A headline-grabbing paper claiming that a structure in Indonesia is the oldest pyramid in the world has raised the eyebrows of some archaeologists — and has now prompted an investigation by the journal that published it, Nature has learnt.
The paper, published in the journal Archaeological Prospection on 20 October, garnered headlines around the world. Its central claim is that a pyramid lying beneath the prehistoric site of Gunung Padang in West Java, Indonesia, might have been constructed as far back as 27,000 years ago.
That would make it much older than first colossal Egyptian pyramid, the 4,600-year-old Pyramid of Djoser. It would also mean it pre-dates the oldest known megalithic site, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, which was built by stone-masons around 11,000 years ago. And it would completely rewrite what is known about human civilization in the area. “The pyramid has become a symbol of advanced civilization,” says paper co-author Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, a geologist at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) in Bandung, Indonesia. “It’s not easy to build pyramids. You need high masonry skills,” he says.
It’s exactly such claims that have left many fellow researchers cold. Lutfi Yondri, an archaeologist at BRIN in Bandung, Indonesia, says his work has shown that people in the region inhabited caves between 12,000 and 6,000 years ago, long after the pyramid was supposedly built, and no excavations from this period have revealed evidence of sophisticated stonemasonry.
“I’m surprised [the paper] was published as is,” says Flint Dibble, an archaeologist at Cardiff University, UK. He says that although the paper presents “legitimate data,” its conclusions about the site and its age are not justified.
Gunung Padang comprises five stepped stone terraces, with retaining walls and connecting staircases, that sit atop an extinct volcano. Between 2011 and 2014, Natawidjaja and colleagues investigated the site using several ground-penetrating techniques to determine what lies beneath the terraces.
They identified four layers, which they conclude represent separate phases of construction. The innermost layer is a hardened lava core, which has been “meticulously sculpted,” according to the paper.
Subsequent layers of rocks “arranged like bricks” were built over the top of the oldest layer. The layers were carbon-dated, using soil lodged between rocks obtained from a core drilled out of the hill. The first stage of construction, according to the paper, occurred between 27,000 and 16,000 years ago. Further additions were made between 8,000 and 7,500 years ago, and the final layer, which includes the visible stepped terraces, was put in place between 4,000 and 3,100 years ago.
Dibble says that there is no clear evidence that the buried layers were built by humans and were not the result of natural weathering and movement of rocks over time. “Material rolling down a hill is going to, on average, orient itself,” he says. But Natawidjaja says that the column-shaped stones were too large and orderly to have simply rolled there: “The neatly arranged, shaped and massive nature of these rocks, some weighing up to 300 kilograms, dismisses the likelihood of transportation over significant distances.”
The authors also report finding a dagger-shaped stone. “This object’s regular geometry and distinct composition, and its materials unrelated to the surrounding rocks, signify its manmade origin,” says Natawidjaja. But Dibble says it’s unlikely that the rock was shaped by humans. There’s no evidence of “working or anything to indicate that it’s man-made,” he says.
The Gunung Padang site featured in the 2022 Netflix documentary Ancient Apocalypse, hosted by British author Graham Hancock, who promotes an idea that an advanced global civilization was wiped out 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The authors acknowledge Hancock for proofreading their paper.
Natawidjaja says that because Gunung Padang was constructed before the end of the last ice age, it shows that people from that time were capable of building complex structures, and “this makes it a very interesting monument.”
But Bill Farley, an archaeologist at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, says the paper has not provided evidence that an advanced civilization existed during the last ice age. The 27,000-year-old soil samples from Gunung Padang, although accurately dated, do not carry hallmarks of human activity, such as charcoal or bone fragments, he says. Archaeological records show that the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to complex societies occupying large settlements occurred after the commencement of the Holocene 11,700 years ago. The oldest known city is the 9,000 year old site of Çatalhöyük in what is now Turkey.
Archaeological Prospection and its publisher, Wiley, have since launched an investigation into the paper. Eileen Ernenwein, an archaeological geophysicist at Tennessee State University in Johnson City, who is co-editor of the journal said in an e-mail to Nature: “The editors, including me, and Wiley ethics team are currently investigating this paper in accordance with Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines.” She declined to elaborate on the nature of the concerns raised.
Farley says that people should celebrate Gunung Padang for what it is — “an amazing, important and cool site” — rather than because it can be written into any particular narrative about the development of human civilization.
Natawidjaja says that he hopes the controversy does not cause animosity in the community. “We are really open to anyone researchers around the world would like to come to Indonesia and do some research programme on Gunung Padang,” he says. “We know very little about our human history.”
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on November 28, 2023.