If you are not into history then words like ‘cromlech’, ‘dolmen’, and ‘menhir’ will sound odd. But they are (with the exception of cromlech) common when it comes to the prehistoric period. The prehistoric period refers to the time before scripts and written records existed. Historians have to depend on archaeology for understanding human cultures that did not leave behind written records of their own. Or on accounts of foreign visitors, migrants and conquerors. This does not mean that the cultures under discussion were ‘primitive’. In fact, materially advanced people like the Inca of Peru and the Polynesians of the South Pacific did not leave behind written records the way the Sumerians and Romans did.
Prehistory is not a universally contiguous period across the world. Different cultures invented or adopted different writing systems at different points of time. The first were the people of Mesopotamia (the land between the Tigris and Euphrates in present day Iraq) around 3500 BCE (more than 5500 years ago). When Francisco Pizarro stumbled onto the fabulous Tawantinsuyu Empire (Quechua name for the Inca domain) in 1526 CE, there were no books around (though the natives had a unique method for transmitting information, knotted strings called quipus). Absence of writing did not necessarily hinder technological innovations as proved by the architectural skills of the Inca or the maritime prowess of the Polynesians.
The field of archaeology is crucial to understanding Dravidian history. This is where one encounters terms like cairns, megaliths and dolmens. These are prehistoric monuments from a phase known as the Megalithic Period. Another term associated with South Indian history is the Southern Neolithic Agricultural Complex (when the Dravidian tribes shifted to a lifestyle combining pastoralism and agriculture). There are sites littered with megaliths of those ancient inhabitants of the peninsula, in every state where Dravidians form the majority (Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala).
Here’s a look at the meaning and etymology of the words mentioned:
- Cairn: Heap of stones set up as a landmark, monument or tombstone (derived from Scottish ‘carne’ which in turn is based on Scottish Gaelic carn for heap of stones or rocky hill)
- Cromlech: Tomb consisting of a large flat stone laid on top of upright ones (derived from Welsh crom for crooked and llech stone)
- Dolmen: Group of stones consisting of one large, flat stone supported by several vertical ones, built in ancient times (derived from French ‘dolmin’ which in turn was borrowed from Cornish tolmen for an enormous stone slab set up on supporting points)
- Megalith: Huge prehistoric stone (derived from the Greek words mega for huge and lithos for stone)
- Menhir: Upright monumental stone (derived from French ‘menhir’ which was in turn borrowed from the Breton words men for stone and hir for long)
One will notice that except for one word (megalith), the rest are of Celtic origin (from languages like Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton). Though I live thousands of miles away from the Celtic people of France and Britain, my first introduction to megaliths was not in the form of a monument in South India but a comic book from Europe. More about that later.
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and credited to Jules Coignet, a French landscape painter. It shows a dolmen inside the legendary Brocéliande Forest (associated with the Brittany Region of northwestern France, the Celtic Bretons and King Arthur). The Celtic people of Europe, like the Dravidian speakers of South India left behind several megaliths.
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- First Farmers in South India (Boivin, Fuller, Korisettar & Petraglia)