LankaWeb – Heterogeneous prehistoric community despite Sinhalese character and ethnicity


By Seneka Abeyratne Courtesy of The Island

Kozakian Shamshir weapon in crucible steel from the collection of the Royal Museum of the Army and Military History, Brussels

The ancient kings, inspired by Buddhism and the constant need to feed a growing population, produced a new culture as well as a new economy. They also created the institutions needed to plan and implement development projects to transform the dry zone. Buddhism figured prominently in the hydraulic civilization of the island, which emerged in the early historical period (500 BCE-300 CE). Although the irrigation bureaucracy was highly centralized, it produced results. There has been a steady increase in agricultural production that has kept pace with population growth and has also spurred technological change in non-agricultural sectors through backward linkages.

However, there were occasional famines caused by various factors, including invasions, internal strife, and adverse weather conditions. These famines occurred over a period of fifteen centuries in the kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Therefore, despite the development of a complex irrigation system in the dry zone, the uncertainty of food production has always remained (Siriweera, WI History of Sri Lanka: From Earliest Times to the 16th Century, second edition, 2004).

Dual role of monastic complexes

The vibrant Buddhist culture has also produced a flowering of religious art, architecture and sculpture and a proliferation of arts and crafts. Due to its pivotal position on the ancient maritime silk route, the island would undoubtedly have benefited from winds of renewal blowing from the East and West.

Buddhist monasteries were heavily frequented by royalty and served as key intermediaries between monarchs and rural populations. The monastic complexes owned large tracts of land, irrigation works, dairy cows and draft animals. The workforce they had in their service consisted mainly of agricultural laborers and craftsmen. The latter included carpenters, woodcarvers, potters, brickmakers and blacksmiths. The complexes had a range of tools for use by skilled and unskilled laborers. Therefore, they not only functioned as places of worship but also as key resource centers.

What is even more significant is the role of the monastery in promoting various trades including iron smelting and metallurgy. This adds another dimension to the multifaceted activities in which these institutions had been involved” (Karunatilaka, PVB Metals and use of metals in ancient Sri Lanka, 1991-92). Therefore, the largest monasteries, in addition to performing religious functions, engaged in various economic activities. By promoting the metal trades through hands-on training methods, they also served as agents of technical change.

steel fabrication

As we have seen, iron and steel tools of superior quality were produced in the island at the beginning of the historic period. Numerous archaeological studies suggest that India and Sri Lanka were the first two countries in the world to produce and export wootz, a hard, durable and high-carbon steel. Both countries exported wootz steel to the Middle East. While in India the iron smelting furnaces for the production of wootz steel (also known as crucible steel) were fired by charcoal, in Sri Lanka they were powered by wind. This method of producing wootz steel was unique to the island. The ancient wind-powered kilns were built in the Samanalawewa region (located in the southern foothills of the central highlands), where there was an abundant supply of iron ore (Juleff, G. An ancient wind-powered iron smelting technology in Sri Lanka, 1996). These remarkable structures have been dated to 300 BCE using radiocarbon dating techniques (Hewageegana, P. Early iron and steel production in Sri Lanka: a scientific perspective, 2014).

During the first millennium CE, steelmaking grew to become an important ferrous metallurgy industry in South Asia. The legendary Damascus swords, renowned for their strength and sharpness, were produced from wootz steel ingots imported from India and Sri Lanka. It was the Arabs who brought this quality product to Syria.

The Sunday Times reported over a decade ago that Gill Juleff (a British archaeologist) was establishing a life-size model of the Samanalawewa Wind Kiln at the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum in Koggala (Sadanandan, Renuka, Blowing back to a story burning, The Sunday Times, 31 August 2008). His excavations, carried out at Samanalawewa over a period of two years (1990-91), revealed that each site had several kilns. Juleff discovered a total of 77 sites at Samanalawewa with furnace remains, all located in the path of monsoon winds on the western margins of hills and ridges. Perhaps the Chola invasions led to the collapse of this large-scale metallurgical industry in the 11th century.

Megalithic culture

It appears on the 3rd The century BCE as a whole was a dynamic period in Sri Lanka’s ancient history when various factors (both exogenous and endogenous) converged to produce a flowering of the famous Early Iron Age megalithic culture. of the island. Archaeological research, which began during the British colonial period and continues to probe the island’s ancient past, has demonstrated a clear biological link or continuum, if you will, between prehistoric and historic peoples. Likewise, hematological and genetic investigations suggest that the ethnic mix of the Sri Lankan population is quite consistent with the geographic location of the island. Although the island lies between South India and Southeast Asia, it is geographically much closer to the former than to the latter. It is therefore not surprising that the ethnic mix leans towards the south of India.

There is no solid evidence to indicate that the early Sri Lankans were a homogeneous group of migrants. What the available data suggest, however, is that Sri Lankans were no less heterogeneous in the prehistoric past than they are today. This island, although relatively small, is extremely complex in its social, cultural and demographic characteristics due to its long history of human habitation.

Megalithic monuments scattered throughout the dry zone (with a high degree of concentration in the northern and eastern dry zone) indicate that semi-sedentary communities existed on the island before 600 BCE. The megalithic culture was based on a wide range of economic activities, including pottery, the practice of chena cultivation, cattle herding, and the production of sturdy iron tools and implements.

Archaeological evidence shows that there were close affinities between the megalithic cultural complexes and burial sites of Sri Lanka with those of southern India. It is therefore tempting to conclude that there was a significant South Indian presence in the island centuries before the arrival of settlers from North India. However, Senake Bandaranayake (The settlement of Sri Lanka: the national question and some problems of history and ethnicity, South Asia Bulletin, 1987) raises the question whether the migration of ideas and techniques was more important than the migration of peoples in explaining the character and dynamism of internal developments in Sri Lanka during prehistoric and early periods. historical.

Assuming, based on the megalithic cultural complexes, that a cohesive and relatively advanced protohistoric community existed in Sri Lanka, the question then arises as to how the island had developed a distinct Sinhalese character and ethnicity in the 3rd century before our era. The widespread use of the Proto-Sinhalese language, the dramatic increase in reservoir irrigation systems, the rapid spread of wetland rice cultivation techniques, the establishment of a Sinhalese monarchy and the emergence of the primitive, the rise of Buddhism: so many social elements and cultural phenomena suggest that revolutionary changes occurred in Sri Lanka after the arrival of migrants from northern India on the island.


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