Legend and history are deeply intertwined in the early accounts of Sri Lanka. Did the Buddha leave his footprint on Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) while visiting the island that lay halfway to paradise? Or was it Adam who left his footprint embedded in the rock while taking a last look at Eden? Was the chain of islands linking Sri Lanka to India the same chain that Rama crossed to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of Rawana, demon king of Lanka, in the epic Ramayana?
Whatever the legends, the reality is that Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants, the Veddahs (Wanniyala-aetto, called Yakshas in the Pali chronicles), were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on the island’s natural bounty. Much about their origins is unclear, but anthropologists generally believe that they are descended from people who migrated from India, and possibly Southeast Asia, and existed on the island as far back as 32,000 BC. It’s also likely that rising waters submerged a land bridge between India and Sri Lanka in around 5000 BC.
Historians and archaeologists have differing interpretations of its origins, but a megalithic culture emerged in the centuries around 900 BC with striking similarities to the South Indian cultures of that time. Also during this Early Iron Age, Anuradhapura began to grow as a population centre.
Objects inscribed with Brahmi (an ancient ‘parent’ script to most South Asian scripts) have been found from the 3rd century BC; parallels to both North Indian and South Indian Brahmi styles have been made, though Tamil words are used in many of those found in the north and east of the island. Sri Lankan historians debate these details fiercely, as do many Sri Lankans, but rather than there being two distinct ethnic histories, it is more likely that migrations from West, East and South India all happened during this time and that those new arrivals all mixed with the indigenous people.