The megalithic tradition of West Sumba, Indonesia: an ethnoarchaeological investigation of megalith construction

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Megaliths have figured prominently in discussions of sociopolitical complexity and ideological systems in prehistoric societies, leading to a very wide range of interpretations concerning their significance. What has limited these discussions is the paucity of ethnoarchaeological studies of the living processes associated with megalith building. In this dissertation, I present an ethnoarchaeological examination of the continued traditional practice of erecting megalithic tombs in West Sumba, Indonesia. The construction of megalithic tombs has occurred for hundreds of years on the island of Sumba. The persistence of this practice to the present day, particularly in West Sumba, makes Sumba an incredibly unique context in which to examine megalith building and its larger social context from an ethnoarchaeological perspective. This ethnoarchaeological analysis of megalith construction in West Sumba approaches the subject from a political ecological perspective guided by the following primary objectives: 1) to examine the social aspects of megalithic tomb building in West Sumba in order to determine whether there are sociopolitical and economic advantages associated with the practice; 2) to investigate the household material signatures of megalith building; and 3) to develop a model for the sociopolitical processes that surround megalith building which can be applied to prehistoric contexts. Ethnoarchaeological data on megalith building and its social significance in West Sumba was collected in interviews and household material culture inventories. Analysis of this data indicates that megalith erection provides a visual representation of individual and group power and is enmeshed in a larger feasting economy through which power is achieved and relations are defined. From this analysis and a review of ethnographic accounts of megalithic cultures in other areas, I have developed a model which links megalith building to the power of individuals and groups in contexts of corporately controlled resources, relational power, competition over key resources, and the importance of group sociopolitical power.

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Department of Archaeology - Simon Fraser University
Thesis type: 
Thesis (Ph.D.)