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Gunung Padang

Photo: Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Five stone terraces rise in steps on the summit of an extinct volcano. Some of them are held in place by walls and connected by stairs. Gunung Padang in the west of the Indonesian island of Java is a spectacular site of prehistoric archaeology.

The work of a team led by geologist Danny Hilman Natawidjaja from the National Research and Innovation Agency BRIN in Bandung, which was published in October in the journal "Archaeological Prospection", attracted particular attention. It is now fiercely controversial in the discipline, and serious experts fundamentally doubt the findings.

The news site »Nature News« reports that the editorial board of »Archaeological Prospection« is investigating whether the publication adhered to the principles of science. Archaeologist Flint Dibble of Cardiff University in the UK is quoted as saying he was "surprised" that the paper was published in this way.

According to the study under discussion, four different layers of structures, some of which are arranged like "bricks", are hidden under the terraces, to which carbon dating has been assigned different construction periods. The bottom layer consists of a core of hardened lava, but "accurately shaped" as a kind of pyramid, according to the paper.

Proof of a daring thesis of early civilization

A pyramid that is said to be up to 27,000 years old and thus must have been created at a time when, according to the state of research, people lived worldwide as hunters and gatherers. For comparison, the Pyramid of Djoser, the oldest of Egypt's great pyramids, is 4600 years old. The oldest known large-scale settlement of mankind, Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey, is dated to less than 10,000 years before our time. The first megaliths as evidence of a stoneworking culture in Göbekli Tepe, also in Turkey, are hardly older.

If the controversial findings are really true, some previous findings would be turned upside down. The British author Graham Hancock already uses Gunung Padang as evidence for his thesis that an advanced civilization existed worldwide a long time ago, which was wiped out around the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago. The Indonesian site appears in Hancock's Netflix series "Ancient Apocalypse," and Hancock is named as an expert in the article by Natawidjaja and colleagues.

Natawidjaja herself has so far done little to distance herself from the daring thesis: "The pyramid is a symbol of advanced civilization," according to the author. "It's not easy to build them. To do this, you need a high level of masonry skills." At the same time, he told Nature News that he hoped for an open discussion among experts. Further research in Gunung Padang is welcome, but little is known about the prehistory of mankind. Therefore, there should be no bad blood in the research community.

»An amazing, important and cool place«

Archaeologist Lutfi Yondri, who, like Natawidjaja, conducts research at the BRIN in Bandung, has an important objection. He has found traces of cave dwellers in West Java from 6000,12 to 000,<> years ago, long after the alleged pyramid was built. Not a single excavation from this period provides evidence of sophisticated masonry, he explains, according to Nature News.

His British colleague Flint Dibble adds that the Natawidjaja paper contains serious data, but inadmissible conclusions. There is no evidence that the stones in the lower layers of Gunung Padang were worked by humans – only Natawidjaja's opinion that the columnar or, in one case, dagger-shaped stones could not possibly have rolled there naturally. They weigh up to 300 kilograms and are neatly set up. According to Dibble, however, it cannot be ruled out that the weather naturally shaped the structure over the millennia. Material rolling down a hill usually tends to have an even order around the top of the hill.

Bill Farley of Southern Connecticut State University adds that charcoal or bone fragments are missing from the site to suggest human activity so long ago. Gunung Padang should not be forced into a weird narrative, but should be appreciated for what it is: "an amazing, important and cool place".