Norman Muller writes:
Jannie (Johannes) Loubser is an archaeologist and rock art expert, formerly from South Africa, now living and working in Georgia. I thought you might like to read this little article/statement from him.
[Quoted with permission. I hope we can have a discussion in 'Comments' - PWAX]
Rock Piles from a Comparative Perspective
Having had personally observed traditional rock piles in South Africa, Bolivia, the Dakotas, California, Oregon, and Hawaiʻi, it is clear that the identification and interpretation of rock piles is far from clear-cut. As in the piedmont and mountains of the southeastern United States, rock piles are often interacted with, modified, and even robbed, both by traditional peoples and modern-day developers. Conceptions of people who make the rock piles at times might also differ from archaeologists’ expectations.
Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists in South Africa have an ancient tradition of stacking stones along trails, particularly at transition points on the landscape, such as within gaps of mountain ranges. As travelers pass a pile they add another stone in reverence to the spirits of the land. In the past farmers avoided these piles that occurred on the edges of their agricultural fields or blocked a jeep track going through the mountains, mainly to avoid damaging their plows and tractors. With heavier and better machines, however, these piles are increasingly being destroyed.
With improved technology farmers in the Dakotas have moved proto-historic stone tepee rings of the Plains Indians to the edges of agricultural fields. At least some of resultant rock concentrations on the edges of fields now resemble ancient rock piles, a phenomenon which, like crop-circles, has confused those avocational archaeologists who ignore anecdotal evidence.
In Bolivia elderly Quecha-speaking women living in valley-bottom farms annually scale a 3,000-foot high mountain peak to plant potatoes in honor of a female deity known as Pachamama. At this high altitude and extremely rocky terrain with hardly any soils, the women have cleared fields and created numerous rock piles and extensive terrace walls. None of the potatoes are ever consumed by humans. Ritual labor of this kind on marginal land goes against conventional wisdom as to the degree of effort geared towards non-subsistence ends and what qualifies as tillable terrain.
The lava flow landscape that characterizes the arid west coast of Hawaiʻi is another example of inhospitable terrain that stretched the imagination on how it ever could have been cultivated. Traditional Hawaiian cultivators piled lava cobbles that litter the barren landscape to create mounds in which they then placed mulch for the planting of crops, such as drought-resistant sweet potato. Yet other piles were cairns to mark a variety of features, including trails and boundaries between family-worked land-units. Rock piles were also shrines and in many instances covered discarded artifacts or buried human remains. Even the most extensive data recovery excavations cannot sample all the rock piles to determine what is within, so archaeologists have to act as monitors for developers when the ground surface is finally cleared for construction (by developing around burial locations, human remains are preserved in place).
Rock piles in states such as California and Oregon also need investigation prior to starting ground disturbance activities. Native American Indians of the American west are known to have constructed various vision quest cairns as part of their rites of passage. In many instances rock piles also cover human remains. As in Hawaiʻi, grave piles in the American west do not always take on a formal appearance; many are barely perceptible heaps that blend with the underlying talus slope or other types of rocky terrain. It is only the trained eyes of a very experienced observer that can examine a pile and perhaps observe water-worn rock or bleached bones within.
Overall then the message of this brief tour to other geographical areas is that a look below the surface is imperative; material remains and behaviors are not always what they appear to be on the outside. For this reason then it seems unlikely that relying solely on surface inspections or on our own pre-conceptions would yield conclusive answers; excavation of one kind or another, together with consultation of ethnographic sources, are currently the only ways to properly assess rock piles.