Taking a good look at our distant past

Book facts : Prehistoric Sri Lanka: Late Pleistocene Rockshelters and an Open-Air Site by H. Nimal Perera. 2010 – Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (Int. Ser. 2142). ISBN 97814073 06834. Price: sterling pounds 52. Reviewed by S.U. Deraniyagala

Investigations into the Stone Age of Sri Lanka commenced in the 1890s and, after a faltering start, became established by 1908. Thereafter it progressed fitfully until the late 1930s, when it became steadier. These were pioneering forays, conducted on a somewhat ad hoc basis.

In 1968 the Department of Archaeological Survey of the Government of Sri Lanka established a special branch for research excavations, and for the first time the island’s prehistoric archaeology received the full-time professional attention it deserved. The investigations thereafter were conducted in several stages. Stage I comprised the synthesizing of previous research and formulation of a problematique; Stage II, the undertaking of spot-surveys indicated by Stage I; Stage III, problem-orientated excavation of sites highlighted in Stage II; Stage IV, synthesis and publication of results of preceding stages, and the formulation of a fresh problematique to be addressed in Stage V.

Stage IV indicated unequivocally that the next major focus of research should be on the prehistoric cave habitations in the equatorial rainforests of south-western Sri Lanka.

Thence Stage V commenced with the systematic excavation of two caves, Kitulgala Beli-lena and Batadomba-lena, followed by Attanagoda Alu-lena and Fa Hien-lena. The salient results were published by the present writer in summarised form; and (for Kitulgala Beli-lena) subsequently presented in greater detail by Dr. W.H. Wijeyapala in his unpublished Ph.D dissertation. But justice had yet to be meted out to what turned out to be data of great significance.

It was at this juncture that Nimal Perera, Assistant Director in charge of research excavations at the Department of Archaeology, took the baton for the next lap of the research relay. He was able to incorporate the data from the cave excavations, primarily Batadomba-lena, in his doctoral dissertation for the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra.

He was thereby able to adopt state-of-the-art method, theory and practice in analysing and interpreting the data under the tutelage of a group of specialists of international repute. The resultant dissertation (2007) was the first comprehensive treatise to emerge on the archaeology of prehistoric cave habitations in South Asia; and it proved to be a landmark.

Dr. Perera’s return to Sri Lanka shortly thereafter was followed by minor revisions to his dissertation in the light of fresh appraisals in the field. The result is the present publication.

In concluding Stage IV of the research design, as incorporated in the monograph titled, ‘The Prehistory of Sri Lanka: an Ecological Perspective (1992)’, the present writer projected that ‘within less than two decades from now there would be an adequate body of new data so as to justify the assaying of yet another synthesis such as this, as a prelude to the formulation of a further mega-stage of prehistoric research in Lanka’.

This prediction has come true. Dr. Nimal Perera’s contribution provides the vital springboard for launching a series of advanced investigations into the prehistory of Sri Lanka, with leads into the rest of South Asia. Of global significance is its relevance to the problem of the dispersal of anatomically modern humans from Africa.

This work is a ‘must read’ for all serious inquirers of Sri Lanka’s distant past: a past that has been formative to much of the island’s more recent history during the last 2500 years.

The reviewer is a Retd. Director-General of Archaeology- (M.A. Cambridge; Ph.D. Harvard; FNASSL)

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