is 65,610 square km. To the south-west of the country are the Maldivian islands, and to the south-east, the Nicobar and Andaman islands. The island’s terrain, weather, climate, flora and fauna, soil and other data show a relationship to nearby southern India.

The Geological history of Sri Lanka

As one of the founders of geological research in Sri Lanka, the Indian national D.N. Wadia has stated that the geological history of Sri Lanka is still not 100% known. But an overview of the geological history of Sri Lanka can be viewed by the studies conducted so far. Sri Lanka’s geological scale goes back as far as to the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland described by Alfred Wegener. Much of Sri Lanka comprises of Precambrian rock as old as 280 million years. Accordingly, the landmass of Sri Lanka has suffered all the changes faced by the planet over millions of years.

Pangaea and Gondwanaland, above 200 million years, blow 80 million years (taken from K.A.R. Kennedy’s God apes and Fossil men)

From the beginning of geological activities, the landmass south of the Himalayas mountain range which is India, Pakistan, Afganistan and Sri Lanka were an island. At that time the area of Sri Lanka was situated around 7° north of the equator. Later all the landmass on the surface of the earth formed into the large super continent known as Pangaea and the landmass of the Indian subcontinent passing the equator joined the continents of Africa and Antarctica.

26 million years ago during the Permian period, the south of Sri Lanka was joined with South Africa and western Antarctica and settled in a snow covered area 60 latitudes south. As a result of the rising temperature during this period, a glacier flowing from South Africa drifted over southern Sri Lanka creating several geological features. During the historical period, an important aspect of the hydraulic culture was the construction of tanks, the depression in the land which aided its construction is considered to have been generated through the erosion of such glaciers.  The gold and gem stones found in certain lake basins are believed to have been washed down from the gold and diamond sites in Africa by the glaciers and being deposited here.

After the super-continent Pangaea broke off into sections, the landmass of Gondwanaland too broke off and the continent of Australia and the Indian subcontinent began their northwards journey.  18 million years ago in the Jurassic period, the island moved to the tropical climate and thus coniferous plant fossils have been recorded from the Vanni region and the northwestern area of the island in Thabbowa and Adigama.

6.5 million Years ago the Indian subcontinent moving northwards collided with the Eurasian continent and as a result of this collision the Himalayan mountain range was formed. It is evident that this northward push of the subcontinent is still in progress as observations have shown that the Himalayas continue to rise few centimetres a year. Due to this collision, the island of Sri Lanka began its separation from the mainland and continues to move 1 centimetre a year towards the south-west. As a result of this, the peninsula of Jaffna which was once part of the Madurai area of India is now around 325 km southwards.

During the glacial and inter-glacial periods throughout the world, the sea levels rose and fell and as a result, Sri Lanka and India were separated and joined again several times. With this, the land bridge formed between India and Sri Lanka gave the needed backing for the movement of species between the two landmasses. This on and off separation continued for several hundred thousand years and was completely separated for the last time around 7,000 years ago. During the times when the sea levels rose, a limestone layer was formed on the coral reefs in the Palk Strait. Accordingly 2.4 million years ago during the Miocene epoch of the Tertiary period which is believed to be a warm period, due to the flooding of land by sea water the Limestone sediments from Jaffna to Puttalam were formed. During this time scholars assume the northwestern coast of the Island to have been along Puttalam, Madu Church and across Mankulam to Mulathivu.

2 million years ago the Pleistocene epoch of the Quaternary period saw the flourishing of animal and plant life at a respectable level. Through an archaeological dig in the Alluvial soil deposits from Rathnapura several years ago by Dr.P.E.P. Deraniyagala many remains of extinct and living species of animals were found. He pointed out that these species showed a close connection with the species of the Siwalik and Narbada regions of India. This series will discuss further on the history of the Pleistocene epoch in Sri Lanka in another article.

It is the view of geologists that there is few evidence of the island’s geological history from the Precambrian eon to the Jurassic period.  The lack of major evidence from these periods suggests that during this time the entire land was one stable landmass. The rock formations throughout the country like Mihinthalaya, Sigiriya, Dimbulagala, and Dolukanda provide examples for this.

The Birth of Sri Lanka’s landscape

The origins of the island’s landscape was the subject of geologists from the beginning of the 20th century, firstly by foreign scholars and then by the local scholars. Collecting all ideas on the birth of the landscape Prof. C.M. Madduma Bandara on an article tiled “the geological background of the Mahawali” to the Mahawali Wansha Granthaya explains this perfectly. The following is taken from that article and all due credit should go to him.

The first view of the birth of the landscape of Sri Lanka was given in 1928 by the Scandinavian geologist F. D. Adams terming it the “En-mass block uplift”. By drawing a cross section of the landscape from north to south and east west he identified 3 different plains varying in height. He has shown that these 3 different plains could be witnessed along the Haputale-Haldumulla road. He pointed out that these plains contain at times rapid slops and at times escarpments giving the ‘Worlds end’ as an example. According to Adams similar to the highest plains, a large landmass first became land through the Block uplift. This first land was quite higher than the present highest level. After weathering for a long period the second uplift took place lifting this block and raising both these blocks the third uplift took place. This third block, Adams believes is similar to the present landmass of Sri Lanka. According to this view, the central hills should show the oldest features of the land but scholars point out that the highest slopes of the hills show the youngest features.

D. N. Wadia (1883-1969) (this picture is taken from

As an alternative view, D.N. Wadia, the Indian geologist put forward the “Circumscribe Block Uplift” theory in 1943. According to this theory, a landmass similar to the entire island faced an uplift and complementary block uplifts which took place in the center gave the present landscape its features. As of this view, the oldest sections are the coastal regions. The faults along the Nilgiri mountains of India, the Malabar coast, and Thabbowa are believed to be during the period of the Circumscribe Block Uplift. Further the Sri Lankan geologist K. Kularathnam proposed another theory called the “Multiple Block Uplift” theory in 1953.

A theory based on Geo-movement was put forward in 1972 by D. P. W. Withanage. According to him, the land of the central highlands developed through micro Geo-movement and with the process of erosion gave birth to its present form.

Many such theories on the origin of the landscape of the island have been put forward and its origin is continued to be studied by geologists at present. The geological evidence found have played an important role in determining the origin of the landscape and it could be seen that these factors have in later times aided the development of human civilization. In a simple way, this fact could be seen as how the geological features have influenced the survival of the prehistoric man and his culture.


Sri Lanka’s geological zones

Sri Lanka’s geological zone (taken from Arjuna’s Atlas of Sri Lanka)

Geologically looking, 9/10 of Sri Lanka comprises of highly crystalline rocks of more than 570 million years ago from the Precambrian era. The rest 1/10 comprises of sedimentary formations such as limestone, sands and clay of the Jurassic period and tertiary and quaternary periods. In the northern zone, a layer of limestone formed during the Miocene epoch could be traced. Precambrian rocks could be divided into 4 main categories based on their rock types, isotopic characteristics and structures.

  1. Highland complex: the central highlands and northeast and south-west of the island.
  2. Wanni complex: also called the Western Vijayan complex, comprises of the lowlands west of the Highland complex.
  3. Vijayan complex: also called the Eastern Vijanyan complex, consists of the land east of the Highland complex.
  4. Kadugannawa complex: centrally located in the Highland complex, the internal rocks are separate to that of the Highland complex.



Sri Lanka’s geographical background


Due to Sri Lanka being an equatorial country, it receives direct sun light throughout the year. Although there is a consistent temperature throughout the year it is hard to see a distinct division. Even though it’s hard to get a clear temperature difference in Sri Lanka, the normal monthly medium temperature is 27.4 °C and annual medium temperature is less than 27.8 °C. When traveling from sea level upwards the temperature drops around 0.64 °C for every 100 meters. Under these temperature conditions, it is favorable for human habitation and does not affect human settlements. Hence just as many other environmental factors, the temperature of the island too provides favorable living conditions.


Rain is the main method by which Sri Lanka receives freshwater, an important component for life. According to annual rainfall data, the highest rainfall is recorded from the central hills while the western region receives the most rainfall. Sri Lanka receives rain in 3 ways, 1) by Convectional rain, 2) by Monsoonal rain, 3) by Cyclonic rain. Due to the cyclonic conditions in the Bay of Bengal Sri Lanka receives cyclonic rain between the months of October to November with heavy rainfall to North and East. Based on these facts it is clear that due to the consistent rainfall there is sufficient freshwater for animals. On the other hand the many water ways which flow from the central hills creates a favorable condition for human civilization. The rain, streams, springs, and other water bodies all aid greatly in the survival of Man. When studying the ancient human habitats and other elements of prehistoric man it is clear that the habitat of the ancient man was always close to a water source.

Soil distribution

When studying the natural environment of prehistoric man, an important component which helped his activities is the soil. A habitable environment for animal and plant life is only made possible by a stable soil. Looking in comparison to rock materials, there are few features of soil.

  1. Animals and plants that live on the soil
  2. Having a structure in the soil
  3. Ability to withstand environmental changes

Soil also plays an important role in an archaeological study by protecting the animal and plant remains found in the different types of soil and sediment and thus providing a valuable insight into the ancient environment. Examining certain types of soil provides us with vital information on Man. Physical and chemical weathering of the bedrock helps in the creation of soil and given below are some of the main factors that help in this process:

  1. Climate
  2. Parent materials
  3. Relief
  4. Organisms
  5. Time

The Dry zone and Semi dry Intermediate zone, the Wet zone and Semi wet Intermediate zone are the different climatic zones of Sri Lanka and out of the identified 25 types of soil found within these zones, they fall under the 14 great soil groups. This differentiation depends on the variance of the factors and the parent rock. Out of the soil distribution of the island, the red soil found from the coastal regions of north-west and south-east Sri Lanka has revealed rich evidence relating to the prehistory of the Island. Scholars point out that this soil has been formed due to special climatic conditions. But wrong views about this soil are found spreading in the society at present. At present, the oldest human artifacts have been found from this soil and the information from these sheds light on the Paleolithic period.

Natural Flora

Any place where flora has been generated without the intervention of Man is known as Natural flora. Sri Lanka’s flora is divided into two main parts, 1) Forests and 2) Grasslands. Archaeologists believe that this natural flora directly influenced the behavior of prehistoric man and the related cultural elements. Some grasslands and plains of the central highlands are the results of the work of prehistoric man as Dr. Siran Deraniyagala has shown.

Knuckles: Central Highland Sri Lanka

Environmental zones

Depending on many environmental factors researchers have been able to divide Sri Lanka’s environment into several zones. They are divided according to the below diagram.

Environmental zones (taken from S. U. Deraniyagala’s Prehistory of Sri Lanka: an Ecological Perspective)

For archaeological investigations at present, these divisions are used. Accordingly, when planning prehistoric expeditions and the interpretation of human components, various zones are classified based on these environmental zones. Out of the archaeological studies on prehistoric man carried out so far, the majority of studies have been from the wet zone or ‘Environmental zone D’ and some from the semi-arid zone or ‘Environmental zone A’. Studies from the semi-arid zone have revealed some of the oldest prehistoric evidences dating to the Paleolithic period while studies from caves of the wet zone mostly dates to the Mesolithic period. The other zones have seen less attention on the study prehistoric man and should be the areas of study in the future.



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 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.)


Prehistory of Sri Lanka


The Prehistory of Sri Lanka is a fascinating episode of the story of Man on how he depended on the natural environment to survive and how he later tamed it to form civilization. The island’s prehistory dates back thousands of years before the events of the Pali chronicles. Sri Lanka stands out in the world as one of the few countries with a continuous written history from the 3rd century BC. The historical period is considered from the point in time where written records are available and the period of time where written records are not available of man is considered as the prehistoric period. Sri Lanka’s early historic period begins in the 5th century BC with the colonization of the island by immigrants from North India speaking an Aryan language and the historic period from the 3rd century BC from where written records are found.

Prehistoric Pothana Cave

When we speak of our country’s past, we speak of the 2500 years of written history but hardly do we realize that Man had been in the island long before that, even the great chronicle Mahawamsa states of the presence of various tribes in the island during the arrival of Vijaya. Sri Lanka’s prehistory dates to over 125,000 years ago with evidence of human settlements in almost every part of the country. Through the categorization of stone tools, three distinct periods could be observed as Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic and the famous prehistoric man of Sri Lanka known as the “Balangoda Man” belonging to the Mesolithic period.

Series content

This article series would cover the entire scope of the prehistoric man of Sri Lanka beginning with a clear introduction into the historical setting with an overview to the terminologies and the known knowledge to the novice mind. Then with an overview of the origin of the geology and geography of the island in order to better understand the natural environment of the prehistoric man and then on to the extensive studies conducted on prehistoric archaeology from the late 19th century to the present by both foreign and local scholars.

Purpose of the Series

The aim of this article series is to bring to light to the general public an important aspect of our country’s history; because this knowledge is mostly confined to only a few in the academic world. Just as we speak of a proud 2500-year-old history, it is as important to know the origin of our ancestors and how they interacted with the environment to survive.

About the Author

This article series is written by our team member Chandima Ambanwala which has been published in 6 volumes in our Sinhala website and is translated into English by Chryshane Mendis of

Chandima Ambanwala

Being awarded the Prof. P. Leelananda Prematilake & Dr. Nanda Prematilake Prize for Archaeology from the University of Peradeniya in 2006 along with his Bachelor of Arts (Special) 1st class Honours, he also holds a post graduate Diploma in Architectural Conservation of Monuments and Sites from the University of Moratuwa in 1998 and also a Master of Science in Archaeology from the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology in 2010. From 2008-2010 he was appointed a Temporary Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology of the University of Peradeniya and currently serves as the Lecturer of Prehistory and Epigraphy in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Management of the Rajarata University.

Chryshane Mendis

Completing Advance Levels in 2013 from St. Joseph’s College, he is an independent researcher in the fields of Colonial warfare in Sri Lanka and is currently an undergraduate at Aquinas University College Borella.


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.