Megalithic Religion: Historical Cultures

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Megaliths are simply monuments built of large stones. In Southeast Asia and Oceania, a variety of megaliths are found, some thousands of years old, others brand new. Early studies of these structures viewed them primarily in the context of theories suggesting prehistoric migrations of megalith builders. In 1928 the eminent Austrian archaeologist Robert Heine-Geldern wrote the first of a series of influential articles, in which he argued that megaliths were created during two great waves of prehistoric migrations into Southeast Asia. The first group, the "Older Megalithic Culture," was thought to have ushered in the Neolithic age, while the second, the "Younger Megalithic Culture," was credited with the introduction of metal.

Heine-Geldern's view of megaliths as stepping-stones by which archaeologists could trace prehistoric migrations dominated Southeast Asian archaeology for many years, giving rise to extensive debates on the "problem of megaliths." In the past few decades, however, fresh waves of archaeologists, equipped with superior tool kits for prehistoric research, have passed over the territory first explored by Heine-Geldern. As the picture of prehistoric Southeast Asia became clearer, Heine-Geldern's theory of migratory megalith builders had to be abandoned. Several prominent archaeologists subsequently issued a joint statement, for the benefit of those who might not have kept up with the current state of archaeological research, that "the label 'megalithic culture' cannot reasonably be applied to any of the phases or levels of social integration recognizable in the recent or prehistoric past of South East Asia" (Smith and Watson, 1979, p. 253). In the wake of the reaction against comprehensive theories linking megaliths to prehistoric migrations, little effort has been made to sort out the historical relationships among the various builders of megaliths in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But, as we shall see, megaliths play an important role among many societies in the region, particularly those which share a common Austronesian cultural heritage. As Peter Bellwood, a leading authority on Pacific prehistory, observed recently, "The wide occurrence of megalithic monuments and statues in Oceania suggests that their origins may go very deep into the Austronesian past, possibly at least into the first millennium b.c." (Bellwood, 1978, p. 226).

Many types of megaliths are found in the Indo-Pacific region, including menhirs (erect stones), dolmens (flat stones resting on two stone pillars), stone seats, stepped stone pyramids, and various types of stone tombs and sarcophagi. Active megalithic traditions exist today on several Indonesian islands, possibly related to megalithic customs still found among hill tribes of Northeast India such as the Nagas. In Southeast Asia, the most elaborate and well-documented megalithic traditions are found on the island of Nias, which lies about seventy miles off the northwest coast of Sumatra. In Nias, stones were put to many uses, foremost among them being the large menhirs and dolmens erected as monuments to chiefs.

In 1907 a Dutch colonial administrator, E. E. W. G. Schröder, photographed the erection of a dolmen as a monument for a chieftain who had died the previous year. A rectangular stone forty centimeters thick, three and one-half meters long, and two meters wide was dragged by means of logrollers from a quarry to the summit of a hilltop village, a distance of about two kilometers. There it was set on two stone pillars outside the former chief's house as a monument to his glory and as a home for his spirit, whenever the chief might choose to visit the village. The project was organized by his son and successor, who mobilized 525 kinsmen and allies to transport the stone. Schröder's dramatic photographs show the chief's son atop the stone as it is being dragged uphill; he is wearing a warrior's costume and waving his sword.

Such megaliths, called darodaro, were personal monuments erected about a year after the death of a chief by his kinsmen and allies. Often the chief's skull was placed in a niche in the darodaro, along with his sword and other regalia. The larger the darodaro, and the more people who participated in dragging the stone and celebrating the funeral feast, the greater the chief. The same logic also applied to a second type of megalith erected in honor of chiefs, the batu nitaru'o, which was an upright stone or menhir placed in front of a living chief's house. The erection of such monuments were important political events, with roots in the fundamental structure of Niasian chiefdoms. Niasian society was divided into patrilineal descent groups, and rank order within each lineage was determined by a cycle of feasts. Every adult male had to give the first six feasts in the cycle. But the "heads" (ulu ) of lineage branches had to give up to six additional feasts, each more elaborate than the last. Each man would invite to his feasts his personal öri ("circle")a circle of kinsmen, friends, and allies linked by marriage ties or reciprocal feasting. The supreme feast, given only by lineage heads, drew together an öri of several lineages and villages, and established the boundaries of a chiefdom: a chiefdom was nothing more than the öri of a chief. This supreme feast was called the batu nitaru'o ba wa'ulu ("chief's feast of the nitaru'o stone"). The larger the stone, the more people belonging to the chief's öri who participated, the greater the chief. Political authority was not vested automatically in a man born as a lineage head; it had to be demonstrated through the feast cycle. The öri of the chief whose funeral Schröder photographed included sixteen villages.

In addition to the chief's monuments, Niasians also erected smaller megaliths for a variety of purposes related to their belief that stones provided temporary shrines for various spirits. Each village had its batu banuwa (village stone) celebrating the origin of the village. Childless women, especially those of high rank, were considered likely to become dangerous ghosts. So they were often provided after their deaths with small darodaro in case they should visit the village. Schröder, who spent several years exploring the island in the first decade of this century, recorded a wide variety of megaliths in different villages. In one village, stones had been placed near a bathing place "for the spirits to dry their clothes." In another, he found stone seats with footprints below for childless women, because "she who dies without children leaves no footprints on the earth."

The advent of Christianity brought an end to most of the megalithic customs of Nias in the past few decades, but on the island of Sumba three thousand kilometers to the southeast, megaliths even larger than those of Nias continue to be erected in honor of important chiefs. On Sumba, there is no parallel to the Niasian batu nitaru'o (the stones erected by living chiefs), but the death of a chief calls for the erection of a stone sarcophagus reminiscent of the darodaro. Like the Niasians, the Sumbanese usually build their villages on hilltops, and the center of the village is dominated by an array of these megaliths, which may weigh as much as thirty tons. Stones (ondi ) are cut from native limestone, and placed atop a wooden platform (tena ) which the Sumbanese liken to a ship, complete with a figurehead in the shape of a horse's head. Dragging the stone to the village may take weeks and call for the efforts of several hundred men. As in Nias, a chief (rato ) stands on the stone and gives directions. Stone dragging is dangerous, and responsibility for managing things so that the stone does not slip and kill or injure someone rests with the chief. Every day, numbers of water buffalo and pigs must be slaughtered to feed the whole party.

As in Nias, Sumbanese social organization is based on alliances between clans, and the strength of an alliance is demonstrated by the number of allies who arrive to participate in the megalithic funeral, bringing gifts of water buffalo and pigs. As many as a hundred buffalo and pigs may be slaughtered for a major funeral, their horns and jawbones later tied to the chief's house as mementos of the feast. The more such trophies, and the larger the stone slab, the greater the chief. At the conclusion of the funeral, the chief's body is placed in the tomb and his favorite horse is killed so that the horse's spirit may lead him to the spirit world.

A different sort of megalithic tradition is found on the island of Bali, a tradition nicely exemplified by a chance discovery made in 1935 by the first archaeologist to work in Bali, William F. Stutterheim. Near a spring sacred to the early Hindu kings of Bali, he found a stone with a weatherworn inscription.

None of the Balinese could decipher the old engraved letters, nor were the contents of the inscription known to anyone. The stone stood there, as every villager of Manukaya knew it from childhood, wrapped in a white cloth and provided with regular offerings. I was told, however, that on the fourth moon of every year, at full moon, this stone (which is also said to have fallen from the sky) is carried to the holy waters of Tirta Mpul and bathed thereinmuch to the detriment of the stone, by the way, which is a big slab of soft grey tufa covered as usual with a thin layer of cement. Deciphering the inscription, I found that it was none other than the charter of Tirta Mpul's foundation, made in the fourth month, at full-moon day, in the year 962 a.d. Thus the people have kept alive the connection between the stone and the watering place for a thousand years, and have always celebrated its anniversary on the correct day, but of the true meaning of this connection every recollection was lost. (Stutterheim, 1935, p. 7)

Bali is now famous as the last surviving Hindu-Buddhist civilization of Indonesia. But the stone of Manukaya draws our attention to deeper, pre-Hindu roots of Balinese religion. Although the Balinese worship Hindu gods, they do so in temples that resemble ancient Polynesian marae much more than traditional Indian temples. Balinese temples, like Polynesian marae, are basically rectangular walled courtyards open to the sky, with a row of menhirlike shrines at one end. While the Balinese shrines may be much more elaborate than those typical of Polynesia, occasionally replacing stone with wood, the two types of shrines perform the same function of providing a temporary resting-place for visiting spirits of gods or ancestors. Both Balinese and Polynesians believe that the gods are not continuously present, but temporary, invisible visitors who like to alight in menhirs or similar objects for brief visits. Even the details of worship are often quite similarboth Balinese and ancient Polynesians wrapped cloths around the stones for important festivals. Unlike the Balinese, but very much in the spirit of the Niasians and Sumbanese, the ancient Polynesians buried important chiefs within their temples, and sometimes consecrated them with human sacrifices.

The largest Polynesian marae were stepped stone pyramids, of which the greatest was the marae of Mahaiatea in Tahiti (now destroyed). Mahaiatea was a rectangular pyramid of eleven steps, with a base measuring eighty-one meters by twenty-two meters. Similar structures were once common in Bali, such as the village temple (Pura Desa) of the village of Sembiran, although in Bali such pyramids may be interpreted in a Hindu idiom as prasada ("cosmic mountain").

We have noted several common uses for megaliths in the Indo-Pacific regionas tombs and monuments to the power of chiefs, and as temporary shrines or resting-places for ancestral spirits and gods. In Polynesia, we encounter also a different type of megalith, the importance of which is only beginning to be recognizednavigational "sighting stones." These stones, which are found on several islands, appear to have served three related purposes: as markers to align beacons (watch fires?) for ships sailing to neighboring islands; as the centers of navigational schools where students could learn the movements of useful stars by watching star after star appear at a particular point on the horizon marked by a stone, according to the seasons; and as timekeeping devices, predicting the position of sunrise and sunset at the solstices. For example, on the island of Arorae, in the Kiribati (Gilbert Islands), nine stones at the northernmost tip of the island point accurately toward three neighboring islands. Each stone points about five degrees out, perhaps to allow for the drift caused by the equatorial current in different seasons. Although no longer in active use, these megalithic "sighting stones" may have played an important role in prehistoric Pacific voyaging. Much remains to be learned about the functions of these stones and the other megaliths of the Indo-Pacific.


There are two useful references for locating sources on particular megalithic customs. For Southeast Asia, see H. H. E. Loofs's Elements of the Megalithic Complex in Southeast Asia: An Annotated Bibliography (Canberra, 1967), which reflects, however, an outdated theoretical perspective. For Oceania, the literature on megaliths is surveyed in Peter Bellwood's comprehensive Man's Conquest of the Pacific (Oxford, 1978). More recent information on megaliths in Southeast Asia is contained in R. B. Smith and William Watson's Early South East Asia (Oxford, 1979), in which Glover, Bronson, and Bayard comment on Christie's presentation of the "Megalithic Problem." The megalithic traditions of Nias are described and illustrated in exemplary detail in E. E. W. G. Schröder's Nias: Ethnographische, Geographische, en Historische Aantekeningen (Leiden, 1917). A brief summary in English based on Schröder may be found in Edwin M. Loeb's Sumatra: Its History and People (1935; Oxford, 1972), which also contains an appendix by Robert Heine-Geldern on "The Archaeology and Art of Sumatra," summarizing his views on megaliths. On navigational stones in the Pacific, see Brett Hilder's article in Polynesian Navigation, edited by Jack Golson (Wellington, 1963), and Thomas Gladwin's East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll (Cambridge, Mass., 1970). Sumbanese megalithic customs are outlined in Christiaan Nooteboom's Oost-Soemba, Een Volkenkundige Studie, Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological and Linguistic Institute, no. 3 (The Hague, 1940), and in Janet Alison Hoskins's "So My Name Shall Live: Stone-Dragging and Grave-Building in Kodi, West Sumba," Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 145 (1986): 116. William F. Stutterheim's Indian Influences in Old-Balinese Art (London, 1935) sketches the major monuments of ancient Bali.

New Sources

Rao, S. K. "Megalithic Religion among Savara of Srikakulam District, South India." Eastern Anthropology 42, no. 3 (1989): 289293.

Van Tilburg, Jo Anne, and James L. Amos. "Moving the Moai: Transporting the Megaliths of Easter Island: How Did They Do It?" Archaeology 48, no. 1 (JanuaryFebruary 1995): 3443.

J. Stephen Lansing (1987)

Revised Bibliography