Spanish “Stonehenge”

There are so many sites nicknamed with the tag “Stonehenge” that I have not had time to explore them all. When the “Spanish Stonehenge” hit the news in recent weeks, I was pointed to the reports by many readers of The Memory Code. They could all see so many of the signs that this site was used as a memory palace, a restricted knowledge site.

Many pointed me to the article linked to the image above, 5,000-Year-Old Temple Emerges from Underwater in Spain by Ashley Cowie in Ancient Origins.

People see the same properties as Stonehenge in monuments well separated in space and time because there is one single common factor and that is the way the human brain memorizes information.

The Spanish Stonehenge is more likely a dolmen than an open circle – that is a covered, restricted space. I explain in The Memory Code why restricted spaces are essential for elders to retain accurate information over long time spans. That is why all non-literate cultures have them. Labelling a site as a “temple” leads to assumptions that the space had a single religious purpose, and often that its primary purpose was for burial. Indigenous cultures do not separate the spiritual from the mundane. It is Eurocentric thinking which limits interpreting the purpose of monuments to religious and the ubiquitous ‘ritual’ purposes.

Cultures without writing are dependent on memory to store all their knowledge. Without exception, every indigenous culture I studied right around the world used a similar range of memory techniques. These have evolved everywhere because they match the way the human brain stores information, as described in Memory Craft. We are all working with the same brain structure.

Memory palaces are the most effective mnemonic technology known and used in some form by non-literate cultures across the world. In a memory palace, information is associated with each location in sequence. The engravings within the dolmen, on each of the megaliths, would create a perfect memory palace.

Dolmens are assumed to be burial places. Although burial may be one purpose, all non-literate cultures use restricted performance spaces for initiated elders to ensure knowledge is preserved accurately, especially pan-generational knowledge of survival strategies in time of severe resource stress. The few remains, if any, found in most dolmens, would indicate a location for an elite, such as the knowledge elders. Knowledge and power correlated in oral cultures.

Restricting the songs and stories which encode information avoids corruption of data caused by the so-called Chinese whispers effect. A combination of public and restricted performance spaces is implied here by the open and restricted spaces. This combination is found in oral cultures around the world.

Placement of ceremonial structures near rivers is also a constant all over the world. Large gatherings need water and food, trade routes, while rivers are critical landscape features. Vivid stories, as represented in mythology, are a fundamental method for making abstract and mundane information memorable. Without a continuous culture linked to the monument, there is no justification for interpreting the engraving as a serpent, as a protector.

The idea that such monuments are “thought to have been temples of sun worship” because of astronomical alignments is also demeaning to indigenous cultures. The term ‘worship’ implies that non-literate cultures live in a fog of superstition. They simply would not have survived if that was the case. All the cultures I researched, and talked with, were hugely pragmatic and used the movement of the sun to create a calendar to ensure optimum use of resources and maintain their ceremonial cycle. That is not to deny a spiritual aspect, but to deny an exclusively sacred purpose. Ceremonies are an imperative to ensure practical and cultural information is performed regularly so that it is retained and conveyed.

The idea reported that the elongated wavy engraving on the megalith at the entrance corresponds to the passage of the Tagus River is a very exciting development. A map of the river is exactly what would be expected. We have ample evidence from Australia, where we have a continuous oral culture dating back about 60 000 years, that art was often used as a memory aid to maps. The same can be found in cultures from Africa, the Americas and the Pacific.

One of those who wrote to me was Alyssa McMurtry, who also wrote Drought Has Revealed Spain’s Long-Submerged ‘Stonehenge’: Up close with the 7,000-year-old Dolmen of Guadalperal for Atlas Obscura.

Alyssa interviewed Angel Castano, the local historian. She told me:

From what he had previously learned about the menhir at the entrance, there was a snake carved into it that was assumed to be a serpent guarding treasures. Since that was a dominant theory, that’s what he was telling the media when the dolmen first emerged from the water. But after seeing the actual stone and consulting with the original drawings made by German archeologists who discovered it in the 20s, he figured he’d have to close an eye, spin around and use a whole lot of imagination to see a snake in the carving. However, in looking at what was supposed to be the snake, his intuition told him that it may be the Tajo River. He rushed to find an old map of the area before the river had been flooded, and just last night he realized that the squiggly line, once considered a snake, corresponds virtually “100%” with the course of the river. Below is an image he sent me using an old map and the original archeologists drawing of the menhir! I told him your theory and he liked it a lot. Although still unproven, I think his idea of it being a map, not an unjustified protector as you say, goes to show that when approaching indigenous artifacts from the lense of “how was this actually practical, how did it help them survive?” you can come up with a lot more compelling (and interesting) answers than assuming it’s all kooky religious nonsense!

Love it, Alyssa!

Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality

My new essay is now available free from open access academic publisher, Rounded Globe.

Download here: Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality

The description from the Rounded Globe website:

“Non-literate cultures depend on their memories to store all the information on which their survival depends, both physically and culturally. They effectively memorise entire field guides to the thousands of species of flora and fauna along with navigational charts, genealogies, astronomy, history, geology and the ethics and laws by which they live. How do they manage to remember so much information when they are dependent on the same fallible memory as you and me?

This essay will explain the mechanisms by which indigenous cultures know their world and how specific information can be remembered accurately over millennia.

The memory methods in question declined in use as literacy made them seem redundant in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but this essay will argue that we have lost a valuable skill, just as Socrates predicted we would. In the last part of the essay, ways are suggested of reinstating oral technologies alongside literacy, thereby providing a powerful platform for lifelong learning.”

Orality – why it is so important for prehistoric archaeologists

Primary orality is what you have when you don’t have literacy.

It is often commented that prehistoric cultures didn’t leave a written record. What is almost never mentioned is that cultures which had no contact with writing did have an alternative. They had orality. Most aspects of orality have been literally overwritten by writing, but they do leave a trace in the archaeological record.

Oral cultures employ a wide range of techniques to retain a vast amount of information in memory because they don’t write it down. The research on primary orality talks about the way song, stories, dance and mythology encode vast stores of information in memorable forms.

What is important for archaeologists is that primary oral cultures also used material devices to aid memory: from the landscape and art through an incredible range of enigmatic portable objects. It is these material signs which can be detected in the archaeological record.

Lukasa from the Brooklyn Museum

For example, the African Luba use a memory board known as a lukasa, among many mnemonic devices. It is used in a very similar way to the Australian churinga/tjuringa. These devices are restricted to knowledgeable elders. Their prehistoric equivalent should be found in ceremonial sites, but almost never in domestic settings.

Songs, dances, stories and mythological representations are not simply for entertainment nor are they purely superstitious. They are an essential way of recording masses of pragmatic information. Performance spaces should exhibit a public/restricted dichotomy as is found in all indigenous cultures.

It is too often assumed that knowledge is simply handed on through stories told around the campfire or casually taught, parent to child, out on the daily gather and hunt. In years of research, I have never found a single culture which operated that way. All cultures teach in formal settings – oral and literate.


To understand the nature of orality, I started with some of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, the 300 or so Australian Aboriginal language groups.

The Yolngu of Arnhem Land share their knowledge at the annual Garma Festival. They offer some of the best understanding of orality because they have explained it on their terms.

Indigenous survival depends on masses of practical knowledge. There are many commonalities about the memory methods used by oral cultures from the mobile Australian to the more sedentary Native American, African and Pacific cultures.

It is those commonalities which can offer another tool for archaeologists interpreting ancient ceremonial sites: orality.

Primary orality – what is it?

‘Primary orality’ is all about the way societies communicate and store information when they have no contact whatsoever with writing. If they don’t have literacy, they do have orality.

Orality is an information technology, a tool which increases the ability of humans to store and process information. It is simply extraordinary how much can be memorised using orality.

Indigenous cultures stored vast amounts of knowledge about the thousand or so animals and just as many plants in the various habitats they knew intimately. The Navajo, for example, stored a classification of over 700 insects along with habitats, behaviour, identification and metaphor for human behaviour. And that’s just insects. Then there’s navigation, geology, genealogies …  the list goes on and on.

How on earth did they memorise so much stuff? That’s what primary orality is all about.

The oral encyclopaedia was (and in some cases, still is) woven into stories, vivid imaginative sung narratives, with the specific information often associated with characters within the story. Thousands of stories integrated with spiritual beliefs were kept in mythological form, constantly repeated to ensure they were not forgotten. 


The Bear Dance, painted by George Caitlin, 1844

Most significantly, knowledge is performed; songs, dances and mythological reenactments being far more memorable than facts stored in prose. Hence the research on primary orality always includes mythology as a mnemonic form, while acknowledging the substantial spiritual role.

My research adds material memory aids – mnemonic devices – to the topic of primary orality. It is through these physical devices, along with public and restricted performance spaces, that we can link primary orality to the archaeological record.