It was one of the most sensational science stories of 2023. Researchers claimed last month that the Gunung Padang site in West Java, Indonesia, is the world’s most ancient pyramid and could be more than 25,000 years old.
Such antiquity would be unprecedented. Stonehenge and the oldest major pyramids of Egypt are only a few thousand years old, while the previous record holder, Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe stone monuments, are thought to be about 11,000 years old.
But Gunung Padang could be more than twice the age of these ancient megaliths, say the authors in a paper in Archaeological Prospection. “Evidence from Gunung Padang suggests advanced construction practices were already present when agriculture had, perhaps, not yet been invented,” they claim.
The assertion made headlines around the world but has since led to a fierce backlash from many archaeologists, who say that none of the evidence presented by the team justifies their conclusions about the unprecedented antiquity of Gunung Padang. They argue that the settlement there was probably built a mere 6,000 to 7,000 years ago.
“The data that is presented in this paper provides no support for its final conclusion – that the settlement is extraordinarily old. Yet that is what has driven the headlines,” said Flint Dibble, an archaeologist at Cardiff University. “I am very surprised this paper was published as it is.”
The outcry has since forced the editors of Archaeological Prospection, which is published by Wiley, to launch an investigation. “The investigation … addresses concerns raised by third parties regarding the scientific content of our paper. We are actively engaged in addressing these concerns,” the paper’s main author – geologist Prof Danny Hillman Natawidjaja of Indonesia’s national research and innovation agency – admitted last week.
Controversy has been fuelled by the discovery that the paper was proofread by the controversial British writer Graham Hancock. He argues that a once sophisticated, ancient culture – subsequently destroyed in a cosmic incident – brought science, technology, agriculture and monumental architecture to the primitive people who populated the world after the last ice age. Gunung Padang could be an example of their handiwork, he has suggested in his Netflix series, Ancient Apocalypse.
Most scientists deride these ideas. “He invokes myths, fanciful and often incorrect interpretations of archaeological sites,” said geologist Marc Defant in one review of his programme. Or as Bill Farley, an archaeologist at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, put it: “A theory that says a group of ancient sages taught us everything we know simplifies history to a crude level and also robs Indigenous people of the claim that they developed their own ancient culture and sophisticated crafts.”
Natawidjaja told the Observer last week that he considered Hancock’s ideas to be “a reasonable working hypothesis”.
Nestled among banana palms and tea plantations, almost 3,000 feet above sea level and 75 miles south of Jakarta, Gunung Padang is made up of a series of stone terraces that sit on top of an extinct volcano. Pottery fragments suggest the site is a few thousand years old.
However, Natawidjaja and his team argue that their use of ground-penetrating radar shows that below the main building there are several deeper man-made layers with the lowest – a hardened lava core – showing signs of having been “meticulously sculpted”.
The team reports that soil samples extracted from material drilled out of the hill deep beneath the site were dated as being 27,000 to 16,000 years old, with later additions thought to be about 8,000 years old. The team concludes that Gunung Padang bears clear evidence that its construction could be traced back to 25,000 years or more, at a time when the planet was still in the last ice age.
But the claim has been rubbished by Dibble and others. They point out that Natawidjaja and his team provide no evidence that the buried material was made by humans. They say that it might be more than 20,000 years old but was probably of natural origin as there is no evidence of any human presence – such as a bone fragment or artefact – in the soil.
“If you went to the Palace of Westminster and dropped a core seven metres into the ground and pulled up a soil sample you might date it as being 40,000 years old,” said Dibble. “But that does not mean the Palace of Westminster was built 40,000 years ago by ancient humans. It just means there’s carbon down there that’s 40,000 years old. It is extraordinary that this paper has been published.”
Natawidjaja has defended his team’s work. “The observations that form the cornerstone of our study are supported by meticulous exposure analysis, trenching-wall loggings, core-drilling studies, and integrated-comprehensive geophysical surveys,” he told the Observer last week.
This was not accepted by other researchers. “This claim involves making a huge, huge leap from the data they have, which is at best sort of intriguing, to a huge conclusion about a pyramid buried deep beneath the ground,” said Farley. “It is really, really weak and I think it is very reasonable that this paper is being investigated. It was not worthy of publication and it would not shock me if it is eventually retracted.”