|25 January 2009
Piecing together an ancient tale from Sri Lanka
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, their bones lie scattered, 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 (Sri Lanka) is a treasure trove.
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 prehistoric humans. "In the Western Province in Sri Lanka, we have found prehistoric remains in only two places," Senior lecturer Gamini Adikari says. 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 BCE.
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. Matching scrape marks on the bones indicate that the tools were used to separate the meat and marrow from the bones. "They clearly practised butchery in the caves," says Mr. Adikari saying almost all the animal remains belong to small edible mammals and birds.
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.
The excavation is currently limited to 6 square metres and is still in its first phase. 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. Dr. Thantilage says 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.
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. Two newer inscriptions, perhaps a mere 2,900 years old, support the theory that the cave has had many inhabitants over the years.
Source: The Sunday Times (18 Janury 2009)
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