Working closely with Wanniyalaeto (Vedda) elders in Sri Lanka during the repatriation of skeletal remains, a team of researchers have demonstrated that while some indigenous hunter-gatherers in Sri Lanka made use of agricultural resources and trade connections with farmers and colonial power structures, others continued to subsist primarily on tropical forest resources as late as the 19th century.

Historical Tropical Forest Reliance amongst the Wanniyalaeto (Vedda) of Sri Lanka: an Isotopic Perspective

Patrick RobertsEmail authorThomas H. GillingwaterMarta Mirazon LahrJulia Lee-ThorpMalcolm MacCallumMichael PetragliaOshan WedageUruwaruge HeenbandaUruwaruge Wainnya-laeto

First Online: 24 April 2018

Headland and Bailey (1991) argued in Human Ecology that tropical forests could not support long-term human foraging in the absence of agriculture. Part of their thesis was based on the fact that supposedly isolated ‘forest’ foragers, such as the Wanniyalaeto (or Vedda) peoples of Sri Lanka, could be demonstrated to be enmeshed within historical trade networks and rely on crops as part of their overall subsistence. Yet, in the same volume and in the years that followed scholars have presented ethnographic and archaeological evidence, including from Sri Lanka, that counter this proposition, demonstrating the occupation and exploitation of tropical rainforest environments back to 38,000 years ago (ka) in this part of the world. However, archaeological and ethnohistorical research has yet to quantify the overall reliance of human foragers on tropical forest resources through time. Here, we report stable carbon and oxygen isotope data from historical Wanniyalaeto individuals from Sri Lanka, in full collaboration with the present-day members of this group, that suggest that while a number of individuals made use of agricultural resources in the recent past, others subsisted primarily on tropical forest resources as late as the 1800s.

Keywords: Tropical rainforest; Hnter-gatherers; Indigenous peoples; Stable light isotopes; Sri Lanka: The Wanniyalaeto 

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