Far Beneath Fa-Hien Cave

“The limitations of archaeology are galling. It collects phenomena, but hardly ever can isolate them so as to interpret scientifically; it can frame any number of hypotheses, but rarely, if ever, scientifically prove.”

– David George Hogarth

Archaeological evidences come to historians’ aid during research while unravelling the mysteries of the past. These evidences help to separate facts from fiction, information from speculation, and the truth from myths. Archaeology is a discipline that is heavily evidence-based. In this practice, theories or hypotheses don’t hold much credibility unless one can straighten out the facts. However, today with the vast development of new media, the interference of social and electronic media – wherein sensationalism usually trumps accuracy and credibility – evidently has a negative impact on the field of history and archaeology in Sri Lanka. 

The field of Sri Lankan archaeology recently experienced rather ‘ground-breaking’ revelation. The discovery of the 48,000 year-old arrowheads in Fa-Hien Cave puts Sri Lanka on the pedestal of world archaeology as it made us the country to house oldest evidence of such arrowheads outside African continent. However, what shook the field of archaeology were not just the revolutionary excavation project and the magnitude of the findings but also the revelation of controversial ethical and academic issues in the field which were brought up through electronic and social media parallel to the discovery.

48,000 years old  arrowheads

As it was reported, quite a large number of tools made of stone, bone, and tooth including a number of small arrow points carved out of bone which are about 48,000 years old were discovered at Fa-Hien Cave. For further information we contacted Dr. Nimal Perera, a prominent prehistorian of Sri Lanka who was the former Director of Excavations and former Acting Deputy Director-General of Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology, and is a Director at the Central Cultural Fund. 

Dr. Perera pointed out that the cave has been an archaeological hotspot where human remains were also discovered in the 1960s and 1980s. According to archaeologists all these evidences combined prove that Homo sapiens settled in Sri Lanka about 40,000 years ago.

The oldest known evidence of the use of bow and arrow is stone points discovered in Sibudu Cave, South Africa and they are 64,000 years old. Until the recent revelation, the second oldest known evidence of such ancient weaponry was found in Germany which dates back 18,000 years.

 Explaining further about the findings the archaeologists focus our attention to some artefacts that has a unique feature; with spaced notches down each side. These can be identified as shuttles for creating nets of woven fibres. Shell beads and tiny blocks of mineral pigments of bright colours such as red and yellow, are also seen among the evidence left behind by these rainforest dwellers.

Among other findings are bead ornaments and weapons made of animal bone. Dr. Perera further stated that the arrowheads discovered at Fa-Hien Cave site are the same type of tools which were used by Vedda people of Sri Lanka. At present however, Veddas use arrow heads made of steel although it is not clear yet when the switch from animal bones to steel happened, if there ever was such a switch that is. 

Doubts regarding  interpretation of  Arrowheads

We also spoke to a number of eminent scholars and researchers in archaeology to clarify facts regarding the interpretation of findings. Modern scholars who follow Post-processual archaeological theories in particular have raised speculations regarding the interpretations.  The 48,000-year-old arrowheads are indeed an exciting finding in the field of archaeology in Sri Lanka. This new discovery will alter the known history of Homo sapiens. However, based on literature evidences, it is a known fact that Sri Lankan Vedda people or forest dwellers used steel arrowheads.

 According to researchers and records (or lack thereof rather), Vedda people have not used stone or bone arrowheads. If so, then based on what theory and methodology can these 48,000 old bone arrowheads be compared to the steel arrowheads used by current Vedda people? How is the gap in timeline between bone arrowheads and steel arrowheads bridged? 

It is a known and taught fact within the discipline of Archaeology that artefacts are ‘multivocal’. One artefact has many uses and many meanings. When interpreting artefacts, there are multiple factors that should be taken into consideration while looking at it in many perspectives. It would have been scientific and greatly contributing to the subject, if the methodology used for data analysis was explained in detail. 

Ethical issues raised by citizens and scholars

The discovery didn’t just give birth to acclaim fame and recognition. Parallel to the recent discovery, some questioned why some artefacts sent abroad for further research aren’t finding their way back to Sri Lanka. Also, a recent accusation was made about the exploitation of artefacts at the Fa-Hien site, which is a reason to be concerned as it entails the rights of Sri Lankan citizens and their heritage as these priceless artefacts are part of the heritage of Sri Lankan citizens which belong here.

If these precious objects are sent to foreign countries for further research, it should be made sure that they are returned once the research is completed. It is a known fact in the field of archaeology that many of the findings – including human skulls and body remains that were discovered at prehistoric sites – have never found their way back to Sri Lanka and to this date, we do not know what has happened to these precious artefacts. These are the crucial elements of our heritage and not having them with us deprives the citizens of the opportunity to know about their ancestors. 

Sri Lankan scholars as well as the public should be given access to study these findings and data should be made available to all Sri Lankan scholars. It is not a secret that such sites and these data are restricted to local researchers but freely accessed by foreigners. This is a barrier and an unpleasant experience faced by local scholars when conducting research. 

Another concern raised by local scholars is the need of sending these priceless objects to an unknown destination to be examined. Most of the findings sent abroad get exploited under the veil of ‘research’ and are never returned. Since Sri Lanka has experienced and trained scholars and developed laboratories, some are wondering why we are sending the findings abroad to get tested in the first place when we can utilise the facilities and knowhow we have here to do the same. 

Judging by the social media posts about the discovery, it looks as if many try to personalise credits, limiting or zooming in on one institute or an individual when the due credit should really go towards the Department of Archaeology and research teams working tirelessly under the purview of the department. Unfortunately this ethical element seems to have escaped from the practice of some scholars.

 When it comes to taking blame for something archaeology-related however, the collective finger is automatically pointed towards the department. While it is not completely unjust to demand answers from the Department as it is the governing body which oversees anything archaeology-related in Sri Lanka, the ethics aspect of the discipline also plays a major role in keeping the practice fraud-free.    

Fa-Hien Cave site

While the magnitude of the recent discovery gives much local and international exposure to Fa-Hien Cave, one has to look at the overall excavations took place at the cave to understand the true significance the site plays in Sri Lankan history. 

There is no doubt that Fa-Hien Cave excavation is one of the most noteworthy archaeological discoveries of the century. This site and the excavation is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest triumphs and valued by local and international scholars alike for its significance. 

Fa-Hien Cave is located in Sri Lanka’s Western Province near Bulathsinhala – a small town in Sri Lanka’s wet zone. The cave lies on a slope of a rock cliff with an east-facing entrance and has two main chambers. 

Archaeological work 

Fa-Hien Cave site is of great archaeological significance as fossilised skeletal remains of Late Pleistocene human were discovered in the cave’s sediments during excavations in the 1960s, the 1980s and in 2013, lead by the Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka. 

In 1968, human burials sites were uncovered inside the cave by Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala (former Director-General of Archaeology) of the Department of Archaeology, who undertook a second excavation campaign in 1988 with the assistance of late Dr.W.H. Wijeyapala (former Director General of the Central Cultural Fund). Excavation work lead by the Department of Archaeology continues under the direction of Dr.Nimal Perera.

The importance 

To understand the importance of Fa-Hien Cave site and where it stands in the history of Sri Lanka, a brief reading of the prehistory of Sri Lanka is essential. The history of the oldest known human settlement of Sri Lanka dates 125,000 years back. The Balangoda culture, which is the Microlithic Period of Sri Lanka was spread in the Horton plains, Punarin (Northern part of the island), and Mankulam, Miniha Gal Kanda. There are remains of the Microlithic Period found in these sites, which date as back as to 28,000 – 9500 BCE. Many artefacts discovered in Sri Lanka have been identified as remnants belonging to Palaeolithic period.

Artefacts belonging to the Mesolithic Period have been discovered in various locations of Sri Lanka, and they can be dated back to 15,000 – 10,000 BCE.

Between the years 800 and 100 BCE a Megalithic culture was spread in almost all parts of the island. Some of the sites are Pomparippuwa, Guru Galhinna, Kathiraweli, Padiyagampola, and the banks of river Walawe. During this period the Sinhalese produced and used iron, red and black war and established settlements, irrigation and agriculture.

Archaeological evidences in a chronological order

– Bundala (Pathirajawela) – 125,000-year-old human settlements

– Pahiyangala (Balangoda) – 31,000-year-old Homo sapiens settlements and human remains (Mesolithic period). Radiocarbon dating indicates that the cave had been occupied about 33,000 years ago (including evidences of Late Pleistocene and Mesolithic Periods to the Neolithic Period in the Middle Holocene 4,750 years ago).

– Kuruwita Batadomba Cave (a cave site) – human remains and tools which date 28,000 years back

–  108 sites have been identified in Sri Lanka with evidence of human settlements dating 5,000 to 500,000 years back. 

– Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true.”

– Jonah Lehrer

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, Fa-Hien cave, Fa-Hien cave excavations, PRE HISTORY OF SRI LANKA, SRI LANKAN HISTORY