When construction workers excavating the site of the Sathosa Store in Mannar unearthed skeletal remains in late 2013, they had accidentally found one of the largest mass graves in the country.
Radio-carbon dating has now put the skeletal remains to the 15th -18th century. However, the TNA and a number of NGOs have called for further radio-carbon dating. It is important to understand how this has acquired such political significance, and where further studies are scientifically warranted.
The pro-Eelamist Tamil Net used the news on Tuesday, 24 December 2013 to indict the Sri Lankan army as follows:
“Northern Provincial Council minister of fisheries Mr Deinswaran,.. said the bones bore marks of torture … The second largest camp of the occupying Sri Lanka Army in Mannaar was located at the locality from 1993”.
The discovery unearthed some 330 skeletons, 30 being of children. Just then, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) had already indicted the Sri Lankan Army of alleged killing of over 40,000 Tamils in the last months of the Eelam war IV leading to the rout of the LTTE in May 2009. The “Darusman report” alleged the killing of 40,000 using what it called “credible reports” that it was unwilling to divulge. The report was contested from the start, firstly with satellite data as analyzed by the American Physical Society that negated the numbers, and by the lack of evidence for collaterally injured at the level of least 3-4 times the number of the dead. The UNHRC indictment was contested more recently by Lord Naseby using British Government diplomatic dispatches, and using arguments based on the Paranagama commission report.
The graves was thought to at last provide some substance to the UNHCR indictments. The allegation that “bones bore marks of torture” was repeated virtually every time the Mannar excavations were mentioned. Lawyers of “families for the disappeared” expressed dissatisfaction with the investigations, and on 11th February 2014 the TNA demanded an international probe into the mass grave, just as it had demanded international judges to investigate the war crimes alleged by the Darusman report.
An Island newspaper report by veteran journalist Shraminda Ferdinando says that: “a section of local and foreign media spearheaded a high profile campaign, based on the Mannar Sathosa mass grave site. … German Ambassador …, Joern Rohde, visited the site on November 27, 2018. … followed by a British delegation on Dec 11, 2018. The British visit took place close on the heels of the discovery of two pieces of human bones, bound by a cable, on Dec 7, 2018. The recovery prompted some … to speculate whether … the people buried had been tortured … Interests shown in the Mannar mass grave site by those … pushing for … the Geneva Resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka in Oct 2015, strengthened the campaign directed at the Army. A section of the Catholic clergy, too, facilitated the project meant to blame the Army over the Mannar mass grave”.
The Bishop of Mannar, Rt Rev Emmanuel Fernando, … stated (28-Dec-2018) that “We could sense the fate … the enforced disappeared people while witnessing the hundreds of human skeletons discovered … at the … Mannar town”.
The Sri Lankan Magistrate T. Sarvanaraja who presided over the judicial investigation wanted firm evidence. The excavations were carried out under the guidance of Dr. Somadeva, a reputed archeologist-historian, and the Mannar judicial medical officer Dr. Rajapaksa. They decided to go for dating the bones using modern radio-carbon techniques. The office of the missing persons funded the radio-carbon testing of the bones. A laboratory in Florida, USA found that the bones were from a time period between 1499 and 1720 A.D.
A Massacre Dating To The 15th – 18th centuries
Given that the time period and the arrival of Portuguese, one obvious hypothesis would be in major civil conflicts of that period. Dr. Ajith Amarasinghe, writing in the Sunday Times about “Mannar mass graveyard and the martyrs of 1543” gives a historical account of the massacre of 600 Christian Tamils in Mannar in 1953 by Cankili-I who had proclaimed himself the “king of Yalpanam” by bloody palace intrigue. He suggests that the mass grave could be from those massacred Catholics who had not been given a proper Christian burial! This is indeed a strong hypothesis that should be investigated further.
Another hypothesis, though somewhat weaker in strength, is the possibility that the dead are victims of the plague that ravaged Europe from the 14th century and spread to other lands. It was the great plague of 1665 that made Issac Newton to return to his rural home and allegedly ponder about gravity under an apple tree! The so-called black death swept across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, killing up to 50% of the population in some cities, forcing the cities to bury their dead in “Plague Pits”. The plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, carried by fleas infesting rodents and by other vectors spread along the silk road to the East. Furthermore, this was a period when European ships arrived in south-east Asia, bringing with them colonial rule as well as new microbes and diseases like the Plague and Small Pox. In fact, there is new evidence, based on an analysis of ancient-DNA (aDNA) as well as historical records, that the plague bacterium had even crossed the Sahara Desert. Historians have found previously unknown mentions of epidemics in Ethiopian texts from the 13th to the 15th centuries, including one that killed “all people so that none was left to bury the dead.” Historian Marie-Laure Derat of the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris found that by the 15th century, Ethiopians had adopted two European saints associated with plague, St. Roch and St. Sebastian.
It is noteworthy that Kerala in India, a province subject to Portuguese Catholicism as well as Syrian Orthodox Christianity has a very strong tradition in the veneration of St. Sebastian. Even today, many devout communities believe that plagues, pestilences and disease are punishments sent from heaven, and that prayer to St. Sebastian and St. Roch are essential to escape such tribulations. It is up to the historians to investigate if the present day St. Sebastian’s Cathedral in Mannar was pre-dated by a centuries-old shrine that dated back to the 17th century when plagues were rampant (I have merely speculated on this in my place-names study available at dh-web.org/place.names/under Mannar).
Interestingly, the locations of other churches and shrines in Sri Lanka dedicated to St. Sebastian, or to St. Roch (known as “Shaantha Rogus” in Sinhala) are in regions where the Dambadeniya kings and the Portuguese fought it out, and where the plague imported from Europe may have been important. Some historin should study the incidence of Plague in medieval Sri Lanka.
What Should The Thrust Of Further Studies?
All this, and the political demands of a highly suspicious powerful minority backed by the Western governments, provide the possibility that funds may become available for further studies on the mass grave. It was the political motivation (weather misdirected or not) that provided the funds for even the radio-carbon dating. Further studies should be made to cover the following.
(i) A study to evidence the massacre of Christians as could have happened under Cankili, by searching for devotional objects like crosses. (ii) Evidence to determine if the plague or any such disease led to mass burials, by looking at bacterial profiles and skeletal remains of dead vermin. (iii) A study of the ancient-DNA that may be found in the skeletal remains MUST be undertaken.
The science behind aDNA is recent. The first fully sequenced ancient human genome was from a man who lived about 4 millenia ago in Greenland (published in 2010). An important breakthrough has been the discovery that a small part of the skull, viz., the bony casing around the inner ear known as the petrous is a rich source of aDNA, even in poorly preserved skeletons from the tropics. This finding led to a massive increase in aDNA studies throughout the world. The Mannar bones are only a few centuries old, and the likelihood of finding suitable DNA sources in the skeletons is high. In addition to millenia-old specimens, studies from populations from the 14th century (e.g., Norris farm studies) have been reported by molecular anthropologists. Just as radio-carbon dating revolutionized archeology in the 20th century, the study of aDNA is set to revolutionize the field in the 21st century.
More light should be shed on the mystery of the Mannar grave by studying any ancient DNA found there. Similarly, there are many more such graves scattered all over Sri Lanka, not only from disease, but also from more recent conflicts associated with the blood-lettings and counter terror associated with the JVP, and the LTTE. Some 600 policemen were killed by the LTTE during the time of President Premadasa who was hoodwinked by Anton Balasingham into getting the unarmed police to surrender to the LTTE. Similar massacres targeting one or the other ethnic group happened in many locations during the Eelam wars.