Pallemalala Prehistoric Burial Grounds and Habitation Floor (පල්ලෙමලල ප්‍රාග් ඓතිහාසික කැනීම් ස්ථානය)

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Pallemalala discovery throws new light on Lanka’s pre-historic culture

A major archaeological breakthrough that could shed new light on the physical type and lifestyle of the island’s pre-historic population has been accomplished by a team of Sri Lankan Archaeologists.

Pallemalala Prehistoric burial grounds and Habitation Floor

This follows the discovery in late 1997 of a shell midden containing the skeletal remains and implements of stone age man in Pallemalala in the Hambantota district.

The site, which may roughly be dated to about 4000 B.C. has furnished archaeologists with sufficient material to undertake a somewhat detailed study of this type of man and his culture.

The Pallemalala discovery is particularly important as it relates to a Stone Age society eking out a living in the island’s coastal belt. Previous stone-age findings have been restricted to the interior, in regions such as Bellan-Bandi Pelassa.

Preliminary observations indicate that this stone-age population is genetically related to the Veddahs with whom they share many physical characteristics and cultural traits.

Senior Lecturer, Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) Raj Somadeva who led the 10-member team that excavated the site told the Sunday Observer that this is the first recorded instance of a pre-historic shell midden in the country.

Basing his inferences on recent soil profile analyses in Pallemalala and the adjacent region of Udamalala, he estimates that there are at least 50 such shell middens in the vicinity.

A shell midden is basically an underground mound of shells covering a fairly large area which arose when pre-historic man deposited the shells of molluscous creatures (oysters, mussels, etc) they had consumed in a particular spot, with the passage of time these mounds would reach such magnitudinous proportions and form a solid base of calciferous material that humans would be enticed to settle on them as they would a rock or cave.

Pallemalala Prehistoric burial grounds and Habitation Floor
Excavated prehistoric habitation floor at Pallemalala
Image source :

Somadeva contends that the pallemalala midden was formed from the carapaces of mollusks gathered by primitive men from the surrounding area which appears to have been a dried-up lagoon bed.

All indications are that a lagoon did once exist in the area at one time but had dried up later. It seems to have been formed when the sea level in the southern coast rose sharply during some pre-historic period inundating the plains below. With the recession of the sea at a later date, those areas below the sea level where water had collected seem to have become an inland lake with thriving aquatic life. When the lake dried up, a layer of mollusks seems to have been formed in the bed, paving the way for their exploitation by primitives, contends Somadeva.

Random sampling has revealed that as many as 99 percent of the shells have been broken open, the vast majority of them through the intervention of some stone implements.

Pallemalala Prehistoric burial grounds and Habitation Floor
Excavated prehistoric burial floor at Pallemalala
Image source :

Excavations going down to about three feet below ground level have revealed the living floor of the primitive settlers who seem to have followed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle closely resembling that of the Veddas. Burial floor

Bone analyses have revealed that animal remains found on the living floor belonged to as many as 50 species including deer, hare, mouse, wild boar, and kulumeema (Bos indica). Besides animal remains, a primitive grinding stone and vestiges of a fireplace, probably for roasting mollusks, have been found.

Further excavations going down to about a meter below the living floor have revealed a burial floor. Seven adult skeletons, mostly in a flexed position, have been found. The dead were evidently buried in the ground beneath the living floor.

Somadeva revealed that preliminary observations indicate that all seven skeletons were those of adults. This has been inferred from the fact that all the skulls examined revealed well developed wisdom teeth, a character that appears only in adulthood, generally when an individual is 29-30 years of age.

Pallemalala Prehistoric burial grounds and Habitation Floor
The soil profile of the excavated area at the site. Image source :

That at least one of the skeletons was that of a female has also been established beyond doubt, said Somadeva, who pointed out that the sex of the remains had been discerned through a consideration of certain physical characters including smoother brow-ridges and wider pelvic arch in the case of the female remains.

As for the racial affinities of this folk, available anthropological and cultural evidence suggests that they are in fact genetically related to the country’s aboriginal inhabitants – the Veddas, and hence allied to the Austro-Asiatic stock, which includes among others, the Mundari-speaking peoples of Eastern India such as the Hos, Birhors and Santals, the Sakais of the Malayan peninsula and the Australian aborigines.

They also bear a close resemblance to Balangoda man (Homo sapiens balangodensis) whose remains have been found in such stone-age sites as Bellan-bandi Pelassa, and who also show Veddoid characters.

According to Somadeva, preliminary studies indicate that Pallemalala man had a thick-set skull and was long-headed and broad-nosed, much like the modern-day Veddahs. He also had pronounced brow-ridges and a prognathous or protuding jaw which are also distinctly Veddoid traits. Wisdom teeth

Among the other indications of the primitiveness of Pallemalala man is the fact that his wisdom teeth are well developed, pointed out Somadeva. He explained that in modern man the wisdom teeth tend to recede into the gums due to insufficient jaw movements as a result of consuming a more refined diet that does not require much tearing and chewing. Not so in the case of primitive man who made good use of his jaws and teeth to tear and chew his meat-rich diet. Such jaw movements paved the way for the healthy development of wisdom teeth, he pointed out.

Another indication of their primitive character is the fact that their molars and premolars have undergone dental attrition as a result of consuming a coarse diet with much silicious matter (sand particles) so that they appear flat as if sawed away from the top and do not in any way resemble the dental decay of modern man which is caused by acidic substances eating into the cavity.

Although carbon-dating of the skeletal remains has yet to be undertaken, Somadeva tentatively assigns them to C.4000 B.C. the basis of analogical inference from similar carbon-dated bone matter found in the adjacent area of Udamalala.

Pallemalala man’s cultural artifacts indicate a middle stone-age (mesolithic) culture, that is to say a culture that possessed no polished ( neolithic) stone implements nor any related economic activity such as agriculture or animal domestication.

Pallemalala Prehistoric burial grounds and Habitation Floor
Excavated stone implements (quartz) at Pallemalala.
Image source :

The discovery in the burial floor of the skull of a wild boar with its tusks intact in close proximity to a human skull suggests that the creature figured in some kind of ritual contends Somadeva. He observed that it is a curious fact that the Mahasona demon should be depicted in Sinhalese folk tradition as having the head of a boar. It is also interesting to point out that the practice somewhat resembles the kirikoraha ceremony of the Veddas where the head of the kill – usually a deer – was offered to Kande Yaka, the Vedda god of hunting.

Besides providing good research material for a study of the island’s Stone Age population, the Pallemalala site has the added benefit of being superimposed by an Iron Age occupation level of some settled incipient agricultural community, perhaps that of the early Aryan-speaking Sinhalese. Iron age site

Somadeva’s team has found an iron age site directly above the shell midden which had been lying beneath the topsoil for a good many centuries. The team stumbled upon the remains of four post halls during the course of their excavations which seem to have supported a modest wattle and daub structure. It evidently belonged to the iron age as attested by the discovery of an iron artefact at the site.

This would imply that the Mesolithic had been abruptly terminated by the advent of an invading iron-using population without undergoing a neolithic phase.

Although seemingly neolithic artifacts produced by abrasion have been discovered in some ancient sites, Somadeva contends that the evidence for a clear-cut neolithic period in Sri Lanka is insufficient.

If we indeed had a neolithic where indeed are its consequences ? he asks. He avers that the sporadic occurrence of neolithic artifacts in some ancient sites may be due to what is known as lateral recycling. For instance, neolithic tools that originated in the subcontinent could without much difficulty find their way here before being circulated and deposited in a different context, just as modern-day folk hoard and deal in Dambadeniya period or VOC coins, he explained.

by Asiff Hussein
Sunday Observer
Source :

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Pallemalala [2] : Here they lived and died

Sunday Times

An accidental find turns out to be an exciting and important archaeological discovery. Could a grave of stone age people, literally stumbled upon in the arid area of Pallemalala, at Hambantota reveal that vital missing link between the mid-stone era and the iron age? Tharuka Dissanaike reports

Pallemalala Prehistoric burial grounds and Habitation Floor

Several thousand years ago, a group of pre- historic people set up camp at a dried-up lagoon bed in Hambantota. Here, they lived, hunted and fished for food and upon death they were buried under the very same ground. They hunted sambhur, deer and wildboar with crude stone implements and sharpened bone tools. The meat was roasted over an open hearth -fish and reptilian meat added to their plate. The bones were ground on a large flat stone and the marrow extracted. The skins perhaps were dried and made into rough clothing.

They also enjoyed a hearty meal of shell fish found aplenty in the area, judging by the millions of shells now found deposited here.

Presently, known as Pallemalala, the area is arid, with non cultivated land used for cattle grazing and shell mining. In fact it was a shell miner who first stumbled upon the grave of these stone age people. Of course, never did he imagine the importance of the well preserved skeletons that he was unearthing, and the first evidence was smashed under his hatchet. Later on a schoolboy who noticed the skeletons reported it to his teacher, who informed authorities in Colombo.

Archaeologists were thrilled with the find. Already at the site they have unearthed eleven skeletons and excavations are still underway. They believe there would have been at least 15 people originally dwelling at this single site- a shell midden (heap) of not very large proportions. What’s more experts believe this is not an isolated spot but the many shell middens spread around the area could be hiding similar sites. They have presently identified at least five other sites which could yield clues to the prehistoric era of the country.

“This site is important because it could possibly reveal a missing link in archaeological research in this country,” W.H Wijepala, Director Excavations of the Department of Archaeology said. He went on to explain that evidence of mid- stone age era (mesolithic age) has been uncovered in excavations done here and then evidence of the iron age which came thousands of years later. The link between the two periods ( neolithic age- beginning of farming and cultivations) has not yet been established in Sri Lanka. Many Archaeologists believe that prehistoric man in Sri Lanka moved into the iron age directly from mesolithic period.

Major find Exact dates for the midden are difficult to give, archaeologists say, until accurate carbon dating is done abroad. But they consider that these people lived approximately during the latter part of the stone age – 5000 to 6000 years ago. The top layer of the midden has also produced earthenware beads, other signs of life in the iron age. No skeletal remains were found of this period though.

The lifestyles of the stone age community could not have been any different from others who lived elsewhere in the world. According to experts there are striking similarities in the stone tools found anywhere in the world belonging to the same age. Burial practices too appear to have some resemblance. The skeletal bodies found in Pallemalala have been buried in a curious folded position where the knees and elbows had been folded towards the body in burial. Similar burials in ‘folded’ position have been unearthed from sites elsewhere in the world as well. “There has been frequent migration between the land mass that was Sri Lanka at the time and the Indian continent, across the Palk Strait,” Wijepala said.

Excavations have divided the deposit into several layers. At the very bottom, some two metres below the surface there is the lagoon bed of putrefying organic matter. On this the midden is built. Shells in their thousands have been deposited over centuries to cover a large area.

In the lower shell layer called the habitation floor, the 11 bodies were found. In the upper area Archaeologists have also uncovered a large grinding stone and evidence of a fireplace. A large number of stone tools and animal bones have been found. Experts say that the animal bones look like they have been discarded after consumption of the marrow. Tools carved out of animal bone were also found here.

The first excavation was done by the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology in late September. They conducted what they called “rescue excavation” when they first heard of the shell mine and were able to retrieve four separate skeletons smashed up by the miner and seven others intact. All had their wisdom teeth- they were over 29 years. One female skeleton was retrieved in a position not keeping with the rest of the burials, and Raj Somadeva who is co-heading the investigations feels she would have died of starvation or disease later when the surviving group had migrated elsewhere. In a curious ritual like manner a human skull and a wild boar head had been buried together in one place. These have been unearthed in the very position they lay for further studies.

The Department of Archaeology moved in later and set up a permanent camp near the site. When The Sunday Times visited the site, Department staff were busy at their tedious task. With sharp, tiny tools and brushes they were clearing each layer of the shell midden for clues such as bones, tools, pottery and any other evidence of these people’s lifestyles. An arduous task but one that has produced a number of interesting finds.

The eating habits of these people were confirmed by the discovery of deer, sambhur, wild boar and fish ( even shark) bones.

Nimal Perera, Archaeologist at the site said this site is identified as an open air site, in contrast to other prehistoric sites found in sheltered caves. According to Mr. Perera, a similar site had been found in the Andaman islands. “The skeletons have been well preserved due to the presence of the shell midden,”he said.

Pallemalala Prehistoric burial grounds and Habitation Floor

Mr.Somadeva working for the PGIAR is convinced that these shells are remains of what the people had consumed and discarded.

To prove his theory he puts forward certain points. One is the shape of the midden which is like a heap. Another is that almost all the shells appear to have been forced opened and their contents eaten. “Most shells have a peculiar chip on them. And by way of testing we used one of their own stone tools to force open a shellfish and this left an identical chip on the shell,” he said.

Of course it is yet too early for conclusions. The studies on the site have only just begun in earnest. The PGIAR has plans of sending charcoal samples abroad for dating and have already recreated a three-dimensional midden by the aid of a computer programme. The Department of Archaeology was expected to conclude their excavations on the site in December but have now suspended operations due to severe flooding in the area.

With the aid of a computer base in Pallemalala itself, Mr.Perera and his team analyse the data they have collected, hoping to produce their report as soon as the excavations are over.

Of course this is not the only instance when prehistoric remains were found in Sri Lanka. In caves such as the Beli Lena, Dorawaka Lena and Fa hein, remains dating to back some 40,000 years have been unearthed by archaeologists. In Bundala, directly south off the site at Pallemalala, archaeologists have found stone tools and other implements that could be as old as 125,000 years.

Director, Archaeology Dept. Siran Deraniyagala speaks

Q:What is the significance of the Pallemalala site ?

A: We are looking for evidence of transition between the stone age and the iron age. That would mean evidence of domesticated plants, animals, basic pottery stone tools but no iron tools.

Q. Has there been no evidence of this transition or the neolithic period found before ?

A: There was one suspected site in Dorawaka Kanda.

Another skeleton found in Mantai was dated 1800 B.C considered to be the tail end of the mesolithic period, but at the site we also found copper workings. So there is doubt whether this could represent a transition phase.

Q:What is meant by the term “Balangoda man”?

A: Numerous human remains that have been found in the country largely belong to the mesolithic period. These people are commonly categorised as the Balangoda man, as they bear similarities.

Q:Where have the oldest human remains been found in the country?

A: The skeletal parts found in the Fa-hein cave have been accurately dated to a period between 38,000 – 40,000 years. But the oldest habitation sites found were in Bundala and Pathirjawela, where the dune layers were dated according to sea level fluctuations. The Pathirajawela site dates back some 125,000 years and the Bundala site at least 80,000 years. Here stone tools have been found. According to these dates the sites are considered to belong to the mid-paleolithic period.

Q:Would you put a date on the Pallemalala site ?

A: There is no evidence yet to accurately predict a date. But it could be believed that the skeletons are around 5000 years old. By January we should have dated the site.


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