Identification. The Veddas are a small group of people living in the center of Sri Lanka, an island off the southern tip of India. "Vedda" is a Dravidian word meaning "hunter." Contemporary Vedda culture is strongly marked by prolonged interaction both with the Sinhalese and with the Tamils, the two largest ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, but the Vedda people themselves are generally reputed to be descended from the aboriginal population of the island and to have maintained until recent times a distinctive way of life based on hunting and gathering. The Veddas are divided into three regional groups (the Bintenne Veddas, the Anuradhapura Veddas, and the Coast Veddas) whose members have little or no Contact with one another, although they acknowledge a remote kinship.
Location. Sri Lanka is located between 5° 55′ and 9° 51′ N and 79° 41′ and 81° 53′ E. Veddas formerly lived in all of the more isolated parts of the island, but today they are restricted to the arc of country between the predominantly Sinhalese areas in the west, south, and center of the island and the predominantly Tamil areas in the north and east. The Bintenne Veddas inhabit an area in the southeast of the island, inland from the towns of Batticaloa and Trincomalee and extending westward to the Verugal, Mahaweli, and Gal Oya rivers. The Coast Veddas live along the coast between Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The Anuradhapura Veddas live in the North Central Province. All three groups are located within Sri Lanka's dry zone, where the annual rainfall is normally less than 190 centimeters, most of which falls between October and December.
Demography. The Veddas constitute only a very small proportion of the total population of Sri Lanka, which was estimated at nearly 15 million by the 1981 census. There is, however, no consensus as to just how small this proportion is, because the criteria used to identify the Veddas vary widely. They were last enumerated separately in the census of 1963, at which time they numbered 400. In 1970, however, a census of the Anuradhapura Veddas, conducted as part of an Ethnographic study, counted more than 6,600 of them. The main reason for this discrepancy is that government officials have tended to treat as Veddas only those who subsist from hunting and gathering—a criterion that would have excluded virtually all of the Anuradhapura Veddas—while the ethnographer's census included all those who identified themselves as Veddas. Estimates of the size of the Bintenne and Coast Vedda populations are not available, but both are probably much less than that of the Anuradhapura Veddas.
Linguistic Affiliation. Only faint traces of what might once have been a distinct Vedda language have been detected. Contemporary Veddas speak colloquial forms of either Sinhala or Tamil, depending on which of the two main ethnic groups predominates in their local area. The Bintenne and Anuradhapura Veddas mostly speak Sinhala, which is an Indo-European language, while the Coast Veddas speak Tamil, which is Dravidian. Peculiarities in the speech patterns of the Veddas can be attributed to their relative isolation, low level of formal education, and low socioeconomic status.