Anthropology – Race in Sri Lanka

Race in Sri Lanka: What genetic evidence tells us

By Asiff Hussein

Race is a touchy issue almost everywhere in the world but nowhere is this more pronounced than in countries where there is a plurality of peoples. People become more race conscious when another group of people differing in physical features, language, culture and religion live in their midst. The greater the difference, the greater the distance. But there is one little thing that people often miss out on, which is that all races can freely interbreed with one another. This, needless to say, points only to one fact, that all humans have a common origin. From the Darkest African to the Fairest European or the Red Indian from a continent discovered a little over 500 years ago, all men are one. The Biblical story of Adam and Eve after all does seem to have a factual basis.

The latest genetic studies done on Sri Lankan populations have overturned some popular misconceptions with regard to race exclusiveness. For one thing, it has shown that the country’s Muslims known as the Moors, are the least exclusive of the peoples studied. On the other end of the spectrum are the Veddahs, who, despite some intermarriage with neighbouring Sinhalese have managed to preserve much of their original gene pool that goes back to the island’s Stone Age.

The study Development of Databases for Autosomal, Y-Chromosomal and Mitochondrial DNA Markers and their application in forensic casework and population genetics in Sri Lankan Populations by Dr. Ruwan Illeperuma took into consideration paternally inherited Y-Chromosome DNA, maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA and non-sex determined autosomal markers. It revealed some interesting facts on the peopling of Sri Lanka which both confirm and question established notions of race in the country.

Veddahs from Stone Age Lanka

The study showed that the Veddahs constituted a distinct group compared to the other Sri Lankan groups studied, namely, Sinhalese, Tamils and Moors, and that they possessed haplotypes that separated them from other Sri Lankans with multiple mutational steps, suggesting that “they might be the surviving descendants of the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka”. This fact has of course been known for some time, that the Veddahs are the descendants of Sri Lanka’s Stone Age Man, also known as Balangoda Man whose remains have been found in many parts of the island such as at Bellan Bendi Palassa.

Vedda man from Dambana
Vedda man from Dambana

However more remarkable is the finding that they had managed to preserve many of their ancestral genes, despite intermarriage with neighbouring communities. The study found that the Veddahs showed the lowest observed heterozygosity in non-sex determined autosomal markers compared to other Sri Lankan groups. This indicates a lower level of genetic diversity and suggests considerable isolation and inbreeding. They were nevertheless shown to be more similar to the Sinhalese than any of the other groups studied, namely Tamils and Moors.

Further, both their paternally-inherited Y-DNA and maternally-inherited mtDNA suggested considerable inbreeding among them. For instance low Y-STR (Short Tandem Repeat) haplotype diversity among them indicated inbreeding in their paternal lineages. They also possessed the largest proportion of shared mt-HVS1 (Hyper Variable Segment 1) haplotypes within the population, indicating a high degree of homogeneity in the maternal line, which was very likely acquired as a result of inbreeding due to endogamy or marriage within the community. Indeed the maternal lineages were found to be even more homogeneous than the paternal lineages. What this means is that the mtDNA passed from mother to daughter has come down from pure-blooded Veddah ancestresses and not Sinhalese ones. Whatever little extraneous admixture that seems to have come their way would have been contributed by Sinhalese males.

What had thus far been believed was that there had been considerable infusion of Sinhalese blood into the community. For instance Dr.R.L. Spittel observed nearly a century ago in his monumental work Wild Ceylon published in 1924: “There is almost certainly no Vedda today without some trace of Sinhalese (or Tamil) blood in his veins”. He, however, notes that one can usually tell a Veddah from a Sinhalese, the sparsity of hair on the Veddah’s face being his outstanding feature in marked contrast to the heavily bearded Sinhalese, added to which was a darker complexion and shorter stature.

Indeed, the luxuriant beards of many a Veddah male and the luxuriant head hair of many a Veddah female has also been attributed to an infusion of Sinhalese blood. P. Deraniyagala in his paper Hybridization of the Vaddas with the Sinhalese contributed to the Spolia Zeylanica of 1963 noted that Veddah head hair reaches down the back to half-way down the shoulder blades, adding that in women with Sinhalese blood “the head hair can be luxuriant and extend to below the level of the buttocks”.

Another distinguishing feature of Veddahs has been their dark skin colour, but this too has somewhat diminished in certain Veddah communities due to mixing with neighbouring Sinhalese. The darker skin colour was particularly noticeable among the Uruvarige clan of Veddahs to which belongs the present Veddah chieftain Uruvarige Vanniyaletto. Hugh Nevill observed in his paper on The Vaeddas of Ceylon to the Taprobanian of April 1888 that the Uruwa Waruge clan inclined to be black, adding that they have a “peculiar blue-black ‘bloom’ over their skins, as a grape or a plum might”. Strangely, however, even this clan has not been altogether free from Sinhalese admixture as seen from their fairly well developed facial hair.

Anthropologists generally class the Veddahs as a primitive race group belonging to the Australoid type of man, a dark-complexioned, long-headed, broad-nosed type of man whose members include the Aborigines of Australia, the Munda-speaking tribes of Eastern India and some depressed caste groups of Southern India. Dr. Illeperuma’s phylogenetic analysis of Y-STR haplotypes of local populations seems to support this view as it indicated that the Veddahs were closest to the Indian (Plantation) Tamils many of whom have their origins from these South Indian castes of Australoid origin.

That the Veddahs may have a remote African past is also suggested by the study which found that of all the local populations studied, they were closer to a cluster of populations from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Muslims least exclusive

On the other end of the spectrum are the country’s Muslims, the Moor community who have been shown to be genetically the most diverse of all communities, challenging the stereotype of the Moors being a rather exclusive people who hardly marry outside.

Dr. Illeperuma found that the Muslims (Moors) possessed greater genetic diversity than the other ethnic groups studied, which would indicate that they have mixed more with others. For instance with regard to Autosomal or Chromosomal Non-Sex-inherited DNA, the Moors were shown to be the most heterozygous of the groups studied. This suggests greater gene flow into the Moor community from other communities when compared with the rest of the groups studied. This indicates that they had freely intermarried with these other groups.

A Moor man from Panadura
A Moor man from Panadura

Further with regard to paternally inherited Y-chromosomal DNA, the Moors were shown to possess certain male lineages that came from other communities and most closely approached those of the Sinhalese. They had the lowest number of population-specific haplotypes (Y-STR haplotypes), which indicates more sharing of male haplotypes with others than the other groups shared with each other. Furthermore, a phylogenetic analysis of male-inherited Y-chromosome haplotypes showed the Sinhalese to be closest to the Moors in male lineages when compared with the other groups.

With regard to maternally-inherited Mt DNA, the Moors shared the greatest proportion of non-unique haplotypes (HVS1) with others showing that they had been subjected to gene flow from the other groups in connection with female lineages. The Mt DNA tree indicated a clustering of Sinhalese and Moors, suggesting a close affinity when compared to the Veddahs and Sri Lankan Tamils. This suggests a greater contribution to their maternal lineages from the Sinhalese. Dr. Illeperuma however cautioned that the small number of Moors represented in the study does not permit us to be conclusive in this regard and that it is only a larger sample that could be reliably taken to be representative of the community as a whole.

What all this suggests is that the Moors have been the least exclusive of the country’s major communities, as far as the genetic evidence is concerned. That their maternally-inherited Mt DNA should closely resemble that of the Sinhalese should not come as a surprise given the historical evidence for Moor men espousing Sinhalese women. There is considerable evidence to show that the early Arabian settlers of the country intermarried with the daughters of the land. These early seafaring Muslims who arrived to trade here did not bring women with them and so married local women when they chose to settle down here.

The Moors of Akurana for instance trace their descent to three Arabian mercenaries who espoused Kandyan women during the reign of King Rajasinha II (1635-1687). The Gopala (Betge Nilame) family of Moors domiciled in Getaberiya in the Kegalle district likewise claim descent from Arab physicians who arrived in the country from Sind during the reign of King Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) of Dambadeniya and espoused Sinhalese women. Indeed, some of the members of this clan are said to have been given in marriage daughters of the Kandyan nobility. According to a surviving member of the clan who is now over 90 years old, Mohamedu Udayar of Gevilipitiya, oral tradition passed down the generations has it that their first ancestor who settled in the country took in marriage Tikiri Kumari, daughter of Unambuve Rala. This is interesting since the Govi clan of Unambuva were deemed to be of a very high status in Sinhalese society, being a clan with which even Sinhalese royalty, including the last true Sinhalese monarch, Narendra Sinha, married into. In fact, we were informed by Sheikh Mohamadu Udayar’s son, Sheikh Hamees that his father is still addressed as Nilame by elderly village folk while he too has been addressed as Punchi Nilame. The women of the clan he pointed out are likewise addressed as Menike. Titles such as these were used in the olden days only to address those of a high social standing.

However it was not only women of the higher classes of Sinhalese that the Moors espoused. E.B. Denham observed in his Ceylon at the Census of 1911: “Amongst the Moors in Colombo and Galle at the present day there must be a fairly considerable infusion of Sinhalese blood; the number of Sinhalese women married to or living with Moors is fairly large”.

We even hear of a Moor who had settled in a village of the untouchable Rodi caste of the Sinhalese, sharing their life and enjoying connubium with them, if we are to believe M.D.Raghavan who observed as such in his work Handsome Beggars. The Rodiyas of Ceylon published in 1957.

What is however interesting is that their paternally-inherited Y-chromosome DNA also showed some affinity with others, especially the Sinhalese, which may perhaps best be explained on the basis that some Sinhalese males entered the Moor community by way of adoption. There exists considerable evidence to show that the Moors of a little over a century ago adopted Sinhalese boys and girls, and brought them up as Muslims G.A. Dharmaratna observed in the latter part of the 19th century, in his work Kara-Goi Contest (1890) that “the Moors add to their number poor Singhalese boys and girls who are duly received into their community”. And Paul E. Pieris could observe in the early part of the twentieth century, in his monumental work Ceylon.

The Portuguese Era (1914) that the adoption of boys of other communities was “still a popular practice among the Moors”.

What all this shows is that the Moors of old do not seem to have harboured racial prejudices of any kind, unlike some who do today. It was probably in keeping with the spirit of their Islamic faith, which, like Christianity, held that all humans had a common origin – from Adam and Eve. Be that as it may, how long it will take Sri Lankans or for that matter the world to realize the dream of Reverend Walter Stanley Senior when he penned the following lines in his soul-stirring epic The Call of Lanka, remains to be seen:

But most shall he sing of Lanka
In the bright new days that come
When the races all have blended
And the voice of strife is dumb
When we leap to a single bugle
March to a single drum


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