Travellers from the North
“Wide open and unguarded stand our gates.” Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Adam’s Bridge was a bridge crying out for repair, even before the great storm of 1470 shattered it forever. Unpredictable, and uneven, sailing had long been the better option. But for Sri Lanka’s first settlers – who had still to master boats – a short walk from India was all it took.
And walking was what the island’s first settlers did: Palaeolithic and later Mesolithic migrants from the Indian mainland who simply strolled across, their effortless trek belying the extreme complexity that hundreds of years later would colour Sri Lanka’s relationship with India – from war, intermarriage, Buddhism itself - and the borrowing of kings.
Since Jurassic times, some two hundred million years ago, Sri Lanka had, as part of India, broken off from the great Gondwana sub content that had been formed in the Triassic era a hundred million years earlier. Adam’s Bridge was becoming the sole point of access to the far south; but by 7,500 BCE it was almost unwalkable.
Beguiling hints of these earliest inhabitants are still only just emerging. Excavations conducted in 1984 by Prof. S. Krishnarajah near Point Pedro, north east of Jaffna revealed Stone Age tools and axes that are anything from 500,000 to 1.6 million years old. As the fossil record demonstrates, the land they inhabited was ecologically richer and more dramatic than it is today, teaming not simply with a plenitude of the wildlife still found in Sri Lanka today, but with hippopotamus and rhinoceros as well.
Hundreds of millennia later, one of their Stone Age descendants was to leave behind the most anatomically perfect modern human remains yet uncovered on the island.
Balangoda Man, as he was to be named, was found in the hills south of Horton Plains inland from Matara, a short walk from the birthplace of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. His complete 30,000 year old skeleton is bewitchingly life-like.
Probing his remains, scientists have concluded that Balangoda Man and his heirs were eager consumers of raw meat, from snails and snakes to elephants. And artistic too, as evidenced in the ornamental fish bones, sea shell beads and pendants left behind.
All across the island, similar finds are being uncovered, pointing to a sparce but widespread population of hunter gathers, living in caves – such as Batadomba, Aliga and Beli-lena in Kitulgala. The tools and weapons found in these caves, made of quartz crystal and flint, are well in advance of such technological developments in Europe, which date from around 10,000 BCE compared to 29,000 BCE in Sri Lanka.
Later evidence indicates that Stone Age hunter-gathers then made the transition to a more settled lifestyle, growing, at least by 17,000-15,000 BCE, oats, and barley on what is now Horton Plains, thousands of years before it even began in that fulcrum of early global civilization - Mesopotamia.
Astonishingly, their direct descendants, the Veddas, are still alive today, making up less than 1% of the island’s total population, an aboriginal community with strong animist beliefs that has, against the odds, retained a distinctive identity. Leaner, and darker than modern Sri Lankans, their original religion - cherishing demons, and deities - was associated with the dead and the certainty that the spirits of dead relatives can cause good or bad outcomes. Their language, unique to them, is now almost – but not quite - extinct.
And perhaps it was the Vedda or their spirits that Fa-Hsien, the 5th century CE traveller had in mind when he conjured up his fable of early Sri Lanka in his book “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms:”
“The country originally had no human inhabitants, but was occupied only by spirits and nagas, with which merchants of various countries carried on a trade. When the trafficking was taking place, the spirits did not show themselves. They simply set forth their precious commodities, with labels of the price attached to them; while the merchants made their purchases according to the price; and took the things away.“
Fa-Hsien’s colourful travelogue shows just readily the early origins of the country depend on myth and fable. Centuries passed before there are finally some tantalising hints of the Stone Ages’ transition into the Iron Age, and with it more evidence of new waves of colonization into the island from India.
As new travellers arrived from the sub-continent, Balangoda man and his ancestors were pushed into the more inaccessible parts of the country, especially the rainforests, a small part of which, Sinharaja Forest Reserve, miraculously survives in its original state today.
Using the progressive technology of the iron age, the new colonists were able to clear land and plant crops, mine for metals like copper, and even establish pearl fisheries.
By 1500 BCE there is evidence of cinnamon being exported to the ancient Egyptians. A series of major excavations in Anuradhapura dating to around 900 BCE has uncovered abundant treasure including artefacts that show the use of iron, the domestication of horses and cattle, the use of high-quality pottery and possibly even the cultivation of rice. The settlement was large – even by today’s standards: 4 hectares.
Other equally large settlements undoubtedly wait still to be found. One that has already been unearthed and studied are the burial mounds at Ibbankutuwa near Dambulla that date back to around 1,000 BCE. Here a wealth of pottery vessels interned with the dead contain ornaments of bronze and copper, beads and, most interesting of all, such stones as carnelian and onyx that could only have come to the island from India. Other such sites exist in places like Padiyagampola and Jamburagala in Yala.
By the early 7th century BCE evidence comes of the use of the Brahmi script using a language that is an early form of Sinhala. Inventive, adaptive, increasingly sophisticated - urban living was arriving – whether as an independent island-wide development or because of the rapid spread of urbanised culture from India still using Adam’s Bridge as a convenient thoroughfare, is still the stuff of impassioned academic debate. Either way, the evolutionary ball was rolling like never before. From urban living, came city states. And into one of these, in 543 BCE , stepped the Indian Prince, Vijaya.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.