The hunter’s transition
By Kavindya Chris Thomas
There are two known stages of our history: the one that we have scientifically studied and that specific area that has not been touched yet in prehistory that connects with the start of our ancient history. Historians like Prof. Siran Deraniyagala have done immense work that explained what Sri Lankan Prehistory was but we are yet to ascertain and gauge this gap between prehistory and ancient history. This is a 'black hole' in our
Until now, we have filled this void through folk legends, myths, tall tales and oral history which are of course romanticized at least every week in a weekend newspaper.
Around 19 years ago, the Kelaniya University Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, commenced a series of research and experiments titled "The Hunter's Transition," in layman's terms to understand how individuals from the Stone Age transitioned towards colonies and then later on to larger communities. The research is now led by Senior Professor of the University, Raj Somadeva.
Despite contemporary belief, it has been scientifically established that Homo sapiens arrived in this land roughly 125, 000 years ago. This was based on prehistoric evidence that was found in the coastal areas of Pathirajawela and Hambantota which were dated using a method known as 'optically stimulated luminescence.' This is not coincidence as it has already been established that the sapiens left Africa and spread throughout and thus, they reached Sri Lanka as well.
From arriving in Hambantota, they spread throughout the terrain and continued to live without any interruption of any sort. This was the Homo sapiens balangodensis. However, as the conventional story goes, the Balangoda culture and descendants died out 6,000 years ago or so (3,830 BC), paving the way for Indian occupation of the land. Enter exile prince Vijaya, his counterparts and later on Buddhism commencing our ancient historic period.
"The Mahavamsa documents it and Ceylon Civil Service officer George Turner's Ceylon Almanac coins this as the history. From 1505, with the arrival of the Portuguese, Sri Lanka experienced the Portuguese Period. Following that commenced the Dutch Period and later on the British Period, due to the respective colonizers of the country. Going with the same analogy, it should be noted that the period before the arrival of the Portuguese was known as the Indian Period of Sri Lanka," Somadeva explained.
The research was a complete turnabout and was all about attempting to perceive history with a fresh look. According to Somadeva, "Our research strove away from that particular notion in order to understand whether the primitive communities could develop their technology, their population and their cognition in order to find the drive to change. If not, why? If they did, what is the evidence?"
In the last nine years, Somadeva's team recorded evidence that proves that our prehistoric communities didn't just come to an unexplained, abrupt end.
"The communities which led hunter-gatherer lives, as so commonly thought of as living uncivilized lives, were cast out of historical norms in our country. The prehistoric cavemen were never a subject of our contemporary history with pride nor have we acknowledged the things that which we have gained from them. Thus far, as a nation, we were only interested in the legacy of the Great Indian Expansion programme. But our research has identified around 20 time periods that charts this Twilight Zone of our history. We don't think this is enough; identifying time periods is one thing, we have to chronicle the people who lived during that period.
"For this to happen, we have to eliminate the notion of these communities being primitive. The word 'primitive' that was introduced by the colonialists to marginalize Asian culture has to be removed. This is a national endeavour to change our collective mindset. This is our initiative.
Accordingly the research, through an arduous process has established seven dates through preliminary excavation in seven locations in the country. Also the idea has already been established that part of our history did not vanish over a fortnight; that it had continued despite foreign invasions and interventions. Evidence of these communities striving well beyond 3,830 BC is now established; the arrival of the Homo sapien is no mere folk tale now. These are our long forgotten ancestors. There is an uninterrupted biological and genetic connection with these individuals, the Veddas and the current population."
Hunters didn't remain stagnant forever. They had strived towards edible plants that later on led to agriculture. There is evidence of foraging and consumption of edible plants in almost all the locations as well as charred seeds that have been preserved. The reason for this is brought out in paleobotanist Dr. P. R. Prematilleke's research on how individuals in Asian tropical nations were affected by the global warming during the Holocene period, following the Great Ice age. They adapted into foragers; an alteration from being carnivores to omnivores. Evidence for this - of those who adopted a new trend and acculturated, calculated through the method of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, has identified this evidence to be around 6,400 years old (4,500 BC). None of us knew this and that is why this was not in our main story.
Evidence in the form of various artefacts that have been gathered, suggest that man has made an intense exploitation of wild plants and a massive leap towards primary symbolism. Scientific data, according to the research, suggest that this event – this transition – was set in motion in the period between 8,000 and 5,500 calibrated years before the present.
The research documents a collection of charred seeds, nuts, wild paddy and various floral species alongside a handmade basket made out of plant materials and preserved using natural wax, that suggests forms of foraging and storing for large groups of people.
An assemblage of charred seeds and nuts excavated from Lunugala in the village of Illukkumbura in the Ratnapura district has disclosed 25 varieties of floral species; two out of 25 have been identified as edible wild forms of rice. The rest of the sample consists of wild banana, wild berry, wild dates, wild mustard and a couple of seeds like Embalia ribes and Toddalia asiatica, which are presently used in indigenous medicine in Sri Lanka.
Wild paddy had been consumed over roughly 6,000 years ago. This is important because of our pre-notion that rice was introduced to Sri Lanka by India. However, these individuals had adapted to the environment in order to develop logical methods that ensured their survival.
Evidence had been sent to the Plant Genetic Resources Centre at the Gannoruwa Agriculture Complex for analysis. With their assistance, these charred seeds were identified. The Industrial Technology Institute, assisted in confirmation of the plant evidence.
There is evidence of processed plant material that was consumed using a form of early grinding stone and sun baked pottery which might have held dry rations. This means that they've not only processed their food but also stored them. The biggest evidence for this is the evidence of mouse and rodent skeletons that were found near these supposed storages in the caves.
"This all leads to one conclusion. These individuals had permanent dwellings, lived in large numbers in the form of colonies. This shows that they would have stopped their nomadic lifestyle and were adapting to village like living. They had also changed their diet depending on the climate; they have eaten large amounts of snails which was rather economical for them. Snails were abundant and provided large amounts of protein. The minimum amount of protein required for an adult male was fulfilled through these garden variety snails. We have also found animal bones with intricate cuttings on the side in Narammala and Balangoda, which we believe might have been used to create a sound. This is just an idea of course, going by other similar discoveries around the world; we might have our hands on a prehistoric lithophone-esque instrument. We have standardized these findings and we have come across the challenge of understanding whether these colonies were well versed in music making. This does not come as a surprise; after all, these were anatomically similar human beings. Their brain capacity was the same. They were just like us but with a different culture."
Symbolism is the next aspect which plays a major role in this research. Excavation at Alugalge in Illukkumbura had revealed four beads made out of animal bones and teeth. The bead out of an animal's tooth shows a comparatively high skill of craftsmanship as the shaping of an animal tooth requires hard labour and curation. The most intricate of one such bead recovered is a crafted shark tooth with grooves carved into it. The researchers believe that prehistoric settlers living in Balangoda walked for over 40 kilometres to the Western coastal areas to obtain these shark teeth to produce necklaces. According to Somadeva, considering that dead sharks usually sink to the bottom of the ocean, these prehistoric settlers must have either been proficient at either deep sea diving or fishing for sharks.
"There were also heart shaped pendants crafted from a mineral which is at six in the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. The symbolism alone shows that this is a relatively hard mineral and the fact that they reserved so much effort into moulding it shows that they were not 'primitives' as some of us have relegated them. There are various similar findings around the world but never in Sri Lanka. We've always believed that the Balangoda man lived a primitive life in a cave, only to develop with Indian technology and culture. That was the main paradigm. Here we have changed that," he said.
The most prominent find in the research however, is the Badahena rock map. The research was published on 14 December, 2017 pending excavations in February 2018.
The rock bed, with over 659 cupules, was discovered in August in Illukkumbura, Pinnagala. The miniscule cupules represent site distribution; various other caves and open valley areas that once were inhabited by these colonies.
"This is an attempt to map their interactive landscape through a number of generations. It is not an easy task of course. According to analysis done by Indian researchers to carve a singular 1.9 millimeters deep, five millimeter diameter cupule, it takes 1,898 blows from a rock instrument. Therefore, in order to complete this entire rock map, it has taken roughly five million hits. This shows the labour and the attention that was put into this endeavour. Landscaping requires Cartesian coordinates and that is no easy job. Space mapping is an integral yet sophisticated cognitive skill, which these individuals have accomplished. This competition based on survival is natural. In order to manage this conflict, there has to be territorial reconciliation. For this, the three dimensional space has to be presented on a two dimensional scale; this is the context in which the map inside the Badhahena cave might have been created. This process of down scaling is a unique capability of Homo sapiens's demographic growth," said Somadeva.
But most importantly, it is this primordial man's cognitive presence of spatial consciousness that makes this map the most important discovery after the Homo sapiens balangodensis in 1955.
The visual literacy of the primordial man has rarely been discussed in academic circles. His capabilities of imagination and the capability to interpret, negotiate and make meaning from information in the form of an image were always constricted with the basic understanding we had of the caveman. Until now, the caveman was a simple creature who hunted, gathered, procreated and occasionally drew pictures on cave walls. But time has come now to change our perception of our true ancestors, of our innate sense of technology and our not so primitive cognitive skills.
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