A bridge to Sri Lanka

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

It was a sizable audience that had assembled at the Museum Theatre in Chennai on May 17 to listen to the second Vesak Commemoration Lecture, 2004, by Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala, former Director-General, Archaeological Survey Department, Sri Lanka. The topic: "Prehistoric basis for the rise of civilisation in Sri Lanka and southern India."

Dr. Deraniyagala, Consultant to the Sri Lankan government on Archaeology, said that Sri Lanka was an extension of the Indian subcontinent for at least 8,00,000 years of the last one million years, when the sea level was lower than it is at present. Sri Lanka and India were part of one (land) mass, linked by a land bridge. It was estimated that the sea level could have dropped on at least 17 occasions in the last 7,00,000 years, resulting in the creation of a land connection. The last separation from India would have occurred about 7,000 years ago. It was, therefore, possible that humans were present in Sri Lanka at least as early as one million years ago, he said.

The lecture was jointly organised by the Sri Lanka Deputy High Commission in Southern India and the India-ASEAN-Sri Lanka Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Sumith Nakandala, Deputy High Commissioner, said the lecture was instituted by the High Commission in 2003 to encourage alternative discourses for rediscovering the common heritage of pluralism of Sri Lanka and India.

Sixty-two-year-old Dr. Deraniyagala is a scholar of international repute in archaeology. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees in Architecture and Sanskrit from Cambridge University, and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Archaeology from the University of London. His doctoral studies were conducted at Harvard University, and his dissertation, "Prehistory of Sri Lanka: an Ecological Perspective" was later published by the Sri Lankan government. He joined the Archaeological Survey Department of Sri Lanka in 1968 as an Assistant Commissioner in charge of research-oriented excavations on the island. He has directed 20 projects dealing with subjects varying from prehistoric, protohistoric and early historic ages.

Dr. Deraniyagala headed and coordinated "thrust" programmes such as the inventorisation of archaeological sites, monuments and movable antiquities; protection, conservation, maintenance and research of archaeological heritage; and the formulation of a national archaeological policy. He retired in 2002 as the Director-General of the department.

Excerpts from an interview he gave T.S. Subramanian:

You seem to be a strong advocate of collaborative research between Sri Lankan and Indian archaeologists. What are the areas in which they can work together? You mentioned the Teri area in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu, and the Iranamadu formation in Sri Lanka.

The priority is to work on a collaborative basis on early, middle and late Stone Age periods, and also on the transition into agriculture and farming. Equally important is the early Iron Age, which developed into early historical period around the fifth century B.C. A lot of work has been undertaken in the middle historical and late historical periods, mostly in terms of art and architecture. But the areas I mentioned have been largely neglected in terms of comparative work. An obvious area for investigation is the so-called Teri deposits in and around Tirunelveli. They are ancient, coastal sediments deposited on the lower flood plains of large rivers. They comprise gravel overlain by coastal sand, and both the gravel and the sand contain evidence of prehistoric man of various periods.

The second set of deposits, which has been researched in Sri Lanka with a great deal of resolution is from the late Stone Age - what we call the mesolithic period - in our cave sites. We have very rich cave deposits with prehistoric human remains. Although we have very large caves in the drier parts of Sri Lanka, these are not rich in prehistoric deposits. For some unknown reason, most of them are outside in the open air. But in the wet areas, the natural caves are rich in the remains of prehistoric culture.

There are three major caves (in Sri Lanka). The oldest is Fa Hien-lena. It starts around 37,000 years ago. The second is Batadomba-lena, which starts around 31,000 years ago. The third is Beli-lena, which starts around 30,000 years ago. These caves have produced evidence of stone tools. Also, due to dry conditions of the soil, there is good preservation of bone remains, both of animals and humans, and also charcoal. The dating of these caves has been done by radiocarbon assays, using charcoal, which is reliable. We have an excellent radiocarbon chronology for our cave sites.

As far as India is concerned, I would suggest that intensive explorations be undertaken in wetter parts such as Kerala, the Western Ghats and Assam, for caves with similar rich prehistoric deposits. I am sure you would find counterparts of our wet zone caves in Sri Lanka.

With regard to the Teris, the river gravels and shore sands on which people lived, nothing organic has survived due to the ravages of weather. Only inorganic materials have survived. Our data are strictly limited to an analysis of stone tools and their by-products. Nonetheless, these deposits are very important. For unlike the caves, these deposits appear to go back to a very much earlier period, possibly 2,00,000 to 3,00,000, or even 5,00,000 years.

We are fortunate in that the leads provided by Sri Lankan archaeologists in the 1960s and the 1970s had a favourable response in India. Dr. Shanti Pappu of Deccan College, Pune, has commenced excavation of the river deposits at Attirambakkam, near Chennai. We were flattered to hear from her that her research programme was sparked off by what was done by the Archaeological Survey Department in Sri Lanka and publication of the results in a monograph called, "The Prehistory of Sri Lanka". I am pleased because hitherto I was under the impression that nobody had taken up from where we had left off in Sri Lanka. In my lecture last evening, I advocated that archaeologists in India should start a parallel research programme in India.

Dr. Pappu has indeed commenced such a systematic project, using sophisticated excavation and dating techniques at the Attirambakkam site. My view is that this site does not seem to have direct parallels with Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, this research is undoubtedly relevant to your Teris and our counterpart referred to as Iranamadu formation.

We would like our Indian colleagues to conduct a parallel set of investigations and to enhance what we know about the Iranamadu deposits, which could go back to the early Stone Age. They could be as old as 2,50,000 years before the present (B.P.) or earlier. A discussion between the Indian and the Sri Lankan authorities could result in a collaborative project. We can use our knowledge of our respective prehistoric sites to mutual advantage.

Early Brahimi inscriptions on postherds from Anuradhapura Citadel, circa 600-500 B.C.

That is about Teris and caves which have rich prehistoric deposits. Then comes the next period, the transition from a hunting and gathering subsistence strategy into farming and agriculture. Work done by Dr. T.R. Premathilake, a Sri Lankan scientist, has yielded extremely important evidence of domestication of oats and barley in the highlands of central Sri Lanka, what we call the Horton Plains. Comparable deposits are known in the Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu.

What are your views on the terminal phase of the prehistoric period in South India and Sri Lanka?

I gather that in the Nilgiris, parallel lines of investigation have been ongoing. I feel that the Indian and the Sri Lankan scientists working on the Nilgiris and the Horton Plains respectively should work together on this very important phase of transition from purely hunting and gathering mode of subsistence into cultivation and animal herding.

The discovery of cultivation of oats and barley, and herding at about 10,000 years ago (initially at 17,000 B.P.) in the Horton Plains has given a totally new dimension to what has been known about the origin of farming and herding in the world. It has so far been assumed that it was West Asia, South-east Asia and East Asia, which formed separate cradles of revolution in the subsistence strategy. But now we have yet another nucleus - namely, South Asia.

At present, the Sri Lankan evidence is being worked on by Dr. Premathilake and we hope that parallel investigations in India should progress. The initial findings are in urgent need of intensive corroboration, as they have worldwide importance. They place Sri Lanka and southern India on the global map as one of the hearts of this revolution in subsistence strategy that served to radically subjugate the environment to increase its human carrying capacity.

When it comes to the Stone Age, there are certain anomalies, which have yet to be explained, namely what is referred to as the Acheulean tradition of tool-making, which is very well represented at Attirambakkam but does not appear south of Madurai and it has certainly not been found in Sri Lanka. The same applies to the typical southern Indian new Stone Age - Neolithic - with its characteristic polished stone axes. Once again, as far as I know, it has not been found south of Madurai, and again not in Sri Lanka. We still do not know the reason for this situation. Strangely, the Cauvery river is the southernmost limit for the extension of these two very different characteristic cultural traits: the Acheulean and polished stone axe traditions of stone tool manufacture.

I would suggest that modern geographical information system (GIS) be used, using databases from non-archaeological sources, for example agriculture, to see if some sort of explanation could be derived to explain this anomaly. This is something that Sri Lanka and India could collaborate on.

You said in your lecture that there is evidence in Sri Lanka to support the viewpoint that anatomically modern humans originated in South/South-east Asia and not in Africa. You called it "a radically new departure from the accepted theory."

Sri Lanka is lucky in that we have a series of human remains from caves from 37,000 years ago. A major assemblage has been dated to 18,000 years ago, another to 16,000 years B.P., yet another to 6,500, and one between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago. These remains have been intensely studied at Cornell University, U.S., and reports published. The initial indications are that the 19th century Vadda Adivasis of Sri Lanka bear a strong genetic resemblance to these early historic humans, at least from 18,000 years ago onwards. This research was taken further by Dr. D.T. Hawkey of Arizona State University, where she used dental morphological traits to establish the genetic distance between populations. It is comparative work of the greatest value, and what she says is that these dental traits are genetically determined, and have nothing to do with environment. She has done comparative work not only on the Sri Lankan population but various Indian groups and further afield into West Asia and South-east Asia on the one hand, and Australia and Melanesia on the other. She has come up with important results on the genetic affinities of our prehistoric humans. This has confirmed the results of the earlier work done by Cornell University.

What is more important is that Dr. Hawkey suggests that the Sri Lankan evidence indicates that modern human beings evolved in South Asia, South-east Asia, and perhaps in south China. This challenges the widely held view that they originated in Africa.

Not in Africa?

It is very important that this is firmly established, for this is the commencement of a new line of research, which can have tremendous implications for world anthropology.

This gives the lie to the theory that man originated in Africa.

Not exactly. These are preliminary results, and we would like research to be furthered. Once again, the Indian evidence is very scanty. You have to find these caves in India, and hopefully find human remains from very carefully excavated earth layers, date these layers, and compare them with the data existing from the Sri Lankan excavations. That is very important.

You have unearthed remains of extensive human settlements at Anuradhapura. What is their significance?

The end of the Stone Age is around 1,000 B.C. as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, and the Iron Age set in roughly around that time. To the best of my knowledge, this is also the case in India. The three major sites at Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka have been intensively excavated by the Archaeological Department, checked by the University of Cambridge, and over 75 radiocarbon dates are available for this settlement. There is an excellent chronology starting from 900 B.C. In this layer (early Iron Age), we found large quantities of artefacts, which are characterised by the use of iron, horses, cattle, high-grade pottery, and possibly cultivation of rice.

The settlement was fairly large, at least 10 hectares in size. It was not a small village. We have no mechanics of knowing why such a settlement should have started in the first place. For it is the only major settlement of this period that has been found in Sri Lanka. Further investigation will undoubtedly reveal other large settlements of this period.

This culture developed progressively and expanded into city life by 700 B.C. This challenges the acceptance of the orthodox view that urbanisation spread from northern India to the south during the Mauryan times, the time of Asoka. The Sri Lankan evidence seems to indicate that it happened long before the Mauryan period. Yet we cannot say precisely whether it was the direct result of a rapid spread of urbanised culture from northern India down south or whether it was largely an independent development (in Sri Lanka). Until much more intensive investigation is done, we cannot even attempt to answer this important question.

If it is an independently evolved urbanisation in the southern part of the subcontinent and Sri Lanka, then the question comes up, why should it have been so? Why two foci of urban culture in India and Sri Lanka? One obvious answer for Sri Lanka is that long-distance trade speeded up urbanisation from the ninth century B.C. onwards. But this is only a hypothesis, which has to be tested with further work.

The other problem is that between Ujjain in India and Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, there was a dearth of large settlements at Circa 300 years B.C. This picture has been well represented in a map drawn by Dr. F.R. Allchin of Cambridge University, which shows that between Ujjain and Anuradhapura, no sizable settlements have been discovered so far. It is quite possible that subsequent work would alter the picture of urban centres in peninsular India.

It is our suggestion that the Indian archaeologists focus on intensive exploration of settlements in peninsular India. We are already engaged in such an investigation in Sri Lanka. So far we have not found large settlements other than at Anuradhapura. This does not mean that we shall not find them in future.

Here comes the problem of megalithic cemeteries. The Sri Lankan evidence indicates that there are no settlements associated with the megalithic cemeteries.

At Adichanallur near Tirunelveli, the Archaeological Survey of India, Chennai Circle, has unearthed about a hundred urns, a dozen of them with human skeletons.

In Sri Lanka, we have found on a smaller scale more than 40 such sites. But we have failed to locate any human settlement associated with these cemeteries. So one wonders who these people were, and who buried their dead in such distinctive cemeteries. We have no straightforward answers to these questions. Once again, future collaborative research between Sri Lanka and India will undoubtedly shed light on this problem. One theory is that they were pastoral people who buried their dead in ceremonial grounds.

India has 14 major and minor rock edicts of Emperor Asoka. Does Sri Lanka have similar rock edicts, considering that he sent his daughter to the island to spread Buddhism?

We don't have rock edicts of Emperor Asoka.

Have you found northern black polished ware (NBPW) in Sri Lanka? There is plenty of it at Amaravathy in Andhra Pradesh, which was a seat of Buddhism.

From around 400 B.C., we have found NBPW at Anuradhapura. Its presence indicates north-south contacts. We do not know what kind of contact, but prior to Asoka, there were contacts between north India and Sri Lanka; could be trade or religion, or both. There is a possibility that there was knowledge of Buddhism in Sri Lanka prior to the formal introduction of Buddhism on the island during the time of Emperor Asoka.

Can you expand on how evidence of writing discovered in Sri Lanka has broken new grounds on the origin of writing in South Asia?

We have found evidence of writing on pottery in Sri Lanka. The earliest examples have been radiocarbon dated between 600 and 500 B.C. They have also been checked by thermo luminescence dating. The discoveries of the Archaeological Survey Department (of Sri Lanka) were corroborated by an independent investigation conducted by a team from Cambridge University. Over 75 pieces of pottery with writing on them and dated 500-250 B.C. were found. The evidence is secure. It sheds completely new light on the origin of writing in South Asia.

Indian archaeologists have found inscriptions on pottery of the early Iron Age, the so-called megalithic period, at Arikamedu, near Pondicherry. Similarly, Dr. K. Rajan has found an inscription on pottery from the megalithic cemetery at Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu. Very recently, it has been reported that they have found inscriptions on one or more pieces of pottery at Adichanallur. This is very, very important. The question is how to date them. Without radiocarbon dating of these deposits, we cannot say to what date these inscriptions belong. We should date the pottery inscriptions by radiocarbon dating the deposits. The inscriptions could well be much earlier (pre-Asokan) than hitherto assumed.

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