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
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.
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.
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.
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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