Fa-Hien Lena Cave

Fa-Hien Lena Cave
Fa Hien Cave, also known as Fa-Hien Lena Cave, Pahiyangala Lena, Fahiyanlena (Sinhala: පාහියන්ගල ලෙන), is a prehistoric cave situated in Yatagampitiya village in Bulathsinhala, Kalutara District, Sri Lanka. Named after the Chinese Buddhist monk "Fa Hien", the cave is considered a very crucial locale for understanding the physical and cultural evolution of modern humans in Asia. The cave is also the site of the earliest fossil appearance of Homo sapiens in South Asia (Langley et al., 2020; Wedage et al., 2019).

The cave
Fa Hien cave can accommodate about 3 000 persons and therefore is considered as one of the largest caves in Sri Lanka (Abeyawardana, 2002). Located about 130 m above mean sea level (Wedage et al., 2019), the cave is about 150 ft high, 175 ft wide, and has a length of 282 ft (Abeyawardana, 2002).

The cave was first investigated in 1968 by the then Assistant Commissioner of Archaeology, S. U. Deraniyagala, when it was being used as a Buddhist cave temple (Perera, 2014; Perera, 2017). In 1986, W. H. Wijeyapala, the then Assistant Commissioner of the Archaeological Department, commenced excavations at the site at two locations; one was in the main large cave (Shelter A) and the other in a smaller rock shelter (Shelter B) located approximately 20 m east of the Shelter A (Perera, 2017; Wedage et al., 2019). In association with Sri Lanka's Department of Archaeology, the eminent scholar Prof. Kenneth A. R. Kennedy of Cornell University in the USA involved in these studies (Abeyawardana, 2002)

More scientific excavations were done at the site by various local and foreign scholars later.

Human skeletons, microlith stone tools, and the remains of hunted animals have been found from Fa Hien cave deposited in layers ranging from c. 38 000 to 4 500 cal BP (Perera, 2014). Human skeletal remains of over 9 individuals, dated to ca. 38 000, 37 000, 29 000, 8 000, 7 700, 5 500 BP, have been unearthed from the site (Deraniyagala, 2007). These human remains represent Sri Lanka's Mesolithic human, popularly termed "Balangoda Man" (Deraniyagala, 2007).

Excavations in 1986, and in 2009-2012 have revealed a secure sequence of human habitation deposits dating from c. 48 046 to 4 422 years ago, including reports of South Asia’s oldest habitation deposit associated with anatomically modern humans (Perera, 2017). In 2012, a complete human skeleton believed to be thousands of years old was discovered from Fa Hien cave and it was the first time that a full human skeleton as old as this has been found from the country.

The microlith tools discovered are mainly made of quartz and bones (Langley et al., 2020; Wedage et al., 2019). Evidence of the hunted animals has also been found from the site. Although a wide range of animals have been consumed by the inhabitants of Fa Hien cave, most of them were small mammals such as monkeys and squirrels. Remains of larger mammals such as Sambar and pigs have also been recorded. Evidence is there to prove that the early humans had brought salt here in about 20 000 years ago from coastal areas located over 100 km away.

Beads of marine shells, shark vertebrae, and shark teeth are also among the recorded findings of Fa Hien cave. Shell necklaces discovered from the site indicate that personal adornment was practiced by Balangoda Man from thousands of years ago.

In 2020, a research carried out by a group of foreign and local scholars, showed that occupants of the Fa Hien cave had developed bow and arrow technology 48 000 BP (Langley et al., 2020). This represents the earliest usage of this technology outside of Africa to date.

Pahiyangala cave temple
Local people connect the history of this site to an exploring Chinese Buddhist monk named Faxian (or Fa-Hien/ Fa Hsien) who visited Sri Lanka during the period of King Mahanama in the 5th century A.D. (Abeyawardana, 2002). It is believed that he stayed in this place for some time during his journey on the island. However, no evidence has been found from this site to prove this local belief.

After the discovery of the cave over 200 years ago, the site gradually became a Buddhist shrine of worship (Abeyawardana, 2002). 

Chinese aids
During the 1980s, the area including the Pahiyangala was developed with the aids received from China.

Fa-Hien Lena Cave.

1) Abeyawardana, H.A.P., 2002. Heritage of Sabaragamuwa: Major natural, cultural and historic sites. Sabaragamuwa Development Bank and The Central Bank of Sri Lanka. ISBN: 955-575-077-7. p.136.
2) Deraniyagala, S.U., 2007. The prehistory and protohistory of Sri Lanka. Central Cultural Fund. pp.57,60.
3) Langley, M.C., Amano, N., Wedage, O., Deraniyagala, S., Pathmalal, M.M., Perera, N., Boivin, N., Petraglia, M.D. and Roberts, P., 2020. Bows and arrows and complex symbolic displays 48,000 years ago in the South Asian tropics. Science Advances, 6(24), p.eaba3831.
4) Perera, H.N., 2014. Prehistoric Sri Lanka. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, pp.23-41.
5) Perera, N., 2017. Fa Hien-Lena Prehistoric Cave – Earliest Modern Humans From South Asia. (From an article published on Archaeology.lk, on 20 December 2017).
6) Wedage, O., Picin, A., Blinkhorn, J., Douka, K., Deraniyagala, S., Kourampas, N., et al. (2019) Microliths in the South Asian rainforest ~45-4 ka: New insights from Fa-Hien Lena Cave, Sri Lanka. PLoS ONE 14(10):e0222606.

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This page was last updated on 25 June 2022
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