For many, the word ‘megaliths’ is intimately associated with the stone circles of the British Isles – not least due to the overwhelming space that Stonehenge takes up in the layman’s mind when people think about ancient stone monuments. Those with a bit more knowledge might also think of France, specifically the amazing stone rows of Carnac, or they may have heard the recent news about a massive megalithic complex being discovered in Spain.
But the surprising truth is that cultures right around the world, from Africa to the Pacific, have created megalithic sites.
The oldest written record of the word “megalithic” dates from 1849, used by the British antiquarian Algernon Herbert in his work Cyclops Christianus; Or, An Argument to Disprove the Supposed Antiquity of the Stonehenge and Other Megalithic Erections in England and Britanny. Megalith simply means big stone, and megalithic monuments are, therefore, monuments constructed of big stones.
So far as descriptive names go, it does the job, but it is not wonderfully illuminating nor specific, though a key component of megalithic monuments is the fact that they were constructed without the use of mortar. The majority of megaliths were set in place somewhere between 4,000 BCE (the end of the New Stone Age or Neolithic period) and 500 CE (the end of what we call Ancient History), though there are plenty of exceptions. Nevertheless, most of us understand that, when talking about megaliths, we’re typically dealing with “prehistoric” (another not-quite-specific-enough 19th-century antiquarian word) monuments.
Megaliths have been divided into five subcategories:
- Tumuli (monuments containing, or which once contained chambers)
- Dolmen (structures without chambers)
- Circles (either surrounding Tumuli and Dolmen, or standing alone)
- Avenues (stones places to form a path or passageway)
- Menhir (distinct single standing stones, though often forming part of a larger group).
The exact meaning and purpose of many of these megalithic monuments remain mysterious; no less intriguing today than they were to our antiquarian forebears.
Below are just a few of the most fascinating, and varied, examples of the known megalithic monuments around the world today.
The Federal Republic of Ethiopia is home to many megalithic monuments, the highest concentration of which is at Sakaro Sodo, in the Gedeo Zone, in the south of the country.
Some of these upright, phallic stones (carved with stylised veins and foreskins, as well as faces and other designs in some cases) stand as high as 20 feet (6 metres) above ground. First studied by French researchers in the 1990s, the menhir were originally believed to have been erected circa 1100 CE. Further research conducted by Dr. Ashenafi Zena in 2021, however, places their construction some thousand years earlier, circa 100CE.
Dr. Ashenafi Zena, who was born in Ethiopia and works with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and Hawassa University, also found that obsidian artefacts from the site originated some 186 miles (300 km) away in northern Kenya. This would seem to indicate that the people who erected the monuments at Sakaro Sodo obtained this obsidian through trade. These impressive monuments appear to coincide with the arrival of domesticated animals in the region, and with the beginnings of more complex social and economic systems. Perhaps then, they were erected in acknowledgement of beliefs and practices already much older than the emerging society which created them.
2. Gambia and Senegal
The Senegambian Stone Circles can be located in West Africa, across Gambia and Senegal. More than 1000 circles and tumuli are spread across an area 217 miles (350km) long and 62 miles (100 km) wide; the largest concentration of stone circles found anywhere in the world.
Close to 30,000 rust-red laterite stones make up the monuments, and this rock is believed to have been quarried using iron tools. Burial mounds found near the Wassu site in Gambia are believed to be around 1,000 years old, but the date of the stone circles themselves has not yet been properly ascertained. Estimates of the date of the monuments’ construction range widely from 300 BCE to 1700 CE, though later material may, in fact, be proof of ongoing use and repair rather than of the original construction.
According to UNESCO: “Together the stone circles of laterite pillars and their associated burial mounds present a vast sacred landscape created over more than 1,500 years. It reflects a prosperous, highly organized and lasting society.”
The Lothagam North Pillar Site is located on the west side of Lake Turkana in Kenya. There, a burial mound which holds the remains of hundreds of individuals is surrounded by a series of (mostly collapsed) megaliths, stone circles, and cairns.
The cemetery site dates from between 3000 BCE and 2300 BCE, believed to have been created by Africa’s earliest nomadic herders who returned to the same spot to inter their dead and to pay their respects. Adornments such as stone beads, ivory, animal teeth, rings, and pendants have been found buried with human remains. Large sandstone slabs used to cover many of the burials are believed to have been transported to the site from some distance away, indicating that a great deal of time, effort and planning was put into the construction of the site.
The burial site is believed to have been in use for around 500 years, the people who created it having been forced to range further afield when the region’s climate became no longer suited to herding and grazing their livestock.
Msoura Stone Circle in Northern Morocco is made up of 167 monolithic stones surrounding a tumulus approximately 200 feet (60 metres) long, 200 feet wide, and 20 feet (6 metres) high. When visited and excavated by the Roman general Quintus Sertorius circa 82 BCE, Plutarch claimed that the burial mound was found to contain the body of the giant Antaeus, son of Gaia and Poseidon. The general is said to have hastily replaced the body and performed the appropriate rituals to make amends for the desecration. While this tale is certainly to be taken with a generous pinch of salt, it would seem to indicate that the gravesite and monument already appeared old enough in the 1st-century BCE to have been taken as a possible resting place of a figure incorporated into Greek mythology some six or seven centuries earlier.
In reality, the gravesite at Msoura is just one of several such burial mounds found throughout Northern Africa, albeit an especially impressive one. It is now widely believed to be the burial place of a tribal chief or king estimated to have died in the 4th or 3rd-century BCE.
The Torajan people of the highlands of South Sulawes, Indonesia, practice an animist faith which they call “Alok ta’ dolo” ( “belief of the ancient people”), or Alok for short. In Alok the sky represents the Father, and the earth represents the Mother. In respect of the Mother, the Torajan dead are not buried in the earth but instead laid to rest in caves, natural fissures, or specially carved niches in large boulders. These burial sites are decorated and closed with beautifully carved doors.
Lo’ko Ma’ta is considered as the largest stone boulder burial site, but other notable examples can be found at the cave of Tampang Allo, and outside Kalimbuang Bori Village. Kalimbuang Bori is also home to some of the best examples of the region’s menhir monoliths; being the location of the largest menhir stone field in the highlands.
These megaliths are still erected as a lasting representation of the wealth of the deceased to whom they are dedicated. The height of each stone indicates how many water buffaloes were slaughtered for their funeral ceremonies. While not grave markers in the true sense, each stone nevertheless represents a distinct individual and serves as a lasting reminder of their legacy. In West Sumba, also in Indonesia, the Marapu people likewise continue a similar practice. This, perhaps, gives us some insight into the possible intended purpose and meaning of similar, more ancient, monuments elsewhere.
Ishi no Hōden is a megalithic monument located in the grounds of the Ōshiko Jinja Shinto shrine, located in the city of Takasago, Hyōgo Prefecture in the Kansai region of Japan. Mentioned in the 7th-century CE text Harima Kokudo Fudoki, Ishi no Hōden’s origin, age, and purpose remain complete mysteries.
The 500-ton carved block of tuff (volcanic rock) sits in a rectangular carved pond, which fills naturally with rainwater. The base of the monument has been deliberately carved in such as way so that the huge block of stone appears to float on the pond’s surface. 21 feet (6.4 metres) wide, 24 feet (23.6 metres) thick, and 19 feet (5.7 metres) high, the strange monument is surrounded on three sides by unprocessed bedrock, but it is possible to walk all the way around and to view each of its carved sides.
Masuda no Iwafune (the “Rock Ship of Masuda”) is another highly unconventional and mysterious Japanese megalith. Located on a hill near Okadera railway station, in the city of Kashihara, Nara, Masuda no Inafune resembles nothing so much as an overturned boat or ship carved from granite.
There has been speculation that the 800-ton monument – measuring 36 feet (11 metres) long, 26 feet (8 metres) wide, and 15 feet (4.6 metres) high – once served as an astronomical observation point. A ridge line across the top of the monument seems to run parallel to the mountain ridge in Asuka, lining up with the sunset on a certain day of the year. This day was important in the lunar calendar and for early Japanese agriculture as it signalled the beginning of the agricultural season. This theory has been rejected by most scholars, however.
A more popular theory is that the stone represents the unfinished and abandoned remains of what was to be an impressive tomb entrance. A latticework of marks on the stone’s base are taken as evidence of the laborious process by which its sides were flattened.
Haʻamonga ʻa Maui (“The Burden of Maui”) is a stone trilithon (a structure consisting of two large vertical post-stones supporting a third lintel stone, set horizontally across them) located in Tonga, on the eastern part of the island of Tongatapu. Haʻamonga means “a stick with loads on both ends, carried over the shoulder” and Maui is a superhuman cultural hero in Polynesian mythology.
Believed to have been constructed circa 1200 CE, the common consensus is that the trilithon once served as the gateway to the royal compound of Tuʻitātui, the eleventh Tuʻi Tonga (King of Tonga). The monument is 17 feet (5.2 metres) high, 4.5 feet (1.4 metres) wide, and 19 feet (5.8 metres) long, and is made of coral limestone.
In 1967, the then ruler, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV asserted that the monument also held astronomical significance; indicating the position of sunrise at solstices and equinoxes. This theory is supported by the research of Tongan historian Tevita Fale, who pointed out that a V-shaped carving on the lintel seemed to have been deliberately aligned with these solar events. This claim was, however, met with some scepticism from the wider archaeological community thereafter.
Göbekli Tepe (meaning “Potbelly Hill”) is a Neolithic site in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey. Its foundations constructed circa 10,000 BCE, the site is contains the archaeological remains of (at least) six distinct circular structures. Huge carved stone pillars there – the world’s oldest known megaliths – having once supported their roofs.
Widely believed to be the oldest human-made stone structure in existence, unlike so many megalithic sites, Göbekli Tepe is not a monument or a burial ground, but rather the remains of a settlement. Possibly. That is, until recently, Göbekli Tepe was known as “the world’s oldest temple” – a moniker given to the site by its original excavator, the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, in the 1990s. Schmitt believed that the site was effectively a Stone Age Cathedral and a place of pilgrimage for Neolithic people who feasted and sacrificed there. Exciting names like the Cult of the Dead, and Neolithic Skull Cult, have subsequently been linked with the site for decades. However, more recent excavations and analyses seem to point toward the idea that Göbekli Tepe may be the remains of a Stone Age village.
When the people who built Göbekli Tepe lived in the region, the climate was substantially hotter and wetter than it is today. This meant that the area was perfect for grazing animals, both wild and (semi) domesticated, and that both cereals such as barley and wheat, and trees like pistachio and almond grew plentifully. Grinding stones and mortar and pestle found at the site provide archaeological evidence that cereals were once processed on a large scale there. Archaeozoological evidence shows that gazelle were hunted, butchered, and eaten on site, again on a large scale. In recent years it has even been speculated that cisterns found carved into the bedrock under the site may have been used for storing rainwater.
Today, 95% of the Göbekli Tepe site remains unexcavated, meaning that there is still a great deal to be learned about this fascinating ancient site, its purpose, and its uses.
Karahan Tepe lies about 30 miles (50 km) East South East of Göbekli Tepe, in Şanlıurfa Province, Turkey. A piece published in the Turkish daily newspaper the Daily Sabah in 2020 reported that “Excavations [at the Karahan Tepe site] have uncovered 250 obelisks featuring animal figures“.
Discovered in 1997, excavations on the Karahan Tepe site did not begin properly until 2019. Though the obilisks discovered there are officially called T-shaped, they also (to me, at least) seem to bear a fair resemblance to mushrooms. Similar T-shaped obelisks have previously been found at Göbekli Tepe, reinforcing the links between the two sites.
Interviewed in 2019, Professor Necmi Karul of Istanbul University, head of the excavations, had this to say:
“Life in Göbeklitepe is not only limited to a period of ‘T’-shaped stones. It reflects a much longer process, there is a settlement of 700 to 800 years. It is certain that Karahantepe is somewhere in this period. It may cover a longer period of time or it may begin before. The excavations here will reveal all these, but at least we can say that this process coincides with a significant time period, a contemporary period. This means 11,500 years before today. We believe that the fact that Karahantepe is within the Tek Tek Mountains National Park will provide an opportunity for different projects integrated with archaeology.“
By 2021, excavations had uncovered the remains of prehistoric structures at the site which closely resembled those at Göbekli Tepe. A statue of a human figure with a leopard on its back also appears to correspond with similar statues and carvings found at the sister site.
In truth, Karahan Tepe and Göbekli Tepe are just two of many Neolithic archaeological sites found across the Taş Tepeler (“Stone Hills”) uplands of the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, twelve of which contain the same characteristic T-shaped obelisks. Many of these sites contain evidence of mud brick houses surrounding more substantial, more permanent stone structures. Though evidence for these mud-bricked houses has not yet been uncovered at Karahan Tepe and Göbekli Tepe, the assumption is that these sites followed the same pattern as many of the others within the group.
The Cromlech of the Almendres is a megalithic complex in Évora, in the Portuguese Alentejo, the largest existing group of structured menhirs in the Iberian Peninsula, and one of the largest in Europe. Dating from the 6th-century BCE. Excavations of the site have unearthed megalithic and neolithic construction phases; meaning that the site was used, maintained, and modified over a period of more than 2,000 years.
A circuit of 95 granite monoliths, some of which are carved with circles and other designs, covers an area of approximately 230 feet (70 metres) by 131 feet (40 metres). Again, the argument has been made that the stones may have been deliberately aligned with certain astronomical and solar events; the deliberately flattened tops of certain megaliths seemingly lining up with the spring equinox sunrise and the Winter Solstice.
The Locmariaquer megaliths are a Neolithic complex in Locmariaquer, Brittany.
A tumulus passage grave there known as Er Grah is thought to have been originally constructed circa 5000 BCE but expanded to its current size and completed some 2,000 years later.
The Broken Menhir of Er Grah is the name given to a huge stone which once formed part of a path to the tomb. The menhir is believed to have toppled over circa 4000 BCE, possibly due to an earthquake in the region. Measuring 67 feet (20.6 metres) and weighing in excess of 300 tons, the Broken Menhir has been proved to have had to have been transported several kilometres to the site where it now rests from where it was originally obtained. Exactly how such a task was achieved in by Neolithic people remains a mystery.
The Table des Marchand is a burial chamber, excavated and subsequently restored/rebuilt within a cairn in 1993. Engravings within depict an axe and a plough drawn by oxen.
Above we’ve listed just a small sampling of some of the amazing ancient megalithic sites that can be found across the globe. Let us know which ones you would have included in the comments below!
For more on some of the fascinating sites above, be sure to check out these articles on the Grail:
- Megaliths in South-East Asia: The Sacred Stones of Borneo
- Le Grand Menhir of Locmariaquer
- Masuda-no-iwafune: The Enigmatic ‘Rock Ship’ of Japan
- Revealing the Japanese Megaliths: Graham Hancock Visits the Amazing Ishi-no-Hōden