People of the ancient rainforest: Late Pleistocene foragers at the Batadomba-lena rockshelter, Sri Lanka
Batadomba-lena, a rockshelter in the rainforest of southwestern Sri Lanka, has yielded some of the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in South Asia. H. sapiens foragers were present at Batadomba-lena from ca. 36,000 cal BP to the terminal Pleistocene and Holocene. Human occupation was sporadic before the global Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Batadomba-lenas Late Pleistocene inhabitants foraged for a broad spectrum of plant and mainly arboreal animal resources (monkeys, squirrels and abundant rainforest snails), derived from a landscape that retained equatorial rainforest cover through periods of pronounced regional aridity during the LGM. Juxtaposed hearths, palaeofloors with habitation debris, postholes, excavated pits, and animal and plant remains, including abundant Canarium nutshells, reflect intensive habitation of the rockshelter in times of monsoon intensification and biome reorganisation after ca. 16,000 cal BP. This period corresponds with further broadening of the economic spectrum, evidenced though increased contribution of squirrels, freshwater snails and Canarium nuts in the diet of the rockshelter occupants. Microliths are more abundant and morphologically diverse in the earliest, pre-LGM layer and decline markedly during intensified rockshelter use on the wane of the LGM. We propose that changing toolkits and subsistence base reflect changing foraging practices, from shorter-lived visits of highly mobile foraging bands in the period before the LGM, to intensified use of Batadomba-lena and intense foraging for diverse resources around the site during and, especially, following the LGM. Traces of ochre, marine shell beads and other objects from an 80 km-distant shore, and, possibly burials reflect symbolic practices from the outset of human presence at the rockshelter. Evidence for differentiated use of space (individual hearths, possible habitation structures) is present in LGM and terminal Pleistocene layers. The record of Batadomba-lena demonstrates that Late Pleistocene pathways to (aspects of) behavioural modernity (composite tools, practice of symbolism and ritual, broad spectrum economy) were diverse and ecologically contingent.