Societies in balance: Stone monuments provide information about social structures

Collaborative Research Center 1266 publishes study on the social significance of stone monuments in Nagaland, Northeast India

Stone monuments, also known by archaeologists as megaliths, are a common phenomenon in many prehistoric and historic periods and cultures. They fascinate both the public and archaeologists but also raise many questions regarding their meaning within prehistoric societies. Archaeological research often assumes that the erection of monuments was associated with certain social structures. Thus, stone monuments are associated with the development of social hierarchies and social inequalities. Questions about central organization of the required labor force are also raised by researchers. These interpretations seem quite obvious from the point of view of today's realities of life. However, social structures cannot be read from the stones preserved in archaeological excavations alone.

An ethnoarchaeological research project of the Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 1266 "Scales of Transformation" at Kiel University (CAU) sought to identify the social relevance of the stone monuments. This particular area of archaeological research places a greater emphasis on integrating contemporary examples of particular phenomena, such as the erection of stone monuments. The aim of the research was to provide an overarching perspective on megaliths based on recent comparative studies in Nagaland (Northeast India). The research results obtained shed new light on the interpretation of stone monuments and were published March 10th in the renowned journal PLOS ONE.

Solidarity, cooperation, and individual prestige were linked to the construction of the stone monuments

Nagaland is located in a remote mountainous region in northeastern India and is characterized by great natural diversity. The region is rather unknown in this country, but for the conducted study a special feature made it interesting: Until the 1960s stone monuments were erected here. They served to commemorate festive activities and the achievements of individual members of the village communities. Extensive interviews were conducted to document the surviving knowledge of the construction of stone monuments in the communities of Nagaland, which were then analysed within the research project.

The study revealed that usually only one person was responsible for the erection of a monument. Furthermore, it became clear that the entire process required immense preparation. Not only during the construction, but already in this preparatory phase, festivities were celebrated at which food was shared, and to which relatives, as well as people from surrounding villages, were invited. The construction and preparation, as well as the festivals celebrated in this context, suggest that kinship, cooperation, and solidarity relationships played a fundamental role. “This is indicated by the sharing of resources such as food and labor,” explains Dr. Maria Wunderlich, archaeologist of the CRC 1266, who continues, “These are the basic requirements for gaining individual prestige. In addition, joint efforts that spanned village communities are characteristic of communities in southern Nagaland.”

The stone settings themselves are extremely diverse; ranging from small, single stones to massive installations. What they all have in common, however, are the large festive activities accompanying their preparation and construction. Regional differences and individual designs further reveal a great importance of the independent social and political organization of communities in southern Nagaland.

Broadening perspectives in archaeology: From present-day Northeast India to Neolithic Central Europe

But what do recent comparative studies tell archaeologists about stone monuments in Central Europe's Neolithic period (5500 - 2200 BC)? Since megaliths, often in the context of graves, are particularly widespread in this period. Thus, in today's northern Germany between 3600 and 3200 BC, graves were constructed from large boulders and used for collective burials. Through the collective burials, archaeologists can surmise an emphasis on the community rather than the individual. These collective behaviors attest to the fact that a strong sense of community was expressed via the construction of the funerary monuments. The results of ethnoarchaeological studies on recent and non-European comparative studies serve to improve our understanding of prehistoric societies. Moreover, they expand the archaeological conception of the utility and social intentions associated with these phenomena. They thus open up new perspectives on the world of prehistoric communities and, in relation to the construction of megaliths, can provide clues to the social significance associated with them. 

“Ethnoarchaeological studies provide an alternative explanatory model to mere archaeological interpretation,” clarifies Maria Wunderlich, “Such models can contribute to a better understanding of the complex realities of life in prehistoric periods. They serve to open up new perspectives so that, for example, the importance of sharing and communal solidarity can also be taken into account in archaeological investigations.”

The research project, conducted by the CRC 1266 and the Priority Program (SPP) 1400 "Early Monumentality and Social Differentiation", took place in collaboration between Kiel University and the Department of History and Archaeology at Nagaland University, and was supported by funding from the Cluster of Excellence (EXC) 2150 "ROOTS". The research group also involved members of the Romano-Germanic Commission (RGK) of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI).

The field studies in Northeast India took place in close cooperation with colleagues from the University of Nagaland. They thus highlight the importance of transdisciplinary as well as cross-border and international research, carried out in equal partnership with local colleagues.

Further information on Collaborative Research Center 1266.

Original publication:

Wunderlich M, Jamir T, Müller J, Rassman K, Vasa D (2021) Societies in balance: Monumentality and feasting activities among southern Naga communities, Northeast India. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0246966.


© Maria Wunderlich

Megaliths line the paths from the villages to the fields in Nagaland, commemorating their builders.

© Maria Wunderlich

Southern Nagaland (northeast India) is characterized by mountains and agricultural terraces. The tall standing stones also dominate the landscape.

© Johannes Müller

The research trip and documentation of the monuments took place in close cooperation with colleagues from the University of Nagaland.

© Sara Jagiolla

The three-dimensional modeling of the monuments using methods incorporating Structure from Motion (SfM) allows a realistic and vivid representation of the stones.

Scientific contacts:

Dr. Maria Wunderlich
CRC 1266 “Scales of Transformation”   
Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology

Prof. Dr. Tiatoshi Jamir
Department of History & Archaeology
Nagaland University, India

Prof. Dr. Johannes Müller
CRC 1266 “Scales of Transformation”   
Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology

Press contact:

Dr. Anna E. Reuter        
CRC 1266 “Scales of Transformation”   
Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology