In a book published by Cambridge University Press this week, author Lynne Kelly says such monuments and relics were early forms of 'information technology' for ancient elites to preserve and control knowledge.
The book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, will be launched at La Trobe University this Friday, 3 July 2015.
Until now, says Dr Kelly, there has been little research into trying to understand how vast amounts of practical information were memorised and communicated in ancient cultures without any form of writing.
'By closely studying memory methods used by Australian Aboriginal, Native American, African and Pacific cultures, the purpose of mysterious sites built by small tribes in the early stages of settlement all over the world suddenly make sense,' she says.
Not only does her work offer a new way for pre-historians to analyse structures built by non-literate cultures, but it also highlights their scientific achievements, which in the past have been largely overlooked by focusing too much on their religions or superstitions, she adds.
Major paradigm shift
In short, mysterious rock circles like Stonehenge might now be regarded as prehistoric technology to aid memory, while enigmatic Scottish carved stone balls found as far afield as the Orkney Islands could have been the hand-held memory devices of Neolithic times.
Apart from analysing Stonehenge, her book focuses on the great houses of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and the mound-building site of Poverty Point in Louisiana.
Dr Kelly's theory has been described as a 'major paradigm shift' by Dr William Hall, who works on co-evolution of technology and human cognition at the University of Melbourne.
Stonehenge was built about 5,000 years ago. Speculations about its purpose have ranged from a site for Druid rituals, healing or burial grounds for the elite, to an auditorium and celestial observatory.
Dr Kelly's book is based on seven years of research and follows her long-standing fascination with how non-literate societies were able to memorise so much about their environment.
Rituals and memory
'The ways in which these sites were used for rituals and other events helped people in early societies remember and pass on a vast amount of practical information,' she explains.
'This information ranged from animal behaviour, plant properties, navigation and astronomy to genealogies, laws and trade agreements.
'Societies that develop effective information technologies clearly have a better chance of survival than those that do not,' she concludes.
Dr Kelly is an Honorary Research Associate in Arts, Communication and Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University. She has written ten books on education, one novel and three popular science titles.
Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies will be launched at the La Trobe University Bookshop, Melbourne Campus at Bundoora, at 12 noon, Friday 3 July.
Dr Kelly will also speak about the book at the Bendigo Writers Festival on 8 August 2015 and Castlemaine Library, on 10 September 2015.
Media contact: Dr Lynne Kelly or Ernest Raetz, Media and Communications, 0412 261 919.