Pre- And Protohistoric Settlement In Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is an island off the southern tip of India. There is secure evidence of settlements in Sri Lanka by 130,000 years ago, probably by 300,000 BP and possibly by 500,000 BP or earlier. Palaeo-environmental investigations indicate that interglacials correlated with increased atmospheric activity over the island – which was manifested in correspondingly increased rainfall on the windward aspect of the central mountains and increased desiccation on the leeward side due to the drying foehn effect of katabatic winds. This model has been transposed to the eight major ecozones of the country with their respective prehistoric carrying capacities fluctuating in phase with climatic shifts. Population densities in these ecozones have been estimated for the Quaternary on the basis of ethnographic analogy. Subsistence strategy has also been assessed through archaeological evidence against a backdrop of ethnographic analogy and postulated biotic resources that would have been available for exploitation by Quaternary foragers.

At the commencement of the 1st millennium BC, there are indications of a rapid transition from a geometric microlith-using Mesolithic culture to the Early Iron Age, with horse, cattle, pottery and paddy cultivation. It is proposed that with iron technology (for clearing hitherto intractable equatorial rainforest) a greatly enhanced food production capability increased carrying capacity several-fold, thus attracting long distance links with India. The latter possibly involved migrations, of which the Indo-Aryan Sinhalese language (which was in use in Sri Lanka since at least 500 BC) could be but one manifestation.



During the last one million years, when humans are known to have existed in various parts of India (v. Mishra 1995), Sri Lanka was connected to the sub-continent on numerous occasions. The rise and fall of sea level (due to cold/warm fluctuations in the global climate) determined the periodicities of these connections, the last separation having occurred at ca. 7000 BP (Deraniyagala 1992: 167). Hence it is impossible to view Sri Lankan prehistory in isolation from India.

It is very likely that the first settlers from India had reached Sri Lanka at least as early as one million years ago – perhaps earlier. So far, evidence on this score has not been forthcoming, but this need not signify that there were no humans in Sri Lanka at that period. Environmentally there would have been no hindrance whatsoever to hominid settlement, in terms of both accessibility and exploitable food and water.

There are, however, ancient coastal sands in the north and southeast of the island which could be as early as 250,000 (or even 700,000-500,000) BP (ibid: 686, 688). Whether these sands contain evidence of human habitation has yet to be determined, a prime research goal for the future.

By about 125,000 BP if is certain that there were prehistoric settlements in Sri Lanka (ibid.: 686). The evidence stems from excavations conducted in coastal deposits near Bundala.These people made tools of quartz (and a few on chert) which are assignable to a Middle Palaeolithic complex (ibid.: 252-4,458,688). Apart from such tools, no other vestiges of their culture have survived the ravages of time and tropical weathering: we do not know what these people looked like, although it can be guessed that they were early Homo sapiens sapiens akin to anatomically modern South Asians. Even the sizes of their settlements are not known due to the limited scale of the evaluation excavations; surface indications are ca.50 square metres or less per site. That they lived by hunting and gathering is obvious and it is probable that this conformed to the pattern discernible in the activities of their descendants some 100,000 years later. We do know, however, that the physical and biotic environments of these early humans, from the Middle Pleistocene onwards, fluctuated between pluvial and interpluvial episodes (ibid.: 178-82, 436-40; id. 1991: 14-7) with corresponding oscillations in animal and food-plant resources which would have been reflected in shifts in human population densities. It is estimated that during certain pluvial episodes in South Asia, as at ca. 125,000 BP, The population density in the Dry Zone of northern, eastern and southern Sri Lanka (for ecozones v. ibid.: app. I) could have ranged between 1.5 and 0.8 individuals per square kilometre, whereas the Wet Zone in the west would have had densities of 0.1 or less. It has been hypothesised that interpluvials witnessed a narrower dichotomy in the zonal population densities, the respective estimates being less than 0.3 for the Dry Zone and over 0.1 for the Wet Zone. These figures are derived from ethnographic sources pertaining to South and Southeast Asian hunter-gatherers. Given the postulated densities of the food supplies, it is unlikely that large communities in excess of a couple of nuclear families were the norm, except perhaps along the northern and eastern coasts with their rich resources of marine foods (id. 1992: 178-82, 436-44).


From about 34,000 BP onwards the prehistoric record is very much more complete. The information stems from a series of cave excavations in the lowland Wet Zone: Fa Hien Lena near Bulathsinhala (34,000?5400 C14 BP), Batadomba-lena near Kuruwita (28,500-11,500 C14 BP), Beli-lena at Kitulgala (over27,000-3500 C14 BP), Alu-lena at Attanagoda near Kegalle (10,500 C14 BP). These data are supplemented by those from the open-air site of Bellan-bandi Palassa near Embilipitiya (6500 TL BP). The dating is based primarily on radiocarbon assays on charcoal, checked independently against thermoluminescence dating in the case of Beli-lena. There are over 50 such dates from various contexts at these sites and the chronological framework may be pronounced secure (ibid.: 695-701).
Fa Hien Lena has yielded the earliest evidence (at ca. 34,000 C14 BP) of anatomically modern man in South Asia, followed by Batadomba-lena at 28,500 and 16,000, Beli-lena at 13,000, Fa Hien at 6900, Bellan-bandi Palassa at 6500 and Fa Hien again at 4800 BP. These human remains have been subjected to detailed physical anthropological study and it has been affirmed that the genetic continuum from at least as early as 16,000 BP at Batadomba-lena to Beli-lena at 13,000 BP to Bellan-bandi Palassa at 6500 BP to the recent Vadda aboriginal population is remarkably pronounced (ibid.: 468-9; Kennedy 1974; Kennedy et al. 1987; the earlier material from Fa Hien Lena is too fragmentary for such comparative study). This suggests a backwater in terms of population dynamics. It appears to have been a remarkably static situation over so long a period, relatively undisturbed by the arrival of new populations with diverse physical traits. These anatomically modern prehistoric humans in Sri Lanka are referred to as Balangoda Man in popular parlance (derived from his being responsible for the Mesolithic ‘Balangoda Culture’ first defined in sites near Balangoda). He stood at an estimated height of ca. 174 cm for males and 166 cm for females in certain samples, which is considerable when compared with present-day populations in Sri Lanka (v. Deraniyagala 1992: 330-4). The bones are robust, with thick skull-bones, prominent brow-ridges, depressed noses, heavy jaws and short necks. The teeth are conspicuously large. These traits have survived in varying degrees among the Vaddas and certain Sinhalese groups, thus pointing to Balangoda Man as a common ancestor. It needs to be borne in mind, however, that there would have been unimpeded gene-flow between southernmost India and Sri Lanka (in both directions) from the Palaeolithic onwards, and that future research will probably reveal a whole range of genetic clusters in the prehistoric populations of this region, which would invalidate the concept of Balangoda Man as a homogeneous ‘race’ (cf. id. 1990: 17,20).

Meanwhile, Balangoda Man continues to be a useful working concept, referring to the island’s late Quaternary humans. He appears to have settled in practically every nook and corner of Sri Lanka ranging from the damp and cold High Plain’s such as Maha-eliya (Horton Plains) to the arid lowlands of Mannar and Vilpattu, to the steamy equatorial rainforests of Sabaragamuwa. The camps were invariably small, rarely exceeding 50 sq. m in area, thus suggesting occupation by not more than a couple of nuclear families at most (id. 1992: 351). This life-style could not have been too different from that described for the Vaddas of Sri Lanka, the Kadar, Malapantaram and Chenchus of India, the Andaman lslanders and the Semang of Malaysia (ibid.: 412-21, 451-7). They would have been moving from place to place on an annual cycle of foraging for food. The well preserved evidence from the caves and Bellan bandi Palassa indicates that a very wide range of food-plants and animals were exploited. Among the former, canarium nuts, wild breadfruit and wild bananas are prominent. It is probable that dioscorea yams, such as Dioscorea spicata, D. pentaphylla and D. oppositifolia were staples in the diet, as they were among South Asian hunters and gatherers in recent times. It appears as if every conceivable type of animal had been eaten, ranging from elephants to snakes, rats, snails and small fish (ibid.: 451-2). This diet would have been well balanced as attested by the robusticity of the human skeletal remains. The degeneration of bone that accompanies a specialised starchy diet and a sedentary life style had yet to set in.

The tool kit of Balangoda Man is distinguished by the occurrence of geometric microliths, comprising small (less than 4 cm long) flakes of quartz and (rarely) chert fashioned into stylised lunate, triangular and trapezoidal forms (ibid.: 266-70, 688-94). Such geometric microliths have traditionally been considered the hallmark of the Mesolithic period as first defined in Europe. The earliest dates for the geometric microlithic tradition in Europe are around 12,000 BP. Hence it came as a surprise when such tools were found as early as 28,500 C14 BP at Batadomba-lena, 28,000 BP at two coastal sites in Bundala and over 27,000 BP at Beli-lena. Sri Lanka has yielded evidence of this sophisticated technological phase some 16,000 years earlier than in Europe. However, this apparent anomaly has been resolved by the discovery of geometric microliths in various parts of Africa, such as Zaire and southern Africa, from contexts in excess of 27,000 BP, thereby suggesting that Europe was late in manifesting this techno-tradition due to as yet undefined reasons.

Apart from stone tools, artefacts of bone and antler are quite prolific from 28,500 BP onwards, notably small bone points (ibid.: 278-81). Beads of shell have also been discovered from these early contexts and the occurrence of marine shells in inland sites such as Batadomba-lena points to an extensive network of contacts between the coast and the hinterland. There is evidence from Beli-lena that salt had been brought in from the coast at a date in excess of 27,000 BP (ibid.: 326).

Sri Lanka has yet to produce unequivocal evidence of Stone Age art. The cave art observed in various parts of the Dry Zone are the works of Vaddas, as demonstrated by ethnographers, although a certain proportion of it could conceivably be prehistoric (ibid.: 465). Similarly there is little evidence of manifestations of ritual. There are, however, clear that the norm was for Balangoda Man to inter his dead as secondary burials within his camp floors, having selected certain bones for this purpose; and at Ravanalla cave and Fa Hien Lena red ochre had been ceremonially smeared on the bones. Both these practices have been matched by the mortuary customs of the Andaman Islanders, but not by those of the Vaddas. It is possible that the latter, through a process of cultural retrogression, ceased to practise the more elaborate mortuary customs of their ancestors (ibid.: 465-7, 696).



The transition from the Mesolithic Balangoda Culture to the protohistoric Early Iron Age has been inadequately documented in Sri Lanka. Almost invariably, the relevant transitional deposits have been disturbed due to the extraction of fertiliser from prehistoric cave habitations. Recent excavations in the cave of Dorawaka-kanda near Kegalle could somehow have resolved this impasse. According to the excavator, W.H. Wijayapala, there are indications at this site of pottery (together with stone stools) being used as early as 6300 C14 BP, and possibly the cultivation of a cereal in these contexts (ibid.: 734; W.H Wijayapala 1992 in id. ip). The final analyses and the site report pend.

The excavator’s views are plausible since (a) the southern Indian Neolithic period is at least as old as 2000 BC and (b) a plain red ware precedes the ceramic termed Black and Red Ware at Dorawaka-kanda. The latter ware has been dated to ca. 900 BC at Anuradhapura and hence the red ware might predate it at Dorawaka-kanda. The typical polished axes, pottery and cultivants of the peninsular Indian Neolithic have yet to be discovered in Sri Lanka, and one can but assume that until the Dorawaka-kanda data prove it otherwise the existence of Neolithic period on the island has not been established as yet.

The most recent radiocarbon dates to provide a chronological upper boundary for the ‘Mesolithic’ geometric microlithic industry in Sri Lanka are ca. 1800 BC at Mantai and ca. 1500 BC at Beli-lena (Deraniyagala 1992: 698, 701). The latter could have domesticates or pottery in association (report pending). The discovery of a few pieces of copper-working slag from this ‘Mesolithic’ context at Matota could signify the first identification of a Chalcolithic horizon in Sri Lanka, contemporaneous with the securely dated Chalcolithic of peninsular India. The slag, however, could have intruded into the sample from this otherwise carefully excavated context, perhaps through incorrect labelling. No pottery was found in association. Further sampling is required to clarify these points. It is now known that the only major source of copper ore south of Madhya Pradesh in central India is located at Seruvila in eastern Sri Lanka (Seneviratne 1994). It is very likely that this was known to the Chalcolithic peoples of India and that Sri Lanka exploited this resource. Mantai could well have been a port for shipping copper to India.

Neolithic settlements in northern India are said to occur as far back as 6500-5000 BC (Misra 1989: 26). It is probable that peninsular India and Sri Lanka have yet to be discovered parallels. By 2000 BC, if not much earlier, peninsular India had a fully fledged Chalcolithic. The search for Neolithic/Chalcolithic settlements in Sri Lanka needs to focus on finding faunal or plant domesticates, pottery, or evidence of copper-alloy working, in contexts predating the Early Iron Age. It is probable that these would be found in association with geometric microliths which would otherwise be assigned to the Mesolithic. If is noteworthy that the Neolithic/Chalcolithic stone artefacts in peninsular India display microlithic (Mesolithic) vis à vis blade (Neolithic/Chalcolithic) traits progressively as one moves southwards (ibid.: 285-6,297: Allchin and Allchin 1974; 1974a).

Early Iron Age

The protohistoric Early Iron Age appears to have established itself in South India by at least as early as 1200 BC, if not earlier (Possehl 1990; Deraniyagala 1992: 734). The earliest manifestation of this in Sri Lanka is radiocarbon dated to ca. 1000-800 BC at Anuradhapura and Aligala shelter in Sigiriya (Deraniyagala 1992: 709-29; Karunaratne and Adikari 1994:58; Mogren 1994: 39); the Anuradhapura dating is now corroborated by Coningham 1996). It is very likely that further investigations will push back the Sri Lankan lower boundary to match that of South India.

The settlement at Anuradhapura exceeded 10 hectares in extent by ca. 800 BC, and it was at least 50 ha by ca. 700-600 BC and thus already a ‘town’ (cf. Allchin 1989: 3). So far no other settlements of the Early Iron Age have been located in Sri Lanka (with the exception of the very small-scale deposit within the rock-shelter at Aligala). Potential sites are Kandarodai, Matota (Mantai), Pilapitiya in Kelaniya and Tissamaharama; but the evidence has yet to surface (Deraniyagala 1992: 730-2, 735).

The ‘Megalithic’ Early Iron Age mortuary complex of Sri Lanka (Seneviratne 1984) is akin to that of peninsular India. It falls primarily, or possibly totally, within the protohistoric period, as indicated by its radiocarbon age of 750-400 BC at the only site to have been dated, Ibbankatuwa (v. Bandaranayake and Kilian in Deraniyagala 1992: 734). The place of this mortuary trait within the overall Early Iron Age culture in Sri Lanka is as yet indeterminate. It is noteworthy that these cemeteries do not have contemporaneous settlements associated with them, for instance at Ibbankatuwa (Karunaratne 1994). Conversely, the Early Iron Age settlement at Anuradhapura does not have a Megalithic cemetery to which it can even remotely be linked. The Megalithic mortuary complex could possibly have been associated with just a special group of people, such as pastoralists, on the periphery of those who occupied Anuradhapura (cf. Leshnik 1974). In short, what this signifies is that the Megalithic mortuary trait is but a discrete facet of the protohistoric Early Iron Age culture complex of India which had its distribution from the Gangetic valley down to Sri Lanka with regional variations. Hence it is misleading to refer to a Megalithic Culture, as several scholars are apt to, since this mortuary trait is not necessarily a concomitant of the Early Iron Age of peninsular India or Sri Lanka. Similarly, the Black and Red Ware ceramic tradition is a hallmark of much of the sub-continent’s Early Iron Age (except in the northwest) and is not confined to the Megalithic mortuary facies in peninsular India, a point that is frequently overlooked. There is a tendency to equate the Black and Red Ware ceramic with the Megalithic complex on a one-to-one basis, thereby distorting the basis of interpretations from the outset. It is important, therefore, that the nature of this interrelationship between (a) the total Early Iron Age complex of the sub-continent, (b) its Black and Red Ware ceramic complex and (c) the Megalithic cemetery complex in southern India and Sri Lanka be kept clearly in mind, so as to avoid confusion in interpreting the archaeological record (Deraniyagala 1992: 734). The Sri Lankan data need to be interpreted against the backdrop of the total sub-continental Early Iron Age, since medium- to long-range cultural diffusion appears to have been prevalent.

The biological anthropology of Early Iron Age man in Sri Lanka is distinct from that of Balangoda Man, although the evidence from the only Megalithic site to have been assayed, Pomparippu (undated), suggests a certain degree of miscegenation. This could have occurred considerably prior to 500 BC (and after Bellan-bandi Palassa at 4500 BC) (ibid.: 736; Kennedy in Begley et al. 1981). What attracted these people who intruded on the scene at this early date? It is probable that the agricultural potential of Sri Lanka, notably its abundant supplies of water, with iron technology to subjugate the dense equatorial rainforest and heavy soils, was a major factor. Other attractions could have been the pearl banks in the northwest of the island (for Early Historic v. Mahroof 1992: 110), the major copper ore source at Seruvila, and the island’s location as an entrepot for long-distance trade between Southeast Asia and West Asia (note that black pepper in pharaonic Egypt of the 2nd millennium BC could only have come from Kerala, Sri Lanka or Southeast Asia). Thereafter, Sri Lanka’s attraction for settlers from further afield than South India appears to have gained rapidly. This swell coincided with the so-called Second Urbanisation of the Indo-Gangetic Plain (v. Allchin 1995). As mentioned earlier, Anuradhapura was at least 10 ha in extent by ca. 900 BC (perhaps much more). By then prehistoric stone tool technology had been completely superseded by that of iron at this site, other advanced traits being the manufacture of copper-alloy artefacts, high-quality pottery (notably Black and Red Ware), the breeding of cattle and horses, and the cultivation of rice. By 700-500 BC, Anuradhapura exceeded 50 ha. The phenomenon of the Indian Second Urbanisation would appear to have manifested itself unexpectedly early in Sri Lanka, either through rapid stimulus diffusion, or convergent evolution due to a stimulus from further afield such as long-distance trade, or (more likely) a combination of both.


The Early Iron Age of Sri Lanka, at ca. 1000-500 BC, is referred to as protohistoric since there is no evidence of writing in this period. At ca. 600-500 BC, the first appearance of writing (in Brahmi almost identical to the Asokan script some 200 years later) heralds the commencement of the Early Historic period (Deraniyagala 1992: 739-50). This writing, radiocarbon dated on charcoal and checked by thermoluminescence dating, is inscribed on potsherds signifying ownership. Among the names was Anuradha, which, coincidentally or otherwise, is stated in the ancient chronicles to have been the name of a minister of prince Vijaya, the purported ‘founder’ leader of the Sinhalese, at ca. 500 BC.
The new chronology for the beginnings of writing has thus revolutionised our concept of the lower boundary of the historical period of South Asia (for revised periodisation v. ibid.: 714). It has pushed it back by at least two centuries – into the times of the Buddha. Coeval with the first appearance of writing at Anuradhapura is the rise of new pottery forms (such as Early Historic Black and Red Ware) and wares (eg, a medium-fine grey ware, possibly a North Indian import), mutisalah red glass beads (for North India 600-400 BC v. Basa 1992: 97) and what appear to be writing styli made of bone (Deraniyagala 1992: 714). One suspects a pan-lndia wave of cultural impulses that manifested itself in these material transformations. It is possible that some long-distance migrations, as evinced in the legend of Prince Vijaya’s arrival in Sri Lanka from North India, were concomitant to this phenomenon.

The earliest (600-500 BC) inscriptions on pottery at Anuradhapura, whenever adequately complete to be linguistically diagnostic, are in Indo-Aryan Prakrit. This situation is repeated in the earliest inscriptions found in Megalithic Kodumanal, and possibly in the lowermost levels of Arikamedu as well, in South India (ibid.: 745-6; Casal 1949; Rajan 1990). So far none of them are in Dravidian. If appears to corroborate the view that Indo-Aryan was pre-dominant from at least as early as 500 BC in Sri Lanka, as affirmed in the chronicles concerning an Aryan impulse associated withVijaya. The views of Parpola (1984; 1988; v. Deraniyagala 1992: 749-8) are relevant in this regard. They are bold and provocative, and they merit serious consideration. He postulates long-distance southward migrations of ruling Indo-Aryan elites at ca. 500 BC and argues his case well.

The prime mover for these impulses is difficult to isolate. The urban centres of the Ganges plains could well have constituted the nodes from which they went out, centrifugally, to be developed in the provinces and returned centrepetally to those original nodes as a feedback phenomenon, thus creating a relatively closed interactive system. On the other hand, one cannot discount the possibility of inputs at the same time from West Asia, the Mediterranean and China. It is probable that this latter aspect has been greatly underestimated. The idea of devising the Brahmi script might have arisen through contact with Semitic trading scripts from West Asia (Deraniyagala 1992: 744; note the passing reference above to postulated long distance trade during the protohistoric Early Iron Age extending into Southeast Asia and West Asia). Whatever the mechanism for the onset of urbanism in Sri Lanka, by 500 BC it was ready to accelerate into the Early Historic period. By the time of Emperor Asoka in the third century BC, the city of Anuradhapura was nearly 100 ha in extent (ibid.: 712-3), making it (on present estimates) the tenth largest city in India/Sri Lanka at that time and the largest south of Ujjain and Sisupalgarh, both in northern India (Allchin 1989: 3, 12). Buddhism had by then taken root as the formal belief system of the island and technologically the concept of irrigated agriculture, probably introduced during the Early Iron Age, developed into sophisticated and large-scale systems which served as the economic foundation of the correspondingly complex settlement configurations of the Early Historic period.


The prehistoric population densities in Sri Lanka during the Upper Pleistocene and much of the Holocene would have been sparse, estimated at ca. 0.1-0.8 individuals per square kilometre. These densities might have increased with the advent of iron technology and farming at ca. 1000 BC. However, there is a pronounced scarcity of Early Iron Age sites on the island. This does not simply reflect inadequate sampling, although perhaps partially so. It signifies that, despite iron and farming technology, Sri Lanka’s attraction for an Early Iron Age economy was not compelling enough to manifest itself in numerous settlements. The number of the latter increases very markedly during the succeeding Early Historic period (500 BC – 300 AD) and much more so during the Middle Historic (300-1200 AD) when sites such as Anuradhapura and Mantai are at their grandest and a great proliferation is observed in settlements throughout the Dry Zone (cf. Solheim and Deraniyagala 1972). One, perhaps simplistic, comment is that iron technology and farming were not the only factors responsible for the progressive burgeoning of settlements in the Early and Middle Historic periods. A third element appears to have entered the equation: increasing medium- and long-distance trade leading to a corresponding increase in wealth which acted as the catalyst for an exponential increase in the density of settlements. Systematic surveys to test this hypothesis and to delineate the nature of this progression is very much a research priority in the archaeology of Sri Lanka.


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Member of the International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies
FORLI’ – ITALIA – 8 – 14 September, 1996VOLUME 5 / Section 16 ( The prehistory of Asia and Oceania)
@ 1998, by A.B.A.C.O. s.r.l, Forli, Italy.
Pages 277-285
XIII U. I. S. P. P. Congress Proceedings- Forli, 8 – 14 September 1996 Pre- and protohistoric settlement in Sri Lanka
S. U. Deraniyagala
Director-General of Archaeology, Sri Lanka
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