Human response to environmental change along the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, ca. 7000-3000 cal yrs BP
Harmsen, Hans Husayn
MetadataShow full item record
The southeast coast of Sri Lanka is characterized as a dynamic coastal system that experienced numerous environmental changes from 7000 to 3000 cal yrs BP. Around ca. 4000 cal yrs BP, massive amounts of mollusk shell was deposited in situ on the floors of inland bays and lagoon beaches as a result of sea-level transgression. Evidence suggests that in some areas, wave action and storm surges contributed to the landward transport of shell material and the formation of chenier beds and ridges. These features appear to have been appropriated and repurposed by coastal peoples at different times and in various locations along the southeast coast. Initial observations suggest human interference with cheniers occurred in three broad phases: (1) between 5200 and 5000 cal yrs BP; (2) ca. 4100–3800 cal yrs BP; and (3) after ca. 3400 cal yrs BP. A gap separating the first two phases correlates to a second Holocene sea-level highstand occurring from ca. 5000 to 4200 cal yrs BP. Following this second highstand, some chenier features along the southeast coast appear to represent a nexus between people, the environment and changing social relationships that were becoming more complex. Based on comparative archaeological contexts and ethnographic analogs, cheniers with intentional inhumations found at Mini-athiliya and Pallemalala are suggested to take on special symbolic meaning—either as territorial signifiers or symbols of ancestral group affiliation. Although previous investigations have designated these archaeological features as ‘shell middens,’ these shell-bearing sites represent a unique archaeological phenomenon and a complex remnant of the prehistoric human-modified landscape. To highlight the importance of this phenomenon, the new diagnostic term, chidden (“chenier” + “midden” = chidden ) is offered to distinguish the conceptual differences found between the essentialized notion of a “shell midden” and natural shell mounds (i.e. cheniers) with human interferences. A new framework in the form of Exigency theory is also offered to demonstrate that these features are a bi-product of human perceptions of environmental uncertainty over time.