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

by Asiff Hussein

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.

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 are 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.

Somadeva contends that the pallemalala midden was formed from the carapaces of molluscs 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 seems to have become an inland lake with thriving aquatic life. When the lake dried up, a layer of molluscs 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 per cent of the shells have been broken open, the vast majority of them through the intervention of some stone implement.

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 in 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 molluscs, have been found.

Further excavations going down to about a metre 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.

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.on the basis of analogical inference from similar carbon-dated bone matter found in the adjacent area of Udamalala.

Pallemalala man's cultural artefacts 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.

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 top soil 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 artefacts 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 artefacts 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.
Source:Sunday Observer.

@WWW Vitual Library - Sri Lanka