“World’s oldest pyramid” in Indonesia? The research prompts skepticism

In a mountainous corner of Indonesia sits a hill dotted with stone terraces where people come from all over the country to perform Islamic and Hindu rituals. Some say the site has a mystical air, or even that it may contain buried treasure.

The partially excavated site, Gunung Padang, is a relaxing place to spend an afternoon. It is also at the center of a heated debate.

Archaeologists say the mound is a dormant volcano, and the pottery found so far suggests that humans have been using the site for several hundred years or more. But some Indonesians, including an earthquake geologist and the president who resigned in 2014, suggest the site may have been built much earlier by an as-yet-undiscovered ancient civilization. For more than a decade, their story has spread within the country, but not far – Until recently.

In 2022, the Netflix documentary series, “ancient apocalypse” based on a geologist's research about Gunung Padang for an episode. And in October, a geologist published an article in an international scientific journal that reinforced it international dispute On issues of science, ethics and ancient history.

Archaeologists say the study's most controversial conclusion – that Gunung Padang may be the “oldest pyramid in the world” because its deepest layer appears to have been “sculpted” by humans 27,000 years ago – is problematic because it is not based on physical evidence. . According to them, Indonesia had no history of building a pyramid with people Paleolithic age, which ended more than 10,000 years ago, the pyramids could not have been built. (The Pyramids of Giza in Egypt are only 4,500 years old.)

The New Jersey-based publisher of the study says it is now conducting an internal investigation, which means the journal is “investigating concerns shared by the archaeological community.” Several archaeologists have publicly expressed their concerns, saying the study is “Not worthy of publicationand that the geologist's claim that the mound was built by humans”It just doesn't make sense.”

In response, the study's lead author, earthquake geologist Danny Hillman Natavijaja, says this has been misunderstood. His supporters include Graham Hancock, a British journalist who starred in the Netflix series argued – hers own critics – that archaeologists should be more open to theories that challenge academic orthodoxy.

“This judge-jury-and-executive model of archaeology, where they can determine what is and is not evidence—what is and is not acceptable as evidence—is not helpful in the long term for the advancement of human knowledge.”,” Mr. Hancock stated this in a telephone interview.

Gunung Padang is located near the city of Bandung on Java, Indonesia's most populated island. Excavations began in the early 1980s, said Lutfi Yondri, an archaeologist for the Bandung provincial government.

Young Indonesians, inspired by a quixotic effort to find the lost pyramids in Bosnia, later floated the idea that the spiky hills could be hiding the lost pyramids, Mr. Lutfi said. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's staff have organized forums to explore the issue, as well as unconfirmed speculation that Gunung Padang may contain buried treasure.

Archaeologists backed off from the start. But Mr Yudhoyono's administration continued to fund excavations at Gunung Padang, and he said after a visit in 2014, at the end of his 10-year term in office, that it could be “the largest prehistoric building in the world”.

The pyramid narrative “has a somewhat nationalistic edge and is supported by the former president,” said Noel Hidalgo Tan, an archaeologist at the Regional Center for Southeast Asian Archeology and Fine Arts in Bangkok.

“That's why there's a myth that refuses to die,” he said.

An aide to Mr. Yudhoyono referred questions to Andy Arief, who once organized forums on Gunung Padang as a member of the presidential staff. Mr. Arief answered the question but did not make himself available for an interview.

Mr. Natavijaja, the geologist who led the October survey, said he began exploring the site in 2011. At the time, he was studying active faulting in the area and noticed that the pointed shape of Gunung Padang distinguished it in the landscape. Erosive hills.

President Joko Widodo stopped funding research after taking office in 2014. Mr Natavijaja later published his findings in a recent publication. Archaeological research. The research methods and principles are the same he would use to analyze earthquakes, he said in a Zoom interview.

“I'm just changing the subject from active faults to pyramids,” he said.

Several archaeologists said the main problem with the study is that it dates human presence at Gunung Padang based on radiocarbon measurements of soil from drill samples, not on artifacts recovered from the site.

“The lesson is that radiocarbon dates are not magic and have important caveats about their interpretation,” archaeologist Rebecca Bradley write In a 2016 critique of Mr. Natavijaja's preliminary findings. (He said in an email that his recently published research struck him as “a more organized recapitulation of the same old stuff.”)

Mr Tan, an archaeologist in Bangkok, described the study's attempt to link the age of the soil with human activity as “the biggest logical fallacy”. The age of the soil is not surprising because soil accumulates over time and the deeper layers become older, he added. “But there is no soil related to construction activities. It is not the land that is bound to, say, the fire pit, or the land that is bound to the grave.”

“It's just soil,” he said.

Pottery and other evidence from the upper layers of Gunung Padang indicate that people were there as early as the 12th or 13th centuries and that they built structures on top of the natural rock formations, said May Lin Tioa-Bonatz, an archaeologist who conducted research in Indonesia. .

“There could have been a few people before that, but they didn't leave anything that we can, so far,” said Professor Thioa-Bonnatz, who teaches at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Harry Truman Simanjuntak, an Indonesian archaeologist, said he also finds the research pyramid claim unsubstantiated.

“There are always scientists who are delusional and practice pseudoscience and seek knowledge that is not based on data,” he said.

An internal investigation by Archeology Research Paper confirmed Wiley, the journal's publisher. Eileen G. Ernenwein, the magazine's co-editor, declined an interview request.

In an email, Mr Natavijaja defended his work, saying the investigation involved “scientific disagreement”. The soil samples were legitimate evidence to assess human involvement at Gunung Padang, he added, partly because the soil used by ancient builders was used to cover man-made structures.

“The rigorous peer-reviewed publication process of our findings in a reputable journal underscores the scientific validity and merit of our work,” he wrote.

Mr Hancock, who described himself as the “enemy number one of archaeologists” in the “ancient apocalypse”, said the program had indeed contributed to the level of “vituperation and attack” Mr Natavijaja now faces over his research.

In 2022, the Society for American Archeology says the open letter To Netflix and the show's production company, ITN, that the series “demeans the archaeological profession based on false claims and misinformation” was an argument Mr Hancock vehemently argued. rejected. Netflix and ITN declined to comment for this article.

Mr Hancock argued that archaeologists should not rule out the potential existence of lost ancient civilizations, in part because so much land sank when the last ice age ended around 11,700 years ago.

“To say that not enough work has yet been done, more work needs to be done to address this issue – that's fair enough,” Mr Hancock said of the latest research. “But to basically screw things up from the start and say this is a successful claim that goes against everything we know about the past? This is not helpful. “

On a recent afternoon at Gunung Padang, caretakers of the site said Mr. Natavijaja's research supports what their ancestors have always said: that the site is the handiwork of an ancient civilization. Some people have reported seeing mysterious visions of prehistoric figures there, they added.

“We're sure it's man-made, not natural,” said one of the caretakers, Zenal Arifin, over a cup of sweet coffee near the site's information center.

President Joko's administration remains largely, but not entirely, out of the fray.

Hilmar Farid, director-general of culture at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology, said the ministry was not involved in the debate over the age of Gunung Padang. But he also said that recent research at the site “appears inadequate to support the theory that this is a man-made pyramid”.

“From the perspective of someone like me who has to mobilize resources to support certain activities,” he said, “it's certainly the last priority.”