Mysterious giant stone jars of a lost people found in India

Giant ancient stone jars have been found by archaeologists working in the lush, hilly forests of Assam in India, and they may have been used for burial rituals by an ancient and vanished people.

The 65 newly discovered sandstone jars – some tall and cylindrical, others partly or fully buried in the ground – came as a surprise to the researchers, who initially set out to survey existing, well-known sites.

“We still don’t know who made the giant jars or where they lived. It’s all a bit of a mystery,” says ANU PhD student Nicholas Skopal, co-author of a study about the findings.

Even more exciting, Skopal notes, “the team only searched a very limited area so there are likely to be a lot more out there – we just don’t yet know where they are.” 

The research was led by Tilok Thakuria from North Eastern Hill University and Uttam Bathari from Gauhati University, India.

The jars, some spanning up to three metres high and two metres wide, are similar to other jars which have been uncovered in other parts of South Asia, including Laos and Indonesia.

Nick in field 4
Nicholas Skopal surveying a jar in Laos. Credit: Nicholas Skopal

Skopal notes that the researchers don’t know exactly what the jars are used for, but by tracing histories passed down through the generations they have some clues.

“There are stories from the Naga people, the current ethnic groups in north-east India, of finding the Assam jars filled with cremated remains, beads and other material artefacts,” Skopal says.

The burial theory aligns with findings from jar sites in Laos, which showed evidence of mortuary remains.

Giant ancient stone jars – who made them?

According to Skopal, the people who made the jars don’t seem to be associated with any living groups or cultures in India, so they’re some of the last fingerprints of a disappeared people. 

“Which means there is an importance to maintain the cultural heritage,” Skopal says.  “The longer we take to find them, the greater chance that they will be destroyed, as more crops are planted in these areas and the forests are cut down.”   

The researchers worked with local communities to uncover potential jar sites, often through areas of mountainous jungle that were difficult to navigate.  

“Once the sites have been recorded, it becomes easier for the government to work with the local communities to protect and maintain them so they are not being destroyed,” Skopal says.  

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