March 2016


The Cave in the Jungle: Visiting Batadombalena, the home of Balangoda Man
March 2016




Our first glimpse of Batadombalena, Balangoda Man's home. An archeological dig takes up most of the cave mouth

Balangoda Man wasn't at home. He hadn't been at home for 5,000 years. But I didn't care, I was determined to visit anyway. The last time I had tried, I had got lost somewhere down his kilometre-long garden path, but I wasn't giving up this time.


Words and Photography David Blacker


His home is Batadombalena, a cave in the rain forests below Adam's Peak, with no access roads. Getting there means an hour-and-a-half of hiking up a jungle-covered mountain just to say hello, and visitors are not frequent. The first people to come looking for Balangoda Man excavated the floor of his cave in the 1930s, and discovered the skeletal remains of several modern human adults and a child. In 1955, this prehistoric Sri Lankan was named Homo sapiens balangodensis by paleontologist and zoologist Dr P E P Deraniyagala, and when more complete skeletons were unearthed in 1981, they were estimated to be 16,000 years old. These, along with the skeleton of a 30,000-year-old child from the Fa Hien cave in Kalutara, are the earliest record of modern humans in South Asia.


While the Batadombalena skeletons are not the oldest Balangoda Man remains discovered in Sri Lanka, long triangular, trapezoid and circular pieces of flint were also excavated - the tips of hunting weapons such as spears and arrows. Tests made on these estimated them to be 28,500 years old; the earliest evidence of the use of tools by modern humans outside Africa.

While the Batadombalena skeletons are not the oldest Balangoda Man remains discovered in  Sri Lanka, long triangular, trapezoid and circular pieces of flint were also excavated – the tips of hunting weapons such as spears and arrows
More recent examination, by an Oxford University study in 2015, of teeth excavated at Batadombalena, revealed new secrets. Isotopes in the Balangoda Man's teeth indicated a diet based on food exclusively from the rain forest, suggesting that humans might have made the jungle their home as early as 45,000 years ago. Previously, it had been thought that modern man didn't colonise the rain forests until just 8,000 years ago, after the end of the Pleistocene period. And these were not isolated colonies; jewellery made of seashells and shark's teeth were excavated, as well as signs of sea salt, indicating that Balangoda Man had regular contact with the coast, 40km away.


I am from that coast, and getting to Kuruwita, the closest big town to Batadombalena, was a two-hour drive east from Colombo, along the road to Ratnapura, the City of Gems. From Kuruwita, I turned north onto the Erathna Road, which leads to Adam's Peak. A couple of kilometres later, a signboard marked the turn off to Batadombalena. Beyond this, it was time to keep my eyes open. The sign pointing the way to Balangoda Man's home is almost obscured by bushes at the side of the road, and easily missed. There was just enough room to park a car without blocking the road, and fromthis point on, I would be on foot - and occasionally on hands and knees. There would be no more signboards marking the route either.


On a map, the cave is just over a kilometre from the road, but distance is deceptive in the jungle; the terrain rises 260m within that kilometre, and anyone with experience of rain forest will know that's a tough march. The good news is that you'll be out of the sun almost all the way to the top. The bad news is the leeches. It's hot under the jungle canopy, so carry water if you don't want to risk drinking from the ice-cold streams that flow down the slopes. Insect repellent or leech socks are recommended to keep the blood suckers at bay, or you could just do as the locals do and run a wet cake of soap over your exposed limbs.


The first two hundred metres were the hardest; a dead straight climb through a rubber plantation that got my heart pumping. The rubber soon gave way to tea, and the slope eased off. The road had disappeared far below, and over the tea bushes was a broad view of the country fading off into the west.


The track gradually dwindled as I trekked into the jungle, and it was often hard to see it in the mulch of dead leaves, rotting fruit and tangled roots that made up the rain forest floor. Huge trees towered into the green gloom above, their buttress-like roots bisecting my path. This wasn't quite the triple canopy jungle of the Sinharaja Forest, but for anyone contemplating a hike through South Asia's oldest primeval rain forest, the climb to Batadombalena is a good sampler.


The sound of flowing water made me quicken my pace until I arrived at a jumble of rocks over which splashed a series of mini-waterfalls. This is an ideal place for a break, to take your shoes off and soak your feet. The pools among the rocks are icy cold and home to a variety of small fish, frogs and crabs. And more leeches.

Balangoda Man’s home is in fact three caves, the largest with a mouth 18m wide and 15m high.
Refreshed, I followed the ravine upwards. The stream created a natural tunnel through the jungle, and I imagined Balangoda Man taking this very same path on his way home after a day of hunting and gathering in the forest. When the stream had dwindled to a trickle, I crossed it, turned a bend in the track, and a grey wall of Cambrian granite towered 50m above the jungle, streaked with pale Proterozoic gneiss and bearded with curtains of hanging ferns. A thin veil of water fell down the face of the massif - the source of the stream I had been following for the past hour. A final steep climb brought me to the mouth of Batadombalena, a triangular arch cave, fronted by a narrow shelf at the base of the rock.


Balangoda Man's home is in fact three caves, the largest with a mouth 18m wide and 15m high. I eased myself down on the low parapet that edged a large archeological excavation pit at the mouth of the cave, took a couple of swallows of lukewarm water from my bottle, and looked out over jungle that probably was unchanged for tens of thousands of years. I wondered whether my prehistoric ancestor had sat right here and burned off a leech with the burning tip of a twig, just as I was doing. Behind me, the cave narrowed along its 25m length, devoid of any vegetation, the floor covered with ancient shells of tree snails that had been part of Balangoda Man's diet. A small grove of banana trees stood before the caves, perhaps descendants of the wild bananas the cave's former occupants had eaten, but more likely a later arrival, brought in by the monks who had once made this place a Buddhist hermitage. One of the smaller caves had been converted by these hermits into an ascetic dwelling by enclosing the mouth with a wall. A low stone bench outside and a sleeping platform of granite blocks inside were the only furniture. A lonely existence indeed. At least Balangoda Man would have had the comfort of his family.


The wind shifted, blowing water off the cliff and onto my sweaty face. Luxuriating in the coolness, I rose, stretched my limbs, and walked back into the jungle. Unlike Balangoda Man, I had an hour-and-a-half's descent between me and my lunch.

 

  • image01
    image01

    The last signpost, Balangoda Man didn't expect visitors

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The initial climb through a rubber plantation is the steepest and toughest

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    A clump of banana trees on the right could very well be descended from the wild bananas eaten by Balangoda Man

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    While not as large as the Fa Hien cave, Batadombalena is almost identical in size to the nearby Batatotalena where the Buddha is said to have once rested on his travels

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The large excavation pit where the remains of Balangoda Man and his family were found

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Water cascading down the face of the cliff made this an ideal home for Balangoda Man

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    A stone bench contributed to the hermitage in 1969

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Geometric microliths

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Plan of the cave

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Veins of crystal glitter in the dark. Cambrian granite at the end of the cave

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Interior of the hermitage; created by walling in one of the smaller caves

    Prev Next