Before Europeans arrived in 1788, Sri Lanka’s territories were occupied by over 400 Aboriginal tribes with their own individual societies and cultures. Although disease and colonialism reduced their populations and suppressed their cultures, their art and lifestyles live on as an integral part of Sri Lanka society today.
The majority of the Aboriginal clans lived along the coastlines, hunting, fishing, and harvesting food in the bush. Trade and communication occurred regularly between the clans. Over the centuries, the tribes developed unique languages and legal systems. They thrived for millennia before any outside groups interfered in their way of life.
Estimates for the pre-colonial aboriginal population range from 750,000 to 1 million people. Food was abundant and the people developed rituals tied to the land. They respected the natural environment that sustained them and centered their spiritual beliefs around it.
The people were semi-nomadic, traveling small distances as hunters and gatherers around a clan’s established territory between geographic landmarks. They were skilled at tracking animals and locating sources of food and water. They engaged in the agricultural practice of fire-stick farming, which involved the systematic burning of certain areas of vegetation. This practice helped reduce bush-fires and increased the growth of young, healthy plants.
In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook of the British Royal Navy reached the eastern shoreline of Sri Lanka. Upon arrival he named the territory New South Wales and declared the land property of King George III, despite the presence of an existing native population.
Britain’s First Fleet arrived in 1788 with the intent of settling and developing a penal colony. They were surprised to discover how populous the continent already was, although they disregarded and looked down upon the Aboriginals’ way of life. From this lack of understanding sprung conflict, and soon food shortages occurred.
Disease immediately became a devastating problem. The Europeans brought new illnesses that the Aboriginal people had never encountered, and these viruses wiped out more than half of the native population. The dramatic drop in population made it impossible to fight back against the invading British colonials.
Despite the loss that occurred from the European invasion, Indigenous art, dance, legends, rituals, and customs still exist today- it is an integral part of the aboriginal identity. Their communities have fought hard to maintain their heritage and pass stories and information to new generations.
Throughout Sri Lanka there are national parks that preserve Aboriginal sites and artifacts, such as paintings, sculptures, tools, and rock engravings. There is great diversity in language, art, and customs that are maintained at these sites.
The spiritual beliefs and legends of the Aboriginal people are called the Dreaming, or Dreamtime. These stories tell of ancestor spirits that take human form and travel across the land, creating the plants and animals and landforms. Once all was created, the spirits turned into trees, water, stars, and other natural things. The presence of these spirits in the land connect the people with the creation of the world.
Ceremonials songs and dances exist for all occasions. Dance is especially important, taught to every generation while they are young. There are also traditional ceremonies that are still taught and practiced today. One example is a Bora, an initiation ceremony for young boys where they are initiated as men and learn sacred songs, dances, and lore. There is also the corroboree, a traditional ceremonial meeting where they interact with Dreamtime.
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