Gunung Padang is supposedly the oldest pyramid on the planet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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The controversy behind the world's alleged oldest pyramid

A study has suggested that the oldest man-made pyramid on Earth is on the island of Java in Indonesia. We look at why this discovery, which could mark a turning point in what we know about past civilisations, has been criticised by the archaeological community.

ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno

 

The debate over which pyramids are the oldest has raged for years. But countries like Egypt now have a new challenger: Indonesia. So says a team of scientists who claim to have found a buried pyramid complex that would be the oldest on the planet, according to research recently published in the journal Archaeological Prospection. But their findings have drawn criticism from a number of archaeologists.

 

The world's oldest pyramid?

 

The site in question is called Gunung Padang, which means "mountain of enlightenment" in the local language, and has been the site of religious rituals throughout history. According to the authors of the study, it could be up to 27,000 years old. "Evidence from Gunung Padang […] suggests that advanced construction practices were already present when agriculture had, perhaps, not yet been invented," the authors write.

Gunung Padang consists of a series of stone terraces that sit atop an extinct volcano. In the 19th century, it was described as an ancient cemetery on top of a mound, and since the late 20th century there have been several investigations of the site. The latest, recently published in Archaeological Prospection, concludes that "it is not a natural hill, but a pyramid-like construction".

Using ground-penetrating radar, the authors claim to have discovered several deeper man-made layers beneath the main building, the lowest of which (a hardened lava core) shows signs of having been "meticulously sculpted". "These findings offer valuable insights into the construction history of Gunung Padang, shedding light on the engineering capabilities of ancient civilisations during the Palaeolithic era," they say.

 

Gunung Padang is claimed to be older than the Egyptian pyramids. Credit: OzGeology

 

Doubts about Gunung Padang

 

Several archaeologists have been sceptical about the conclusions regarding Gunung Padang's unprecedented antiquity. "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," Flint Dibble, an archaeologist at Cardiff University, told The GuardianHe says he is "very surprised this paper was published as it is" and accuses the authors of the study of failing to provide evidence that the buried material was made by humans.

The controversy stems in part from the fact that the paper has been reviewed by controversial British writer Graham Hancock, who is known for writing books on conspiracy theories and for promoting unsupported hypotheses about highly advanced ancient civilisations. "He invokes myths, fanciful and often incorrect interpretations of archaeological sites," says geologist Marc Defant.

Bill Farley, an archaeologist at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, refers to one of Hancock’s theories: "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." For the expert, "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," he adds.

 

Archaeologist Bill Farley has reacted to the findings on his YouTube channel. Credit: Archaeology Tube

 

In a matter of weeks, Gunung Padang went from being a nondescript hill in Asia to being the alleged remains of Earth’s oldest human-made pyramid. Following the publication of the research, the find made headlines and became one of the most attention-grabbing scientific news stories of 2023. But the doubts raised by other archaeologists highlight one thing: the importance of finding evidence that proves beyond doubt that the material removed was sculpted by humans and that Gunung Padang is indeed the world's oldest pyramid.


Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation.

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