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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

            Bedrock

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 www.mysrilankaholidays.com)

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

Bedrock

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)

            Bedrock

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 (Pic.by. 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.

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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 archaeology.lk 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 www.lakdasun.org)

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.