World’s oldest civilization? No.

 

For years now, the mysterious mountaintop monument of Gunung Padang has been one of the most-cited evidences of a grand prehistoric civilization forgotten to time. The proponents of this range from well-known names like Graham Hancock and Andrew Collins to its own lead excavator, Dr. Danny Hilman Natawidjaja. Opponents of these claims point to more conservative date, but have offered little other insight.

I have visited Gunung Padang on 2 occasions – once in April 2015 and once in February 2017. I’ve tried to track down as much legitimate information as I can about the site since I first learned of it, which is not as simple as finding all the more radical claims. So, let’s address these claims of the Lost Civilization of Gunung Padang together:

Addressing the Archaeological Site

The site of Gunung Padang is a hilltop megalithic site in West Java very near the towns of Cianjur and Sukubumi. It is constructed using many thousands of basalt columns which are stacked atop one another (in a similar manner to Lincoln Logs) to form several terraces.

Polygonal basalt logs stacked along the side of one of the terraces.

Polygonal basalt logs stacked along the side of one of the terraces.

At the top of some of these terraces, these same rocks were used to create sectioned-off areas that are interpreted as rooms used as purification areas before ascending higher, or other ritual areas.

The sectioned-off’ purification room’ on Terrace 2.

The sectioned-off’ purification room’ on Terrace 2.

The stones the Gunung Padang site is constructed with, a type of basalt that naturally forms into polygonal columns or logs. Despite the fact that they may look carved into hexagons or pentagons, that is their natural shape, similar to the famous Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Additionally, they do not naturally form horizontally, as they occur at Gunung Padang. This alone is proof of human involvement, not even taking into account the structure made with them. However, no quarry has yet been named for these stones.

The condition of these thousands of basalt columns is highly ruinous, particularly at surface level. This is likely due to the highly tectonic nature of Indonesia. Earthquakes have strewn these rocks into disarray and first glimpse of the site is hard to wrap your head around. Adding to this, there is no point in the surrounding vicinity to get a good view of the entire structure.

The mess of stones at surface level, as seen from Terrace 2.

The mess of stones at surface level, as seen from Terrace 2.

There was a record from early 1900’s Dutch colonists, but nothing much was done about it. According to a local guide I spoke to, in 1979, a landslide brought the site to the attention of the locals. They reported it to the government, who stepped in to begin protecting it.

At this point some slight restoration was done. But, more importantly core samples were taken. Initial results led to chambers inside the basalt-andesite structures, but further and more recent tests have not confirmed these results.

Recently-broken ground from an excavation effort during my April 2015 visit.

Recently-broken ground from an excavation effort during my April 2015 visit.

Addressing the Claims on Both Sides

Firstly, the Wikipedia article is full of bad information. Don’t trust it for any definitive info at the moment. For example, this bulleted list (screenshot June 16, 2017) of reasons excavations stopped in 2014:

  • There is a large structure below the surface

As far as we know, there is only a natural hill beneath the constructed basalt terraces.

  • A core zone site area has been confirmed

This statement doesn’t make sense as it is written. It may mean that there is a central area to the site, which is obvious and would not lead to shutting down excavations.

  • Many man-made artefacts have been discovered

No artifacts have been discovered at Gunung Padang or its immediate area that are associated with its builders.

  • The construction of the site spans four eras

This is based on core samples which are still needing re-testing. Additionally, one of the workers at the site told me, through a translator, that the top layer was the oldest. This isn’t possible.

  • A recommendation has been made to extend the survey, renovation concept, conservation and management of the site

After numerous accusations of questionable excavation techniques, this is common sense and should be done.

Due to its unorthodox nature, Gunung Padang has fallen into the realms of various pseudo- and/or alternative historians. Graham Hancock and Andrew Collins have been two of the most outspoken on the issue, saying that Gunung Padanf is clear evidence of their proposed lost civilizations. They point to the uncertain results on the core samples and a few other claims to justify their date of ~14,000 BCE to fit in with their own alternative timelines of human history.

Four paved and barricaded ritual areas on the top terrace, as viewed from a wooden viewing platform.

Four paved and barricaded ritual areas on the top terrace, as viewed from a wooden viewing platform.

There is undoubtedly an ancient manmade structure here. The fact that these many thousands of columns are stacked on this hilltop to form several measured terraces is clear proof of artificiality. However, beyond that, there is much currently up in the air about the site.

Unfortunately, much of this is due to the lead researcher of the site, geologist Dr. Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, who has been accused of improper excavation and dating techniques by numerous other scientists familiar with the Gunung Padang site. I’m not familiar enough with the practices he is being accused of to comment on them, but there have been petitions to raise awareness of the issue.

What I can say is that he has been pushing the exceptionally ancient date of up to 20,000 years old (more commonly 14,000 BP) very strongly to anyone that will listen, including the aforementioned Hancock and Collins. This has drummed up a nationalistic sentiment within Indonesia to promote the site as a piece of national pride in the origins of human civilization.

I also find it very curious that many of the publications mentioning Dr. Danny Hilman Natawidjaja will often refer to him as simply “Dr. Danny Hilman”, omitting his Indonesian surname. I do not know if this is a result of Indonesian naming customs, but it would seem to me those trying to support his claims are trying to make him sound as western as possible to do so. And while I do not challenge his credentials, educational qualifications, or ability to excavate, his methods and his constructed narrative should be scrutinized more closely.

I find this parallels the story of Semir Osmanagić, who is in the process of excavating the now-infamous “Bosnian Pyramids”. Osmanagić originally made the claim that a pyramid-shaped hill was in fact an ancient pyramid, perhaps the most ancient in the world. Since that time, he has been on a quest to “excavate” this pyramid amidst a fervor of nationalist sentiment.

He has since brought in earth movers, dug his own caverns and tunnels in order to supposedly expand the ones already existing their from the prehistoric builders. And in the process, he has conveniently named a number of other neighboring hills as companion pyramids.

I fear that any legitimacy or even evidence his initial claim of a true ancient artificial structure might have has is now lost in his mission to promote a national story. I truly hope the same will not happen during Dr. Danny Hilman Natawidjaja’s excavations of Gunung Padang.

Addressing the Question of Civilization

The question we are specifically asking about is the possibility of “the oldest civilization”. As it stands now, the answer to this is no. Gunung Padang is something. It is massive. It is artificial. And it did require a very significant endeavor to construct.

Another view of site along a room-dividing barrier.

Another view of site along a room-dividing barrier.

But none of this is evidence for a missing civilization on the scale that some are proposing. I mentioned that no quarry for these basalt logs has yet been publicized. There is also no other similar structure anywhere in the area, or even the region. The only other place I have ever seen basalt logs used for construction in this manner is Nan Modal in Micronesia. And although Pohnpei and Java are both islands in the East Indian/West Pacific Oceans, they are very, very far apart.

Curiously, there is one temple I saw on Java on Mt. Lawu, called Candi Kethek, which has a very similar terraced layout. However, there is no evidence of a connection to Gunung Padang here either.

The terraced design of Candi Kethek is similar to Gunung Padang, but on a much, much smaller scale. It is dated to 900–400 BP.

The terraced design of Candi Kethek is similar to Gunung Padang, but on a much, much smaller scale. It is dated to 900–400 BP.

A civilization requires evidence of artifacts, settlements, agriculture, specialization and a number of other things. At Gunung Padang, we have a monument – a very unique and massive monument – but not a whole civilization. The fact is right now we don’t know who built it or when. And the only way we will find this out is with more time and proper procedures, not fantastical claims that are based on little-to-no evidence.

The most famous view from Gunung Padang, looking down from the top terrace.

The most famous view from Gunung Padang, looking down from the top terrace.