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 : Bibliography

Chandima Bandara Ambanwala

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

Given below is the list of references to the Prehistory of Sri Lanka article series published by Kindly note that this list could be updated time to time.


  • ඇඞ්කින්ස්, එල්. හා ආර්. ඇඞ්කින්ස්, (1999), පුරාවිද්‍යා විධිනියම, පරි. ඩබ්ලිවි. දිසානායක, අනුරාධා ප‍්‍රකාශකයෝ, දෙල්ගොඩ.
  • ගුණතිලක, ජේ. (1997), මහාද්වීපික ප්ලාවිතය, මුහුදු පත්ල විස්තාරනය හා තල භූ කාරක මතය, ඛණිජ, පාෂාණ හා පරිසරය, සංස්. ජේ. ගුණතිලක හා ටි. හේවාවසම්, ශ්‍රී ලංකා භූ විද්‍යා සංගමය, පේරාදෙණිය (පි. අ. 32-44).
  • දැරණියගල, එස්. යු. (1984), ප‍්‍රාග් ඓතිහාසික පසුතලය, මහවැලි වංශය, 1 කාණ්ඩය, සංස්. ඩි. එම්. ජි. ඒකනායක, මහවැලි සංවර්ධන අමාත්‍යාංශයේ ඉංජිනේරුමය කාර්යයන් පිළිබද මධ්‍යම උපදේශක කාර්යාංශය, කොළඹ. (පි. අ. 61-63).
  • දැරණියගල, එස්. යු. (1990), පුරාවිද්‍යා කැණීම්, පුරාවිද්‍යා දෙපාර්තමේන්තුවේ ඉතිහාසය, පළමු වන වෙළුම, පරි. කේ. බි. ඒ.එ. ඞ්මන්ඞ්, ප‍්‍රධාන සංස්. එන්. විජේසේකර, පුරාවිද්‍යා දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව, කොළඹ. (පි. අ. 221-237).
  • දැරණියගල, එස්. යු. (1991), ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ප‍්‍රාග් ඉතිහාසය, පරි. එස්. ජයවර්ධන, හා එන්. පෙරේරා, පුරාවිද්‍යා පශ්චාත් උපාධි ආයතනය, කොළඹ.
  • දැරණියගල, එස්. යු. (1995), ප‍්‍රාග් ඓතිහාසික ජනාවාස, අපේ සංස්කෘතික උරුමය, ප‍්‍රථම කාණ්ඩය, සංස්. ඒ. ගුරුගේ, මධ්‍යම සංස්කෘතික අරමුදල, කොළඹ. (පි. අ. 3-8)
  • දැරණියගල, එස්. යු. (1998), සබරගමුවෙන් මතු වූ ප‍්‍රාග් ඓතිහාසික බලංගොඩ මානවයාගේ සංස්කෘතිය, සබරගමු උදාන නිදහස් ස්වණ ජයන්ති ප‍්‍රදර්ශනය – සමරු සංග‍්‍රහය, සංස්. ඒ. අතුරුගිරිය. (පි. අ. 3-7)
  • දැරණියගල, එස්. යු. (2000), ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ප‍්‍රාග් හා පූර්ව ඓතිහාසික ජනාවාස, චිරන්තන : ඓතිහාසික අධ්‍යයන සඟරාව, අංක 4, පරි. එන්. පෙරේරා, සංස්. ඩි. මනතුංග, අයි. බුලංකුලම හා තවත් අය, ඊ. එම්. අයි. පි. ඒකනායක, රද්දොළුගම. (පි. අ. 76-95).
  • දැරණියගල, එස්. යු. (2003), ප‍්‍රාග් ඓතිහාසික සබරගමුව, සබරගමුව වංශකථාව, 1 වෙළුම, සංස්. පි. ඇදගම, සබරගමුව පළාත් සභාව.
  • ධර්මවර්දන, ජි. (1997), ගුවන් ඡායාරූප ව්වරණයේ මූලධම හා පස, සීමාසහිත ඇම්. ඩි. ගුණසේන සහ සමාගම, කොළඹ.
  • පරණවිතාන, එස්. (1998), සිංහලයෝ, සී/ස (පෞද්) විසිදුණු ප‍්‍රකාශකයෝ, බොරලැස්ගමුව.
  • පාකර්, එච්. (2008), පුරාණ ලංකාව (ජනාවාස වූ තැන් පටන් වැව් දාගැබ් යුගය තෙක් දේශයේ වංශකතාව), පරි. නිශ්ශංක පෙරේරා, එස්. ගොඩගේ සහ සහෝදරයෝ, කොළඹ.
  • පානබොක්කේ, සි. ආර්. (1997), ලංකාවේ පස හා පොහොර භාවිතය, පරි. ජී. ධර්මවර්ධන, ඇම්. ඞී. ගුණසේන සහ සමාගම, කොළඹ.
  • පේ‍්‍රම්, බි. (1997), පාෂාණ, ඛණිජ, පාෂාණ හා පරිසරය, සංස්. ජේ. ගුණතිලක හා ටි. හේවාවසම්, ශ්‍රී ලංකා භූ විද්‍යා සංගමය, පේරාදෙණිය. (පි. අ. 6-18)
  • මනතුංග, ඒ. (1996), ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ප‍්‍රාග්ඓතිහාසික පර්යේෂණ පිළිබඳ සමාලෝචනයක්, චිරන්තන – ඓතිහාසික අධ්‍යයන සඟරාව, අංක 2 පරි. සංස්. ඩි. මනතුංග හා අයි. බුලංකුලම, ඊ. එම්. අයි. පි. ඒකනායක, රද්දොළුගම. (පි. අ. 24-34).
  • මද්දුමබංඩාර, සි. එම්. (1984), මහවැලියේ ප‍්‍රභවය හා භූ ගෝලීය පදනම, මහවැලි වංශය, 1 කාණ්ඩය, සංස්. ඩි. එම්. ජි. ඒකනායක, මහවැලි සංවර්ධන අමාත්‍යාංශයේ ඉංජිනේරුමය කාර්යයන් පිළිබද මධ්‍යම උපදේශක කාර්යාංශය, කොළඹ. (පි. අ. 1-12)
  • ලගමුව, ඒ. (2000), ප‍්‍රායෝගික ක්ෂේත‍්‍ර පුරාවිද්‍යාව, සරසවි ප‍්‍රකාශකයෝ, නුගේගොඩ.
  • ලියනගේ, ජි.එල්.එස්.ඩි. (2000අ), ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ප‍්‍රාග් ඉතිහාසය අධ්‍යයනය කිරීමේදි මතුවන ගැටළු හා ප‍්‍රාග් ඓතිහාසික පර්යේෂණයන් හී අනාගතය, වැලිපිළ පුරාවිද්‍යා සඟරාව, සිව්වෙනි කලාපය, සංස්. ඒ. රාජපක්‍ෂ හා පි. පි. එස්. කුමාරි, ඒකාබද්ධ පුරාවිද්‍යා උපාධිධාරී සංගමය මධ්‍යම සංස්කෘතික අරමුදල, කොළඹ. (පි. අ. 5-7)
  • ලියනගේ, ජි.එල්.එස්.ඩි. (2000ආ), ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ මධ්‍ය ශිලා යුගයේ මානවයාගේ හෙවත් බලංගොඩ මානවයාගේ ජීවනෝපාය ආර්ථිකය, සම්භාෂා, කලාපය 11, විද්‍යාලංකාර 125 සමරු ශාස්ත‍්‍රීය සංග‍්‍රහය, ප‍්‍රධාන සංස්. ජි. ඩි. රත්නපාල, අධ්‍යාපන අමාත්‍යාංශ පිරිවෙන් අධ්‍යාපන ශාඛාව (පි. අ. 881-890)
  • වික‍්‍රම, කේ. ඒ. එස්. (1985), පස පිළිබඳ හැඳින්වීමක් (ප‍්‍රකාශක හෝ ස්ථානය සඳහන් නොවේ)
  • විජේපාල, ඩබ්ලිව්. එච්. (2003), සබරගමු ප‍්‍රාග් ඓතිහාසික පර්යේෂණ හා පි. ඊ. පි. දැරණියගල මහතාගේ දායකත්වය, සබරගමුව වංශකථාව, 1 වෙළුම, සංස්. පි. ඇදගම, සබරගමුව පළාත් සභාව. (පි. අ. 227-234)
  • විජේසේකර, එන්. (1964), ප‍්‍රාගෛතිහාසික සමය, ලංකා විශ්වවිද්‍යාලයේ ලංකා ඉතිහාසය, 1 කාණ්ඩය, 1 භාගය, සංස්කාරක
  • සභාපති, එන්. ආටිගල, විද්‍යාලංකාර විශ්වවිද්‍යාලයේ පර්යේෂණාංශයේ සිංහල පරිවර්තනය (පි. අ. 73-80)
  • වීලර්, එම්. (1971), ආදි ඉන්දියාව සහ පාකිස්ථානය (අධ්‍යාපන ප‍්‍රකාශන දෙපාර්තමේන්තුවේ සිංහල පරිවර්තනය) අධ්‍යාපන ප‍්‍රකාශන දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව, කොළඹ.
  • සෙනෙවිරත්න, එස්. (2006), කුවේණියගේ ශාපය : වැද්දන් සහ නවීකරණයේ ප‍්‍රතිවිරෝධය, හෙරිටේජ් (Heritage), අනුවාදක ඩබ්ලියු. මහින්ද හිමි, විධායක සංස්. එස්. සෙනෙවිරත්න, යුනෙස්කෝ නවදිල්ලි ප‍්‍රදේශීය කාර්යාලය හා පේරාදෙණි විශ්වවිද්‍යාලයේ පුරාවිද්‍යා දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව. (පි. අ. 50-58).
  • සෙලිග්මාන්, සී.ජී. හා බී. ඉසෙඩ්. සෙලිග්මාන්, (2009), වැද්දෝ, පරි. චන්දුශ්‍රී රණසිංහ, fපාස්ට් පබ්ලිෂින් (ප්‍රයිවට්) ලිමිටඩ්, කොළඹ.


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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.

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