Archaeologists

Gamini Adikari, Dr. Arjuna Thantilage: Exploring Pre-history

The shark tooth ornament seems too small and delicate to have survived so many centuries unaltered. The two people who wore it lie beside it, but on them time has taken a heavier toll. Their bones lie scattered in the quiet cave, and are unearthed in pieces. Buried with them is the debris of their lives. Potshards, bone tools, seeds and even the remains of the animals they feasted on lie mingled in the dust.

For the team from the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR), University of Kelaniya, this cave near the Alawala village in the Gampaha district is a treasure trove. The team members have about them the air of detectives, who with patient and plodding work are unravelling mysteries many thousands of years in the making. Around 52 students from the Masters’ programme are working with specialists including, archeo-chemists, botanists, geologists and biospealeologists, in an attempt to recreate the lives of these two pre-historic humans, and their finds might challenge many of our conventional ideas about how our ancient ancestors lived.

Students at the dig

Senior lecturer Gamini Adikari has over two decades experience excavating sites all over Sri Lanka. Ancient human osteology (the study of human bones) is his passion. “In the Western Province in Sri Lanka, we have found pre-historic remains in only two places,” he says, listing the first site as Pahiyangala, where the remains of a pre-modern man who lived over 37,000 years ago were found. So far, the finds at this site include fragments of skull, some mandibles with teeth as well as loose teeth. He believes that they belonged to pre-historic humans who lived in 13,000 B.C.E.

The amount of wear and tear on the surfaces of the molars and the proportions of the mandibles and skull fragments indicate that there were probably two people buried here and that one of them was a young man and the other was an older woman. The former was probably in his late twenties, while the latter may have been about 40. Unusually, red ochre has been applied not only to the outside but to the inside of the skull fragments, a clear sign that the remains were part of some ritual.

Beside the skeletal remains are further traces of red ochre and other minerals like graphite and mica. Tools made of bone and stone throw light on the primitive technology employed by those hunter gatherers. Of the bone tools, Mr. Adikari says, “They are very small, very lovely and very sharp.” These tools were in all likelihood used in hunting and then in skinning the animals they caught. Matching scrape marks on the bones indicate that the tools were used to separate the meat and marrow from the bones. These primitive tools came in handy as arrowheads, while removing seeds from inside the nut, and even to make new implements. “

Dr. Arjuna Thantilage Gamini Adikari

They clearly practised butchery in the caves,” says Mr. Adikari saying almost all the animal remains belong to small edible mammals and birds. The bones of giant squirrels and monkeys have been found, as have vertebrae belonging to pythons and fish. The team wonders whether the two ancient humans found their way down to the ocean, some 20 miles distant.

Also found in the cave were several varieties of snails and wild breadfruit seeds. The latter, known locally as kakuna, may have been roasted before being eaten, says Jayasanka Hettiarachchi, a research assistant from the Botany Section of the National Museum. Remains of ancient hearths in the cave support this theory. Furthermore, a rock boulder, 6 or 7 feet in diameter is dotted with spitted holes, which appear to have been used for grinding. As for the snails, holes drilled into their shells may have been the method by which the humans extracted the tender meat, says Dr. Wasantha Weliange, a biospealeogist with PGIAR who is an expert in animal life in caves. These may have then been used as pendants once their unfortunate inhabitants had been consumed.

These finds may yet prove to be only the tip of the iceberg. The excavation is currently limited to 6 square metres and is still in its first phase. As a result the team’s theories are yet to be proven in the laboratory. Mr. Adikari emphasises that he has come to his conclusions based on comparisons with other specimens that belong to that period and in consultation with learned colleagues like Dr. Nimal Perera of the Department of Archaeology. (The excavations are being carried out with the permission of the Department of Archaeology.)

The human remains
Shark tooth ornament
A close-up of the molar

Mr. Adikari himself is no stranger to cave excavations, having worked in Sigiriya, Aligala, Pidurangala, Asmadela and the Warana cave complex. Still it may be several months before the results of carbon dating, mature thermal analysis and DNA testing confirm his hypothesis.

However, it is the shards of pottery found at the site that most intrigue archeo-chemist Dr. Arjuna Thantilage, also of PGIAR. He explains that little evidence remains to throw light on Sri Lanka’s transition from Stone Age to Metal Age. Conventional belief is that the change was abrupt, and the Iron Age began with an intruding megalithic culture from India. Saying that “we understand the potential that these sites have to recreate our cultural transformation,” Dr. Thantilage adds that sites such as this where people used pottery and stone tools together are key to understanding the transition. “We may have identified a new cultural phase,” he says explaining that the Gampaha site has the basic elements already in place. His research is outlined in a published paper titled ‘Protohistoric Copper Metallurgy in Sri Lanka’.

Unfortunately this site itself has been disturbed. Villagers have at various points used it as a shelter, and have later collected the bat droppings that lay thick on the ground for fertilizer. Chief Incumbent of the Pothgullen Rajamaha Viharaya, Veyangoda, Venerable Kamburawala Vajira Thera who visits it often explains that the site is known locally as ‘Pothgul Kanda’ or cave of books and may have been used as a shelter cave by monks in times past. Two newer inscriptions, perhaps a mere 2,900 years old, support the theory that the cave has had many inhabitants over the years.

The first phase of the excavation is drawing to a close. The team hopes to start again in mid-February, with the full support of the Institute’s Director Prof. Nimal de Silva. Mr. Adikari says that he intends to send his students out to study the surroundings, to identify if they can what species of plants and animals remain in the area, and how the humans who live there currently interact with their surroundings. Such steps help ethnoarchaeologists “recreate the whole landscape”. For the rest of us, they serve as windows into our often mysterious past, where our distant ancestors walked through a very different world.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on January 18, 2009. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara

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