In a mountainous corner of Indonesia lies a hillside dotted with stone terraces, where people come from all over the country to celebrate 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 raging debate.
Archaeologists say the hill is a dormant volcano and ceramics found so far suggest humans have used the site for several hundred years or more. But some Indonesians, including a seismic geologist and a president who left office in 2014, have suggested the site may have been built much earlier by a still-unknown ancient civilization. Their story spread for more than a decade in the country, but not far beyond: until recently.
In 2022, a Netflix documentary series, “Ancient Apocalypse» was inspired by the geologist’s research for an episode on Gunung Padang. And in October, the geologist published an article in an international scientific journal which was published an international dispute on questions of science, ethics and ancient history.
Archaeologists say the study’s most controversial finding – that Gunung Padang could be ‘the world’s oldest pyramid’ because its deepest layer appears to have been ‘carved’ by humans 27,000 years ago – is problematic because it is not based on any physical evidence. . Indonesia has no history of pyramid building, they say, and humans of the time paleolithic era, which ended more than 10,000 years ago, could not have built pyramids. (The pyramids of Giza in Egypt are only about 4,500 years old.)
The study’s publisher, based in New Jersey, says it is currently conducting an internal investigation, meaning the journal is “examining concerns shared by the archaeological community.” Several archaeologists have publicly expressed their concerns, saying the study was “not worthy of publication“and that the geologist’s assertion that the hill was built by humans”it just doesn’t make sense.”
In response, the study’s lead author, seismic geologist Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, says it was misunderstood. His supporters include Graham Hancock, the British journalist who starred in the Netflix series and who argued -to his own reviews – that archaeologists should be more open to theories that challenge academic orthodoxy.
“This judge-jury-executioner model of archaeology, where they can define what is and what is not evidence – what is and is not acceptable as evidence – is not useful in the long term for the progress of human knowledge.,” ” Mr. Hancock said in a telephone interview.
Gold on this hill?
Gunung Padang is located near the city of Bandung in Java, Indonesia’s most populated island. Excavations began in the early 1980s, said Lutfi Yondri, an archaeologist with the Bandung provincial government.
Young Indonesians inspired by quixotic efforts to discover lost pyramids in Bosnia then promoted the idea that sharp hills could hide lost pyramids, Mr. Lutfi said. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s team has held forums to explore this issue, as well as unproven speculation that Gunung Padang may contain buried treasure.
Archaeologists balked from the start. But Mr. Yudhoyono’s administration continued to fund excavation work at Gunung Padang, and he said after a visit in 2014, near the end of his 10-year term, that it could be the ” largest prehistoric building in the world.
The pyramid narrative “has some nationalist dimension, and it’s supported by a former president,” said Noel Hidalgo Tan, an archaeologist at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Archeology and Fine Arts in Bangkok. .
“That’s why it’s a myth that refuses to die,” he said.
Mr Yudhoyono’s aide referred questions to Andi Arief, who once organized forums on Gunung Padang as a member of the president’s cabinet. Mr. Arief responded to a request for information but did not make himself available for an interview.
Science or illusion?
Mr Natawidjaja, the geologist who led the October study, said he began studying the site in 2011. At the time, he was studying an active fault in the area and noticed that the sharp shape of Gunung Padang made it stand out in a landscape of eroded hillsides.
President Joko Widodo halted funding for the investigation after taking office in 2014. Mr. Natawidjaja later published his findings in a recent edition of the Archaeological prospecting. The study’s 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 the pyramids,” he said.
Several archaeologists said the study’s biggest problem was that it dated human presence at Gunung Padang based on radiocarbon measurements of soil from drill samples – not artifacts recovered from the site .
“The lesson is that radiocarbon dates are not magic and have significant caveats to their interpretation,” said archaeologist Rebecca Bradley. wrote in a 2016 critique of Mr. Natawidjaja’s preliminary findings. (She said in an email that her recently published study struck her 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 to human activity as its “biggest logical failure”. The age of the soil is not surprising because soil builds up over time and deeper layers tend to be older, he added. “But it is not the soil that is linked to construction activities. “It is not land linked, for example, to a home, nor land linked to a burial.”
“It’s just dirt,” he said.
Ceramics and other evidence from the upper layers of Gunung Padang indicate that humans were there as early as the 12th or 13th century and built structures atop natural rock formations, said Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, an archaeologist who conducted research in Indonesia. .
“There might have been people there before, but so far they haven’t left anything that we can date with,” said Professor Tjoa-Bonatz, who teaches at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Harry Truman Simanjuntak, an Indonesian archaeologist, said he also considered the study’s claims to be unsubstantiated.
“There are always illusionist scientists who practice pseudoscience and seek knowledge that is not based on data,” he said.
The internal investigation into the archaeological survey article was confirmed by Wiley, the journal’s publisher. Eileen G. Ernenwein, the paper’s co-editor, declined an interview request.
In an email, Mr. Natawidjaja defended his work and said the investigation concerned “a matter of scientific disagreement.” The soil samples provide legitimate evidence to assess human involvement in Gunung Padang, he added, partly because the soil used by ancient builders was used to cover man-made structures.
“The rigorous process of publishing our results in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal underscores the scientific validity and merit of our work,” he wrote.
Mr. Hancock, who described himself in “Ancient Apocalypse” as “the No. 1 enemy of archaeologists,” said the program had surely contributed to the level of “vituperation and attack” to which Mr. Natawidjaja is now confronted about the study.
In 2022, the Society for American Archeology said in an open letter to Netflix and the series’ production company, ITN, that the series “devalues the archaeological profession based on misrepresentations and misinformation” – an argument vigorously defended by Mr Hancock. refuted. Netflix and ITN declined to comment for this article.
Mr Hancock argued that archaeologists should not discount the potential existence of lost ancient civilizations, in part because much land was submerged at the end of the last ice age, around 11,700 years ago.
“To say there’s not enough work done yet, but there’s still work to be done to address this issue — that’s pretty fair,” Mr. Hancock said of the recent study. . “But to deny all of that up front and say that this is a prosperous claim that flies in the face of everything we know about the past? This is not helpful.
On a recent afternoon in Gunung Padang, the site’s caretakers said Mr. Natawidjaja’s research confirmed what their ancestors always said: that the site is the work of an ancient civilization. Some people have reported seeing mysterious visions of prehistoric figures there, they added.
“We are convinced that this is caused by man and not by nature,” said one of the keepers, Zenal Arifin, over a cup of sweet coffee near the site’s information center.
President Joko’s administration remains mostly, 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 debates over the age of Gunung Padang. But he also said the latest research on the site is “apparently insufficient to support the theory that it is a man-made pyramid.”
“From the perspective of someone like me, who has to mobilize resources to support certain activities,” he said, “this is definitely the last priority.”