Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies


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Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture.

The description as written by the publisher, Cambridge University Press:

In this book, Lynne Kelly explores the role of formal knowledge systems in small-scale oral cultures in both historic and archaeological contexts. In the first part, she examines knowledge systems within historically recorded oral cultures, showing how the link between power and the control of knowledge is established. Analyzing the material mnemonic devices used by documented oral cultures, she demonstrates how early societies maintained a vast corpus of pragmatic information concerning animal behavior, plant properties, navigation, astronomy, genealogies, laws and trade agreements, among other matters. In the second part Kelly turns to the archaeological record of three sites, Chaco Canyon, Poverty Point and Stonehenge, offering new insights into the purpose of the monuments and associated decorated objects. This book demonstrates how an understanding of rational intellect, pragmatic knowledge and mnemonic technologies in prehistoric societies offers a new tool for analysis of monumental structures built by non-literate cultures.

  • Offers a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and other stone circles in the UK, the great houses of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and the mound-building site of Poverty Point in Louisiana, in a way which applies to many other sites around the world
  • Identifies objects which have to date defied interpretation as memory aids, such as the Scottish carved stone balls
  • Explains the complex memory methods and physical memory aids used by oral cultures who are totally dependent on their memories to store all the practical information on which their survival depends


Monuments for memory – the Ten Indicators


My theory about the purpose of many ancient monuments argues that they were built primarily as memory spaces. Their design was specifically to enable elders to practice their memorisation, to teach it and to perform the knowledge for the community according to the various levels of initiation of the audience. Elders memorised the knowledge on which survival, physically and culturally, depended: entire field guides to all the animals and plants, navigational charts, genealogies, laws, resource rights, trade agreements, land management, astronomy, geology … all in memory.

In Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, I present ten indicators that a monument was built as a memory space, that is, it was a mnemonic monument. They are listed in decreasing order of importance.

1. A stratified society with no sign of individual wealth or coercion

In the small scale oral cultures I am talking about, the elders maintained their power through controlling knowledge. In all other ways, the societies appear to be egalitarian. Obviously my starting point was Australian Aboriginal cultures, but Native American, many African and Polynesian cultures also fit the scenario.

2. Public and restricted ceremonial sites

The imperative to perform the knowledge repeatedly should leave an archaeological record of both public and restricted performance spaces. Platforms, mounds, enclosed spaces, plazas and even flat-bottomed ditches, can act as suitable performance spaces. Restricted spaces ensure those initiated higher into the knowledge can repeat it in secrecy which effectively avoids the so-called Chinese whispers effect. When dealing with knowledge from generations ago, such as surviving severe resource stresses, accurate retention is essential.

3. Large investment of labour for no obvious reason

All historical and contemporary oral cultures value education and formally educate the young. They don’t learn everything casually while out on a daily gather and hunt or round the campfire at night. There is no society which works that way and so there is no reason to believe that oral cultures in prehistoric times were any different.

Mobile cultures use significant landscape places in order to keep a record of each aspect of the knowledge. They encode it in the landscape. If a society is to settle they must replicate these set of locations in the local area. That is the very basis of the monuments. But there’s a lot more to it than that!

4. Signs of a prescribed order—the Method of Loci

If a monument is a memory space, then there must be a prescribed order to the memory locations so that information is not lost through lack of reference. The ancient Greeks described their locations from their preliterate times: there should be a defined sequence in a location away from distracting passers-by which is well lit, with loci not too much like one another, of moderate size, with a moderate distance between them. My research shows that all oral cultures did this – and we have ample evidence from Australia of a continuous knowledge culture for tens of thousands of years.

Circles or lines of stones or posts, a sequence in the ditches or mounds enclosing open space, or large, non-domestic ‘buildings’ would serve as memory theatres beautifully.


An African memory board of the Luba people, the lukasa. This one is in the Brooklyn Museum.

5. Enigmatic decorated objects

Documented oral cultures use a huge variety of memory aids: inscribed stones, notched or decorated wooden sticks or boards, inscribed bark, decorated hides, dance costumes, masks, props, knotted chords, curated human and animal bones, bundles of non-utilitarian or symbolic objects and representations of mythological ancestors on a wide variety of media.

Enigmatic objects found at ceremonial sites which match these patterns add to the argument that the monument served as a memory space.

6. An imbalance in trade

Knowledge is traded in every society I have examined, literate and non-literate. If resources and labour are coming into the site but nothing being manufactured or grown there, then it is logical to assume that it is a place when knowledge is being traded in the form of songs, dances and mythological stories and encoded using a variety of memory devices.

7. Astronomical observations and calendrical devices

Whoever maintains the calendar holds a very powerful role in oral cultures. Detailed astronomical observances were common among complex hunter-gatherers, primarily to maintain calendars and schedule ceremonies. The heavens were also used as memory aids, with characters and stories attributed to stars and planets as it is the case with every society, literate or non-literate.

Astronomical alignments add to the argument that a monument is a memory space.

8. Monuments that reference the landscape

Landscape references are critical as memory markers in the oral tradition of both mobile and sedentary cultures. Not surprisingly, most of the enigmatic monuments around the world make some reference to the much wider landscape.

9. Acoustic enhancement

Songs are far easier to remember than prose; dramatic performances are more memorable than static recitations. Monuments which are designed to aid memory would have structures which enhance singing, chanting and the music for the dances. And it is those songs which encode all the essential practical information.

10. Rock art as mnemonic

We know from historic oral cultures that rock art is often used to aid memory of the stories, songs, chants and other aspects of the knowledge system. Abstract art is far more useful as multiple layers of information can be encoded and secrecy maintained.


If an archaeological site demonstrated most, if not all, of the ten indicators given above, then it is logical to conclude that the control of knowledge was a fundamental aspect of the culture which constructed the monument. The elders constucted themselves a memory space. And the most elite of them may well have been buried there.

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