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Belilena Cave in Sri Lanka: The art of Speleology

The word speleology, describes the exploration, surveying, mapping and photographing of caves, which is performed by the scientific community. These caves are home to a great variety of creatures that are nocturnal in their habits and most of the recently discovered species are from caves which have been around for at least 500 million years. These caves especially the Belilena Cave in Sri Lanka is abound with stalactites and stalagmites, formations of conical calcium deposits sometimes as tall as a small child.

This captivating activity is relatively new to Sri Lanka and is rather an unusual experienced not to be missed. Sri Lanka is dotted all over with many caves from the Ritigala mountains in the north to the central hills and the southern hillocks of the South. The most famous being Batatotalena at sudugala, attributed to the “Balangoda man” a prehistoric man whose skeletal remains were uncovered inside this cave, Belilena in Kithulgala and aptly named “Wavulpone” because of the large community of bats living inside with some records indicating a figure as high as hundred thousand.

Belilena Cave in Sri Lanka:The town of Kithulagala

Kitulgala is a small town located in the west of Sri Lanka. It is in the wet zone rain forest, which gets two monsoons each year, and is one of the wettest places in the country. Nevertheless, it comes alive in the first three months of the year, especially in February, the driest month. The Academy Award-winning
The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed on the Kelani River near Kitulgala, although nothing remains now except the concrete foundations for the bridge (and, supposedly, the submerged train cars that plunged into the river in the climactic scene). Kitulgala is also a base for white-water rafting.

Sri Lanka‘s most recently discovered bird, the Serendib scops owl was originally heard calling by Deepal Warakagoda in these forests.

The hills above the rubber plantations also have mountain hawk eagle, crested treeswift and Layard’s parakeet.

Belilena Cave in Sri Lanka: A Historic Landmark

Belilena is a very large cave, in which the 12,000 year old skeletal remains of the prehistoric ‘Balangoda man’ (Homesepiens Balangodensis) have been found. In order to reach the cave you have to walk through the jungle, close to the Inoya estate (approx. 8 km from Kitulgala itself).

Located 2000 feet above sea level, the Belilena Cave lies amidst picturesque environs close to Kitulagala. Recent archaeological excavations conducted at the cave have unearthed several fossils believed to be more than 32,000 years old.

The part of the cave beyond the lake that fills it a short way from its mouth still remains unexplored to this day.

This Huge Cave has been home to the prehistoric ‘Balangoda Man’ (Homo sapiens balangodensis) where 16,000 year old skeletal remains have been found. Fa Hien-lena has yielded the earliest evidence (at ca. 37,000 BP) of the ‘Balangoda Man’ followed by Batadomba-lena at 31,000 and 18,000 BP.

These caves have also yielded other artifacts such as prehistoric tools belonging to the 30,000 BP. Batadomba-lena caves have yielded tools going back to 31,000 BP. These are important findings to whole of Asia as these tools are considered to have first originated in Europe around 12,000 BP.

Belilena Cave in Sri Lanka: The Legendary Inhabitant

The Homo sapiens balangodensis or the Balangoda Man refers to hominins from Sri Lanka’s late Quaternary period. The earliest evidence of Balangoda Man from archaeological sequences at caves and other sites dates back to 38,000 BP, and from excavated skeletal remains to 30,000 BP, which is also the earliest reliably dated record of anatomically modern humans in South Asia. Cultural remains discovered alongside the skeletal fragments include geometric microliths dating to 28,500 BP, which together with some sites in Africa is the earliest record of such stone tools.

Other discoveries include various plants and animals that are thought to have formed part of their diet, e.g. wild banana, breadfruit, and fish bones, and articles that were used as personal ornaments such as shell pendants and shark beads, indicating occasional contact with the coast around 40 km away.

The Balangoda Man is estimated to have had thick skulls, prominent supraorbital ridges, depressed noses, heavy jaws, short necks and conspicuously large teeth. Metrical and morphometric features of skeletal fragments extracted from cave sites that were occupied during different periods have indicated a rare biological affinity over a time frame of roughly 16,000 years, and the likelihood of a biological continuum to the present-day Vedda indigenous people.

This is not surprising given the relative geographical isolation of the island until the fifth century BC when settlers arrived from the Indian mainland. Veddas are therefore relevant to the question of the degree of relative isolation of ancient and modern Homo sapiens in Sri Lanka from populations of
southern India.