Researchers discovered 65 sandstone jars scattered over four sites in Assam. They have no connection to any other part of India—and are instead linked to the Plain of Jars in Laos. Who made these jars and why—these still unanswered questions could hold the key to one of the great mysteries of our ancient history. And the answer may lie in our backyard.
Editor's Note: As we mentioned yesterday, we have been hit by simultaneous emergencies and will not be publishing Big Stories for the next couple of days. All of our other sections are updated as usual. Instead, we are resurfacing some of our best Big Stories from our extensive archive that we think are definitely worth a read. Thank you for your patience!:)
Let’s start at the very beginning…
Before we can understand the significance of this astonishing find, we need to place them in the timeline of human history.
Megalithic culture: The word ‘megalith’ derives from the Latin word ‘mega’ (large) and ‘lith’ (stone). Best known example: Stonehenge in England. It is used to describe massive stone structures that were erected in various parts of the world—around the same time. The megaliths are typically either commemorative or burial sites. For example: most experts agree that the giant jars in Assam were funerary urns—which contained cremated remains of the dead.
The time span: The megalithic culture spanned a vast period in human history—from 2500 BC (Stone Age) to AD 200 across the world. In India, most of the megaliths have been traced to the Iron Age (1500 BC to 500 BC)—although some sites are as old as 2000 BC.
In India: These ancient megaliths have been found in over 1,400 sites—of which 1,116 are in peninsular India. They are spread across the country—from Kashmir to the Vindhyas and the Deccan Plateau—all the way to the deep south. The excavation and study of megaliths has mostly focused on southern India. Finds in the northeast have received far less attention.
The controversy: There is still disagreement among experts whether megalithic culture originated from one location—and spread across the world. Or since our “brains are constructed in the same way, different peoples came to construct the same monuments independently."
In the case of Assam: The presence of very similar urns in Laos, Indonesia and parts Northeast India most likely indicate the migration of humans. And this is the exciting bit we explore later.
The big discovery in Assam
Very big jars: 65 sandstone vessels were discovered across four locations as part of an archaeological survey of Assam’s Dima Hasao province in 2020. They vary in shapes and sizes—ranging from 1-3 metres in height—and are carved from sandstone. And some have engravings of footprints on their base.
They appear to be carved from boulders—perhaps mined at a nearby quarry or carried from a river bed: “Then they had to transport it. It would have been hundreds of men pulling it, or putting it on a trolley.”
They look like this:
Their purpose: remains unclear—since the lids have long been removed, and the jars are empty. But the lead researchers think they are “likely associated with mortuary practices.” One reason for that guess: “There are stories from the Naga people (an ethnic group in north-eastern India) of finding the Assam jars filled with cremated remains, beads and other material artefacts.” Another clue: the positioning of jars—which have been placed where sunlight falls the entire day—probably as a mark of respect. They hope to uncover intact jars as they explore the sites further.
Dating the jars: The age of the jars has not been precisely identified—but archaeologists estimate they date back to before 400 BC. However, the time span they are looking at—between the late second millennium BC and thirteenth century AD—is very, very wide.
Not the first: A total of 797 jars have been found in Assam over decades—all within an area of 300 square kilometres and across eleven sites. The first discovery dates back to 1929—made by two British civil servants who recorded their presence in six sites in Dima Hasao. Two others were uncovered in 2016—which were followed up in 2020—resulting in the identification of four new sites. See the map below:
Big point to note: The sheer number of jars is higher than those found anywhere else in the world—including Laos’ Plain of Jars—which is a UNESCO heritage site. This makes the Assam locations more important and culturally significant. Point to note: the jars, however, are in poor condition compared to the ones in Laos—where many were found intact with lids.
And this may just be the beginning of a very significant breakthrough. Similar sites have been found not just in Assam—but also in Meghalaya and Manipur. The possibility of finding many more is very real: “It’s a lot of jungle and forest. We’ve literally only looked at one little area. There must be more, because every time we wander out, we find new sites.”
The big question: Who made them?
The archaeological team does not have definitive answers, but here is what they know—or can confidently hypothesise.
One: The people who made them are not part of any “living ethnic groups” in India—which makes it all the more important to preserve them. And similar jars have not been found anywhere else: “In India, stone jars are unique to the northeast. In other parts of the country we have earthen pots. That’s why the heritage value is very important.”
Two: The jars are most similar to those found in Indonesia and Laos: “There are typological and morphological similarities between the jars found at all three sites.” The most striking is the resemblance to those in Laos—which is 500 miles away: “The jars in Assam are described as bulbous, while those in Laos are more cylindrical.”
You can see the geographical spread below:
Three: According to the team, this in turn suggests: “[O]nce upon a time a group of people having similar kind of cultural practice occupied the same geography between Laos and Northeast India.” Or to put it more plainly: “These are the same group of people who made the stone jars.”
What we don’t know: is whether people from Assam took their knowledge of making jars to Laos—or vice versa. The only way to answer the question is to date the jars—which is next on the plan of action:
“To determine when the artefacts were buried, his team plans to use optically stimulated luminescence, called OSL. This is a dating method where you take a sediment sample from directly underneath the jar and determine when light last hit that sample... The date would correspond with when the jars were buried, giving researchers a much better idea of when the jars were made.”
The bottomline: Back in 2016, the discovery of the Plain of Jars in Laos rocked the archaeological world—and made global headlines. It's sad that a potentially far more significant find in our own backyard has gone relatively unnoticed. We may hold the clues to an ancient human community that has long disappeared—and is one of the great mysteries of modern archaeology. What can be more exciting than that?
The original study on the Assam jars is here—but behind a paywall. Smithsonian does a good job of pulling together the reporting on the jars—while Indian Express looks at the links to Laos. Times of India has the most quotes on who might have made these jars. We highly recommend reading Rajat Ubhaykar in Mint on megalithic culture in India. For more on Laos’ Plain of Jars, check out BBC News and World Archaeology.