Archaeologists Criticize Alleged Discovery of the ‘Oldest Pyramid in the World’

A controversial study arguing an Indonesian structure is 25,000 years old is under investigation by the journal that published it

Gunung Padang
The sun rises over the Gunung Padang in Java, Indonesia. Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Earlier this year, a team of researchers published a paper claiming that the oldest pyramid in the world is a structure in Indonesia that might date back more than 25,000 years. But the study has since come under severe scrutiny—and the journal it appeared in, Archaeological Prospection, has launched an investigation into the matter.

“I’m surprised [the paper] was published as is,” Flint Dibble, an archaeologist at Cardiff University in Wales, tells Dyani Lewis of Nature, which first reported the dispute.

Previously, the Indonesian site in question, the Gunung Padang, was thought to date to around 5000 B.C.E. If the new findings were true, they would challenge longstanding historical assumptions: In comparison, the oldest pyramids in Egypt date back a few thousand years, while Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe temple is estimated to be 11,000 years old.

“This finding challenges the conventional belief that human civilization and the development of advanced construction techniques emerged only during the warm period of the early Holocene or the beginning of the Neolithic,” the researchers write in the paper. “Evidence from Gunung Padang and other sites … suggests that advanced construction practices were already present when agriculture had, perhaps, not yet been invented.”

Gunung Padang is a stone complex on the top of a hill in Java, Indonesia. Lead author Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, a geologist at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency, and his team say the structure consists of four distinct layers: a pyramid shaped from a long-solidified lava hill, a layer of coarse sand and “pillar-like stone structures,” a layer of “columnar rocks” and a surface layer of more pillar-like stones, per Atlas Obscura’s Jennifer Billock.

After conducting radiocarbon dating on the soil, the researchers say that the oldest section of Gunung Padang—the lava hill—was hand-sculpted by humans as early as 25,000 years ago and that subsequent layers were constructed by humans in later stages over thousands of years.

But critics aren’t convinced. Many experts argue that no evidence suggests the earliest layers were shaped by humans, rather than natural forces. Dibble tells Nature that many features of the site could have been formed by the movement of rocks over many years.

“If you went to the Palace of Westminster and dropped a core seven meters into the ground and pulled up a soil sample you might date it as being 40,000 years old,” Dibble tells the Observer’s Robin McKie. “But that does not mean the Palace of Westminster was built 40,000 years ago by ancient humans. It just means there’s carbon down there that’s 40,000 years old.”

Additionally, the fact that the paper was proofread by Graham Hancock, a British writer who famously promotes pseudoscientific theories, has “not helped its credibility,” as Artnet writes.

In the meantime, Natawidjaja continues to defend the team’s research, and he has said he is in the process of addressing concerns raised by the investigation. But many researchers remain incredulous.

“I think it is very reasonable that this paper is being investigated,” Bill Farley, an archaeologist at Southern Connecticut State University, tells the Observer. “It was not worthy of publication, and it would not shock me if it is eventually retracted.”

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