Explained: how ancient megalithic jars connect Assam to Laos and Indonesia

The discovery of a number of megalithic stone jars in the Dima Hasao district of Assam has shed light on possible links between Northeast Asia and Southeast India, dating back to the second millennium BC Our era. According to a study by Asian Archeology, the jars are a “unique archaeological phenomenon”. It calls for more research to understand the “likely cultural relationship” between Assam and Laos and Indonesia, the only two other sites where similar pots have been found.

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The story

Assam jars were first sighted in 1929 by British officials James Philip Mills and John Henry Hutton, who recorded their presence at six sites in Dima Hasao: Derebore (now Hojai Dobongling), Kobak, Kartong , Molongpa (now Melangpeuram), Ndunglo and Bolasan (now Nuchubunglo).

These discoveries were not followed up until 2014, when a collaborative effort between researchers from North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) and the University of Nagaland as part of the Archaeological Survey of India (circle of Guwahati) was undertaken.

“Two sites were discovered in 2016. In 2020, we followed that up and discovered four more sites,” said Dr. Tilok Thakuria from NEHU’s Department of History and Archeology in Meghalaya.

The article, “An Archaeological Survey of the Stone Pot Sites of Assam”, was authored by Thakuria, with Uttam Bathari of Gauhati University and Nicholas Skopal of the Australian National University. They documented three distinct jar shapes (bulb-top tapered; bi-conical; cylindrical) on spurs, hill slopes, and ridgelines. At one site, Nuchubunglo, up to 546 jars were found. “This is arguably the largest such site in the world,” Thakuria said, adding that most of the jars they found were in “poor condition” due to factors such as “weather, forest growth and fires from shifting cultivation and road cutting”. .

Importance

Although the jars are not yet scientifically dated, the researchers said links could be made to stone jars found in Laos and Indonesia. “There are typological and morphological similarities between the jars found at the three sites,” Bathari said.

Thakuria added: “There are no reported parallels anywhere else in India other than the northeast – this indicates that there was once a group of people with similar cultural practices who occupied the same geography between Laos and north-eastern India”.

The dating carried out on the Laos site suggests that jars were positioned on the sites as early as the end of the second millennium BC.

The other point to remember is the link with mortuary practices. The newspaper said that in Laos, researchers had said there was a “strong association” between stone jars and mortuary practices, with human skeletal remains found inside and buried around the jars. In Indonesia, the function of the jars remains unconfirmed, although some scholars suggest a similar mortuary role.

Mills and Hutton had also suggested that the jars were associated with mortuary rituals. They referred to the “ancestral bone-laying practices of tribes such as Mikir, Sakchips, Hangkals, Kuki, Khasi and Synteng and evidence of cremated bone fragments placed in one of the jars,” the newspaper said. . In the 1930s, anthropologist Ursula Graham Bower described them as “burial urns”.

Thakuria said the next phase would involve systematic excavation of material remains as well as scientific dating. The researchers suggested that further surveys are needed throughout Assam, as well as Meghalaya and Manipur, “to understand the extent of this culture”.

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