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Archaeological Milestones in Sri Lanka: Part 01

By Chryshane Mendis

Research into the field of Archaeology in Sri Lanka dates back to over 125 years, having being initiated by the British administration in the late 19th century. Archaeology as a professional discipline began in the early 19th century in Europe and as a result of our colonization by the British, the discipline found its way to the island from early on. Since then the archaeological field in Sri Lanka has been dominated first by the foreigners and after independence by the Sri Lankans, and has greatly aided in our understanding of our rich history. A large percentage of what we know of and all of what we see, of our ancient civilization at present, were all the result of archaeological research.

This article series would sum up some of the most important events in the journey of Sri Lankan Archaeology, milestones which changed the way we think of the past, the way we know the past and the way we see and protect the past. Milestones in Sri Lanka archaeology would include important discoveries to institutional and policy establishments, which, has helped the field to progress to the present and helped expand our understanding and protection of the past. Each article would feature three milestones typically in chronological order. This article would feature:

  1. Translation of the ‘Mahawamsa’
  2. ‘Ancient Inscriptions of Ceylon’ 1883
  3. Discovery of the first stone tools and the establishment of a prehistory in the island

Translation of the ‘Mahawamsa’

The Mahawamsa is one of the oldest continuously recorded chronicles in the world covering a period of over twenty three centuries; it records a continuous political and religious history of the island from the arrival of Vijaya to the fall of the island to the British. As a historical work, it is of immense value in understanding our past and has aided the historian and archaeologist greatly in his/her study. However, this chronicle was all but forgotten in the 19th century until an accurate translation was made in 1837 by George Turnour, which opened the doors to the study of both the history of Sri Lanka and India.

With the colonization of most of the Indian subcontinent by the beginning of the 19th century, European scholars began to explore the history of the cultures of the Indian subcontinent, like wise Ceylon was no exception. To European scholars, prior to the 1830s, it was believed that the island was devoid of any literature of historical interest, this view was carried forward by the Portuguese historians as well as the early British; Robert Percival in his book in 1803 states “the wild stories current among the natives throw no light whatever on the ancient history of the island. The earliest period which we can look for any authentic information is the arrival of the Portuguese under Almeida in 1505” and John Davy in his book in 1821 mentions “the Singhalese possess no accurate record of events; are ignorant of genuine history, and are not sufficiently advanced to relish it”. 

This view was all changed with the ‘discovery’ and translation of the Mahawamsa in 1837 by George Turnour. However, Turnour weren’t the first to ‘discover’ the text or even translate it.   Sir Alexander Johnston during his tenure as Chief Justice of Ceylon (1805-1819) had collected various manuscripts of Pali and Sinhalese from temples throughout the country which also included manuscripts of the Mahawamsa, Rajaratnakaraya and the Rajavaliya. These texts were translated to English by Edward Upham with the assistance of the native chief of the cinnamon department who was an authority in Pali and the Wesleyan missionary Rev. Fox; into the work known as Sacred and Historical Books of Ceylon: Also, A Collection of Tracts Illustrative of the Doctrine and Literature of Buddhism, published in three volumes in London in 1833.

But it is the translation of George Turnour that is most remembered due to the fact that Upham’s translation contained many inaccuracies. Turnour in his introduction of his translation states his endeavor was to “account for one of the most extra-ordinary delusions perhaps, ever practiced on the literary world,” and on the other, to prevent these erroneous representations of the “Sacred and Historical Books of Ceylon to be works of authority.”

George Turnour was an oriental scholar who served in the Ceylon Civil Service and it was during his tenure as Asst. Government Agent of Sabaragamuwa (1825-1828) in 1826 that he came across the rare text of the Mahawamsa. Turnour, who was pursuing his studies into the Pali literature of the island with the assistance of a learned Monk named Gallē, came to know of the existence of a continuous written chronicle on the history of the island. He obtained the manuscript  in 1826 from the Mulgirigala Viharaya in Tangalle which was ‘tika’ or a running commentary of the Pali work known as the Mahawamsa, which contained a continuous written history of the island from 543 B.C. To 1758 A.D. Coming to know the importance of this work, he dedicated his life from then on to the translation and dissemination of this material, which brought to light the unknown history of the island. It is stated that due to his official duties the translation was delayed and when he learned of the translation and publication of Upham, he was glad, but soon found that translation to be faulty.

In 1833 he published a paper titled ‘Epitome of the History of Ceylon’ in the Ceylon Almanac which he listed down the succession and genealogy of 165 Kings from the arrival of Vijaya to the British, based on his study of the Mahawamsa and other materials. According to Tennent “in this work, after infinite labour, he succeeded in condensing the events of each reign, commemorating the founders of the chief cities, and noting the erection of the great temples and Buddhist monuments, and the construction of some of the reservoirs…he thus effectually demonstrated the misconceptions of those who previously believed the literature of Ceylon to be destitute of historic materials”.

Original copy of Turnour’s Mahawanso at the Royal Asiatic Library

His translation of the main text from Pali to English was published titled ‘The Mahāwanso, in Roman Characters with the Translation subjoined; and an introductory essay on Pali Buddhistical Literature’, published by the Cotta Church Mission Press in 1837. This goes as volume I and contains chapters 01 to 38 ending with the reign of King Dhatusena. Volume II of George Turnour’s Mahawama was published only in 1889 which was translated and edited by L. C. Wijesinghe as Mahawamsa Part II.

The first Sinhala translation of the Mahawamsa was undertaken by Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera and Don de Silva Batuwanthudawe between 1877-1883. Subsequently many critical editions have since come about.

By the early 20th century the Government of Ceylon was in wanting of an official English critical translation of Turnour’s Mahawanso; this they found in the person of Prof. Wilhelm Geiger. Prof. Geiger had made a critical translation of this into German in 1908 which was published by the Pali Text Society and subsequently with the assistance of Dr. Mrs. Mabel Haynes Bode; it was translated to English with Prof. Geiger revising the English translation. This critical edition of the Mahawamsa was published in 1912 and remains to date the official translation of the work in English. However Prof. Geiger through his studies had divided the Mahawamsa into two parts, Chapters 01 to 37 he termed the Mahawamsa of which was published in 1912, and from chapters 38 to 101 he termed the Culawamsa which he once again divided as Culawamsa part I and Culawamsa part II, and were published only in 1930.

As mentioned above, at the beginning of the 19th century a detailed history of Sri Lanka before the colonization was unknown to the European scholars and the populace at large. With the fall of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815 and the subsequent decline literature, historical texts of Pali and Sinhalese which were with the Buddhist monks were soon forgotten, having been locked up in Buddhist temple libraries; and it is stated that when Turnour came across it, hardly a Monk knew of its existence. Subsequently with its accurate translation in 1837 by Turnour, a path was created for scholars to explore the island’s past and to know of the people and rulers who shaped Sri Lanka’s ancient Sinhalese civilization.

The translation of the Mahawamsa from Pali to English came in a time when even mainland India lacked a continuous written historical literature and was therefore a major leap forward in deciphering the history of India. It was from the Mahawamsa that the identification of Devanampiya Raja of the Indian inscriptions as Dharmasoka was arrived at, and the subsequent chronology of the predecessors and successors of Dharmasoka were calculated based on the dates of the Mahawamsa. Hence the translation of the Mahawamsa not only unlocked doors in the Sri Lankan context in understanding its past, but also for the south Asian region as well.

 ‘Ancient Inscriptions of Ceylon’ 1883

Epigraphical data is an important tool in archaeological research. A main mode of communication in the ancient world was through inscriptions, and in the Sri Lankan context, there are thousands of inscriptions from ancient times inscribed on rock surfaces, stone slabs, stone pillars, and caves on various topics of secular and religious nature. The study of epigraphy in Sri Lanka has greatly aided in the authentication of the literature works such as the Mahawamsa and continues to shed light on subjects of social nature not found in the ancient books. As such, the identification of the inscriptions, the deciphering of the text, the translation and publication of the text is of utmost importance for the students of both history and archaeology. Hence the first publication on inscriptions (and the forerunner for major works such as Epigraphia Zeylanica) was a major leap forward and deserves a special place in the progress of archaeology in Sri Lanka.

The story on of the publication of ‘Ancient Inscriptions of Ceylon’ in 1883 dates back to the year 1874, when on request of the British colonial Government, Dr. P. Goldschmidt was appointed to look into the various inscriptions reported throughout the island. He began his work in 1875 starting from the Anuradhapura district and published his first report on 2nd September 1875. This report, also published in the Indian Antiquary, V, contains details of inscriptions within the Anuradhapura town and immediate neighborhood, especially Mihintale. His second report came out on 6th May 1876 and deals with the same material but in a more careful and accurate manner. He soon began to distinguish ancient from modern inscriptions based on paleographical reasons and was able to read and translate them. Dr. Goldschmidt moved on to Polonnaruwa and from thereon searched the districts of Trincomallee, Batticaloa, and Hambantota, writing his final report on 11th September 1876 from Akurasse, before his untimely death in May 1877.

Dr. Edward Muller was next appointed in the beginning of the 1878 to continue the work of Dr. Goldschmidt. He first began the unfinished work of the former in Hambantota and subsequently toured the districts of Anuradhapura, Kurunagala and Puttalam.  Under his supervision, in Polonnaruwa, inscriptions were photographed but the ones not possible to photograph, transcripts were made instead. His attention was chiefly to the inscriptions up to the 13th century; this being due to the fact of them being of philological and historical interest as he considered the ones after the 13th century more of modern period as the language was similar to the present. He finally completed the surveys and compiled the first published book on ephigraphical records in the island titled ‘Ancient Inscriptions of Ceylon’ in 1883 published in London.  The book is divided into three parts:

1st part – text and translations of caves and smaller rock inscriptions

2nd part – text of all the longer rock inscriptions as well as pillar and slab inscriptions.

3rd part – translations of text of the 2nd part.

It contains over 200 inscriptions with a systematic explanation of the language of the inscriptions in the introduction.

Discovery of the first stone tools and the establishment of a prehistory in the island

The story of prehistoric man and his environment in Sri Lanka as we know today derives totally from archaeology. One of the main sources of our study of prehistoric man is the stone tools he left behind. And it is the discovery of such stone tools that became the key to the door of Sri Lanka’s prehistoric studies and most importantly, it gave life to the idea of the existence of a Stone Age in the island. Two persons are credited with the discovery of such stone tools; they are Mr. E. E. Green and Mr. J. Pole.

Surface collections of stone tools made of quartz and chert were first discovered by Mr. E. E. Green and Mr. J. Pole in 1885, the latter finding from the vicinity of Maskeliya, and the former from Peradeniya and Nawalapitiya. According to Pole in his 1907 article to the Journal of the Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, he states that flakes from all parts of the island, from Puttalam, Hambantota, Nawalapitiya, Matale, Dimbula, Dikoya, and Maskeliya were subsequently discovered and were initially thought to belong to the Neolithic age.

In his article J. Pole states “we merely summarize the uses they were put to: the peeling of the arrow-wands, and scraping of the bow into shape, and shafts of spear or javelin, the skinning of the slain animal and dressing of the skins for raiment, manufacture of bags for porterage of their stone implements, etc.”

Initially the authenticity of these finds were held in doubt by the academics; but it were the investigations of the Sarasin brothers, the Swiss anthropologist duo that studied the anthropology and ethnography of the Veddas, who in 1907 confirmed these stone tools to be the works of prehistoric men. The Sarasin brothers who explored the Uva Province in the 1890s found similar stone artefacts mostly from the Nilgala caves but they were themselves doubtful of its status. In 1903 they excavated the Toala tribe caves in the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, where they encountered similar stone artefacts which confirmed to them the artefacts found from the Nilgala caves were indeed stone tools. Subsequently they arrived in the island once again in 1907 and after examining their findings as well as those of J. Pole’s, they concluded that they were made by prehistoric Veddas and belonged to the Paleolithic age.

The next article in this series would feature the Rediscovery of Sigiriya, establishment of the Ceylon Archaeological Survey and H. C. P. Bell’s ‘Kegalle Report’ of 1890.


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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


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

A gem mine in Rathnapura (image taken from

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 feet – black mud

 6 feet – laterite soil

3 feet – organic materials and sand

 1 ½  feet – blue clay

1 feet – fine white sand

 ½ feet – hardened sand

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

Decayed rock


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

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

The extinct Hypeselephas hysundricus

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

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

            3 feet – humus

            2 ½  feet – laterite soil

            4 feet – blue clay

            1 ½  feet – organic material and mud layer

            2 feet – black sand

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dr. Nimal Perera

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

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Fa Hien-Lena Prehistoric Cave on Google Maps

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

Fa Hien-Lena Prehistoric Cave

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

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

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

During the 2009 excavation
During the 2009 excavation
Identifying the stratigraphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prehistoric Bone Tool
complete flake
Stone Tools (Microlithic)

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

Shark Teeth
Shark Teeth

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

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

Lagoon Molucs

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

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

Photo credit: Department of Archaeology and Dr. Nimal Perera

Selected Bibliography

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

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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.