Solving the jigsaw of lost world | Sunday Observer

Solving the jigsaw of lost world

Approximately, 50,000 to 3800 years before present (BP), the wet zone of Sri Lanka was inhabited by an anatomically modern man referred to as the Balangoda Man (Homo sapiens balangodensis). With a forehead that protrudes along with brow ridges, a square jaw, short and wide nose and prominent chin, the face of the Balangoda Man is considered to carry a likelihood of biological continuum to the present day aadivaasi.

One might question the basis these likelihoods are founded on , since Balangoda Man existed thousands of years ago. The answer is, Paleo art, a part of paleontology, which involves using fossil evidence to reconstruct and portray species that have left the earth many millennia ago.

According to University of California Berkeley, Paleontology is the study of what fossils indicate about the ecologies of the past, of evolution, and of humans. Paleontology fuses knowledge from biology, ecology, geology, archaeology, anthropology and computer science, to grapple an understanding of the processes that led to the origin and eventual destruction of species.

The appearance of the Balangoda Man was reconstructed using Pleistocene era fossil evidence from several wet zone caves, including Pahiyangala cave, which shows evidence of Balangoda man 40,000 BP, Batadomba cave which shows evidence 37,000 BP, Alawala Pothgul Lena 1400 BP ,Bellan-Bandi Palassa, Udawalawe 12000 BP and many other caves, says Bone Specialist from the Postgraduate Institute of Archelogy, University of Kelaniya, Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi.

“These fossils include skull fragments, hip bones, hands and legs. Further, when we did a survey prior to the construction of Samanala Dam in Udawalawe Basin, close to the Balangoda town, in 1988, lot of sites with fossils were discovered. These sites are now underwater, but the fossils contributed to the reconstruction of the Balangoda Man,” he says. In his paleo art, Manamendra-Arachchi has portrayed Balangoda man making ‘geometric microliths’, the miniature triangular and lunate quartz and chert tools the size of a small finger of a human, during the Mesolithic period. Balangoda Man was considered the most technologically developed stone age man from the time.

Treasure buried in gem pits

Pleistocene epoch is a geological epoch which lasted between 2.5 million to 11,700 years BP. According to Manamendra-Arachchi, Sri Lanka has fossil beds from Jurassic, Miocene and Pleistocene epochs, with most animal fossils being found in Pleistocene beds in Ratnapura gem pits, popularly referred to as Ratnapura fauna. Thus far, fossils from Pleistocene epoch have revealed two extinct species of terrapins and crocodiles, three extinct species of elephants, two extinct species of rhinoceros, and one extinct species of hippopotamus, lion, tiger, gaur, wild boar, bull, wild buffalo and deer, each.

During the glacial period, Sri Lanka was a part of the Indian sub-continent, which enabled movement of the species, he says. However, once the sea levels rose during the inter glacial period, Sri Lanka separated from India forming an island, trapping some animals within. “With time, these animals evolved as a separate species,” he says.

“Some of the large animals were extinct during Pleistocene era itself. Gaur (Bos guarussinhaleyus) was the last of these species to be extinct, in the 1800s.

Hunting is considered the reason for gaur’s extinction,” Manamendra-Arachchi says. However, the reasons for extinction of the other species are not concluded yet, he adds. British records carry an account of one of the last sightings of this gaur species, in Sri Pada, by an inhabitant of Kuruwita. He has reported this to the then village chieftain, who has in turn informed an English officer.

Fossilized remains of the tiger species(Pantheratigris) was found from Batadomba cave, Kuruwita. Manamendra-Arachchi says these remains were believed to have been brought into the cave by the Balangoda Man. Radiocarbon dating indicates these remains were from 14,000 to 17,000 BP. “The most interesting aspect to note here is that, although local legends refer to the presence of lions in Sinharaja, as per fossilized evidence, we have had only tigers in the more recent past. Fossilized evidence of lions are found only from 100,000 BP.”

Of the three extinct elephant species, Elephas maximussinhaleyus is considered to be the ancestor of the modern Sri Lankan species, Elephas maximus maximus, says Manamendra-Archchi. Further, he notes that fossilized evidence indicate that the other two extinct species of elephants, Elephas namadicus and Elephas hysudricus existed together with extinct lion and hippopotamus species, 100,000 BP. “ The fossils found from Ratnapura show similarities to Siwalik fauna from Narmada, North India, which contains fossils from 5 million to 2.5 million BP. However, in Ratnapura we find fragmented fossils not whole skulls,” he says.

Visualisation of the past

Paleontology has a creative component, where these fragmented fossils are joined together one by one, to reconstruct the species, Manamendra-Archchi says. Then, the features of the reconstructed species is compared with the modern species in the world, to find the species which is most similar to the fossils, he says.

“For example, the Rhinoceros fossils discovered in Ratnapura gem pits were compared with the three living species found in Asia and three living species found in Africa. This especially includes parts like teeth, which we compare to find close characteristics. Late Professor Colin Groves from Australian National University assisted me in accurate identification of teeth,” he says.

From this evidence, Manamendra-Arachchi was able to establish that Rhinoceroskagavena had the closest characteristics to the Indian rhinoceros, while Rhinocerossinhaleyus was somewhat smaller than the Indian species and had closest characteristics to the Javan species.By using thermo luminescence dating, it was found that the Rhinocerossinhaleyus lived in approximately 80,000 BP. Then, Manamendra-Archchi used these findings to reconstruct the physique of these species, as shown by his paleo art.

Manamendra -Arachchi says his work was inspired by the extensive collection of fossils, and paleo art by Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala. “I learned to sketch these by-gone species and later, began to add colour using oil on canvas method. It is a self-learned skill that I cultivated over time,” he says.

The reconstruction is based on current available evidence, suggestions and interpretations. Thus, Paleontology remains one of the most dynamic fields of science, which keeps advancing with the emergence of new fossil evidence, linked to the advancement of technology.

For example, as the The New York Times states, the world’s first dinosaur sculptures and earliest known paleo art was created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in 1854. Considered to be work of both science and fantasy, it was far from reality. “Nineteenth-century images are filled with blood and guts and predators thrashing in swampy waters when, in fact, the world of the dinosaurs was less violent (and drier) than many paleo artists imagined. Still, these artworks shaped our understanding of prehistory to a degree that has proved irrevocable, thus transforming the dinosaur from an elite curiosity to popular kitsch,” the article notes.

Incidentally, reconstructing life from prehistoric bones has existed prior to 1800s. Historian, Tom Holland says in New Statesman,that the Roman Emperor Tiberius, once commissioned modelling of a human head proportionate to the scale of over one foot long fossilised tooth presented to him. He also speaks of a dragon statue sculpt at Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1590, which bore a head modelled on the skull of a woolly rhinoceros. Thus, the fascinating creatures of the long-lost epochs have held the interest of men, long before the field of paleontology emerged. The ongoing work by paleontologists may provide an insight on the role of the human in the geological time scale, and on workings of extinction, a valid concern for the humans of the day.

Pic Courtesy: Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi