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Breakdown - Oldest Pyramid in the World? Sadly Not.
A new paper on the megalithic site of Gunung Padang & when archaeology becomes a cargo-cult
I’m not in the habit of debunking, it becomes a tired and low-energy way to spend one’s time. But every now and again a claim so spectacularly wrong gets made that it demands attention. This one is the recent viral paper and ‘discovery’ that the Indonesian megalithic site of Gunung Padang in Java, is in fact the world’s oldest pyramid. Having read the paper from Danny Hilman Natawidjaja and co, there is so much wrong with it, its actually the perfect case study for how science should not be conducted.
In 1915 the Dutch scholar Nicolaas Johannes Krom described a small volcanic hill with several terraces built into the slope, covered in stone structures and stairs. It was largely ignored until the Indonesian government took control of the site in the 1980’s - 1990’s as part of a nationalist push to promote the deep past of the country. In particular the site has been interlinked with the work of Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, who is one of many voices pushing the idea that Indonesia was home to a pre-Holocene civilisation, of advanced antiquity. Without diving into the weeds of utter fantasy, several books have been published on this topic, presenting a spectrum from plausible to ridiculous, including Stephen Oppenheimer’s Eden in the East and Arysio dos Santos’ Atlantis: The Lost Continent Finally Found. Hillman himself wrote a book called Plato Never Lied: Atlantis is in Indonesia in 2013, a title which leaves no room for ambiguity.
The claim that Indonesia is home to ancient Atlantean pyramids has found favour in government circles as well as in the minds of particular researchers. Between 2009 and 2014, the politician Andi Arief was appointed the Special Staff of the President to the Social and Natural Disasters Assistance. There he helped organise something called the Ancient Catastrophic Team, which made a number of announcements about volcanic hills actually being ancient pyramids. From Hillman’s blog in 2011:
The Ancient Catastrophic Team formed by the Special Staff of the President for Natural Disasters Andi Arief stated that the suspected pyramid building is not only inside Mount Sadahurip, Garut, West Java. In a release received by VIVAnews, Sunday, November 27, the team stated that buildings strongly suspected of pyramids were also found on three other mountains in Garut.
In addition to the three mountains, the team also conducted research on Mount Padang, Cianjur, where megalithic stones are widespread in an area of more than a hectare. Through geoelectric tests, the team concluded that at the Gunung Padang site, which is also referred to as the largest megalithic relic in Southeast Asia, there is a stepped punden structure that looks like a pyramid.
All this is to say that the announcement of Gunung Padang as an ancient pyramid fits into an ideological desire by many in Indonesia. It is also just one of many hilltop sites which have that label attached, although the others have been quietly abandoned over the years.
The paper: Geo-archaeological prospecting of Gunung Padang buried prehistoric pyramid in West Java, Indonesia was published in a few days ago in the journal Archaeological Prospection. It outlines the work done over several years which they assert, proves that Gunung Padang is a megalithic site of incredible antiquity. The work boils down to three methods - the use of geophysical equipment to build a map of the inside of the hill; the use of long geological cores to create a stratigraphic model along with radiocarbon dating the soils; some test trenches and examinations of collapsed terrace sections to understand the construction layers.
Their results show that the hill is not a natural formation, but is instead a man-made structure built up over four construction periods, the earliest dating back to between 25,000 and 14,000 BC. They determined this through radiocarbon dating organic soils between different layers of stones, some of which they claim were laid down by people. They also argue that the interior of the hill contains some voids, or open chambers, based on seismic and other geophysical survey methods.
So what is wrong with this? Frankly, everything is wrong with this. Firstly lets look at what the team did not present in this ‘breakthrough’ paper. Not a single artefact or feature linked to human activity is presented as proof that the hill was man-made. No charcoal, hearths, pottery, stone tools, soil disturbance, intrusions, bones, burials, tombs, not a single piece of material culture - except - a stone they call the ‘Kujang Stone’ and something called ‘sandy-silt mortar of anthropogenic origin’. The stone, presented to us in a tiny picture measured with a ballpoint pen on a notebook, looks totally natural in origin, and we are given no reasons why this sandy-silt mixture is actually a human-made mortar.
So we have no objects except the layers themselves and their dates. Turning to these I can only say that the method of radiocarbon dating used here is either extremely dishonest or unbelievably naïve. The team took geological cores of the hill, to a maximum depth of 36 meters, and dug some trenches at the top around the terraces. From these they took some soil samples for radiocarbon dating, noting that they removed plant and vegetation matter from the samples to ensure the dates were accurate.
They did this without establishing that any of the layers in the trenches or from the drill cores were the result of human activity. Taking soils from a hearth to test the dating is one thing, since the hearth is cultural feature. Taking soil from the ground and testing its age is bizarre. That is the equivalent of excavating a castle on a hill, drilling into the hill and claiming the age of the soil is the age of the castle.
This figure is one their examples of a collapsed cliff-exposure on a hill flank, demonstrating different layers - all of which could easily be natural features.
The final set of data comes from the seismic and geophysical surveying, which they claim highlights the structural layers and potentially some voids or hidden cavities/chambers or tunnels within the hill.
Integrating all this data together yields the image below, their model of successive construction phases.
Given that the team could not present a single artefact, grave or man-made feature, or none to any level of satisfaction, as well as presenting the most ridiculous radiocarbon dating method I’ve ever seen - are there alternative explanations which could better fit the evidence in this paper?
Gunung Padang sits within a wide extinct volcanic region called Karyamukti, and fits the profile of a collapsed basaltic volcano itself. The cool-looking columnar basalt rocks both within and on top of the hill are consistent with an active magma chamber at the centre, which produced columnar jointing features. These fanned out and fell as they intruded into softer soils, unable to support them. Voids and chambers are typical of periods of volcanic activity, as layers slump, cool and move over time. According to Indonesian geologist and volcanologist Sutikno Bronto:
Mount Padang and its surroundings are hills composed of volcanic rocks, in the form of tuff breccia, lava, conglomerate with basalt – andesite composition and sandstone, which are some of the materials has experienced hydrothermal alteration.
The sturdy appearance of the local column is supported by the excavation results of L. Yondri, who discovered andesite stone blocks that are still coated by clay crust. Allegedly, the first person found igneous rocks with thick columns and scattered over the hill looked as something sacred because it is very different from rocks in the surrounding area. Therefore the stone blocks were then arranged in a row terraces to be used as a location for traditional ceremonies.
Column and/or sturdy structure sheets/plate joints are very common in volcanic rocks as natural volcanic formations. To get the ideal outcrop there are solid columns that are still upright or original under the peak of G. Padang apparently not easy, or maybe it doesn't exist anymore. Difficulty that's because the neck of the volcano is very deep small, or stocky columns only form in the top part that has collapsed, which used to be in the form of a lava dome. Another difficulty is due to there have been repeated landslides at the foot G. Padang, causing piles. Results data opening of the excavation by L. Yondri and the discovery of a high wall composed of blocks of stone by Endi et al. Already enough to support the opinion that the rocks G. Padang is native to the local area, with a sturdy structure columns and are formed naturally.
Conclusion. G. Padang is the neck/plug of lava basalt andesite in an ancient volcanic crater Karyamukti which is tertiary in age. Strong structure of the column of the volcano's neck has collapsed and scattered then styled human (past) as punden terraces for ceremonies traditional/cult.
-Geologi Gunung Padang Dan Sekitarnya, Kabupaten Cianjur-Jawa Barat (2016) [translation]
In the absence of any hard evidence for Gunung Padang being made by a pre-Holocene civilisation, the simplest explanation is the most likely. That Gunung Padang is an extinct volcano, one which provided local people with a natural hill and readily accessible columnar basalt, much of which was taken to the top and used to build terraced megalithic structures. Indonesia is famous for its many megalithic sites, most of which date back to the Austronesian period. Many fascinating tombs, step-pyramids, menhirs, stone circles and other features have been studied within Indonesia, none of which date back further than around 1,500 BC.
The obsession with making Gunung Padang into the world’s oldest pyramid is cargo-cult science at best, and malicious at worst, feeding into a petty nationalist desire to have some of the prestige associated with ancient pyramids and lost advanced civilisations. If the researchers manage to produce any hard evidence that the hill was a man-made structure I shall happily repent, but the bold and over-confident results presented by Hilman and co seem to be anything but good faith.