On the trail of the Balangoda human

Historians will await with bated breath for the latest findings about Sri Lanka’s pre-historic society that add to the archeological evidence of a civilisation long pre-existing the arrival of the mythical Prince Vijaya.

The excavations of archaeologist Prof.Raj Somadeva, on the trail of Balangoda human (Homosapiens balangodensis – the skeletal evidence of anatomically modern homosapiens that lived 30,000 years ago in Sri Lanka) are unravelling a fascinating history that had been suspected all along – that Sri Lanka had had a developed human presence much before the Indian Prince Vijaya’s expedition in 600 BC. In fact, the archaeologists believe modern humans existed in Sri Lanka as far back as 100,000 before present (BP) through the Ice Age.

Balangoda man is the earliest reliably dated record of anatomically modern humans in South Asia and hence, Sri Lanka has an important place in the study of human evolution. The recent excavations from 2015 to 2016 have covered three climatic zones surrounding Balangoda and the excavations carried out twice a year.

So far, archaeologists in the country have excavated sites from Maathota in Mannar to Hambantota via the hill country, Haputale, Knuckles, Illukkumbura, etc. The recent excavations by Prof. Somadeva focused on how the Sri Lankan proto-historic man adapted to the climatic changes, transition of technology, subsistence and cognitive skills - how they adapted from the ice age 12,000 years ago to the warm conditions subsequently.

His excavations focus on the period, 900 BC to 1800 BC. The research was carried out in two caves in the Ratnapura district- ‘Udupiyangalge’ cave in Kalthota and ‘Paragahamaditta’ cave in Panana, Balangoda, and ‘Alugalge’ cave in Illukkumbura, Meddekanda in the Hambantota district.

“We have this perception that Sri Lanka did not have a technologically advanced human presence before the arrival of the Aryans from India. The findings so far indicate a different story altogether,” Prof. Somadeva said. So far his team had excavated three caves and verified samples using radiocarbon dating, Beta Analytics, optical stimulation and other technologies in Sri Lanka and overseas. The samples have also been sent to Beta Analytic lab based in Miami, Florida.

Prof. Somadeva explained,, the earliest human presence in the country has been in the mountainous regions, in the central hills and not in Anuradhapura.

“We have come across remnants of implements used for grinding, the use of basic stone weapons for hunting, even a curved knife made out of steel, a pendant made from a shark tooth and jewellery made from colorful stone ‘beads’. Some of the beads of stone are not local and suggests they arrived from other countries. He said, they will be able to define the exact period of these ‘beads’ after receiving the laboratory tests in two weeks. Prof. Raj Somadeva suspects that they date back as far as 6000 BC. The cave excavations have also indicated that the early inhabitants used fire, a sign of sedentary life – living in one place for lengthy periods. They have come across burnt (carbonised) particles of Dik Kekuna seeds. A total of 24 seed varieties had been found in these caves. However, Prof. Somadeva says, this will not prove that these people engaged in agriculture. The suspicion is that the early men (hunter gatherers) slowly adapted to eating processed grains collected from the forest.

The presence of hand sculptures of domesticated dogs has given wing to the theory that early inhabitants had transactions with men from across the sea. The dogs were first domesticated in Eurasia or Central Asia. In one of the caves Prof Somadeva and his team found a terra cotta sculpture of a dingo, a will dog breed found in Australia. The dogs could not have arrived here alone, hence they suspect Sri Lanka had visitors from across the sea and they traded goods with the islanders.

A dog face, stone beads, shark tooth pendant and a metal spade was found at the Alugalge cave in Illukkumbura.

“After the Stone Age there is a black hole, no one knows what happened during that period. Our effort is to chronicle this period based on scientific evidence,” Prof. Somadeva said.

The excavations are funded by the National Science Foundation. It was the first grant by the NSF for a project of this nature. Their previous funding covered science and sociology projects. NSF Chairperson, Sirimalee Fernando said, their current effort is to help narrate the unknown history of the country, to unravel the mysteries of the inhabitants of pre-historic Sri Lanka.

“This is a research of national importance to trace our history and fill in the black hole,” she said, adding,

“The excavations are continuing and what we are learning might turn our known or written history upside down.” Explaining why they selected Balangoda, Prof. Somadeva said, they wanted to carry out the study in all three climatic zones of the country. To the right of Balangoda is the Wet Zone, the middle is the intermediate and the other side is the Dry Zone. “Our idea is to dwell into macro level climatic changes and adaptations by the early man.”

The research group has stumbled upon heaps of snail shells, suspected to have formed part of the meals consumed by the early man. This is indicated by the way the shells have been broken - snails are a good source of protein and provide an accurate reading of their habitat.

The snail shells give a precise reading as to where these creatures existed, whether it was in the Wet Zone or the Dry Zone. C3 plants are found in the Dry Zone and C4 plants, in the Wet Zone. The shells provide a good reading, to ascertain whether the animals had eaten C3 plants or C4 plants. There are traces the Sri Lankan prehistoric man had spread in the coastal areas of the Wet Zone, and they are believed to have gained knowledge to lead a successful life in the Mediterranean.

The archeologists have partnered with, ITI, SLINTECH and the Arthur C Clerk Centre for technical know-how to decipher their samples, in addition to seeking help from US laboratories. Prof. Somadeva is of the view that there need to be a paradigm shift in the history that we have been made to believe. “We have come across strong evidence that there was an advanced life in proto-historic Sri Lanka.”

Some of the evidence indicate the presence of symmetrical items, and, tabling and monitoring of constellations probably to determine seasons – to understand when the trees would bear fruit and when they need to go hunting. “All these information need to be further studied, we need to do further research to confirm these theories,” Prof .Somadeva said.

The research is done on cultural adaptation. “We cannot do a genetics study as yet. It is very difficult to subject archeological evidence for genetics evaluation,” he said.

But, the team may have found the key to unravel the mystery. They have stumbled upon a stone spade with human blood stains. The Medical Research Institute and Molecular Biology Institute of the Colombo University have been consulted to get a reading on the stains.

“This blade has blood on just one side. So, it was not used to kill a human. It had been used to wipe away the blood from a wound.

The initial tests have shown it has two red blood cells and no white cells. So, we may not be able to do a genetic study. But, we have not given up hope,” Prof. Somadeva said with anticipation.

Pix: Gayan Pushpika

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