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 a 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 Padang 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 there 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.

Ben

Ben

Nothing that notable to say yet. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in writing and anthropology and have no idea what I want to do with them. For now, I’m content with an unbound lifestyle; going where I want and doing what I can, and hopefully gaining some interesting stories along the way.

24 Comments

  • Awesome, thanks. I love hearing about places I have never been to 🙂

  • “A civilization requires evidence of artifacts, settlements, agriculture, specialization and a number of other things.”

    That is the common, non-cataclysmic view to be sure. But if you accept the very reasonable premise that some rather super-destructive event [ extraterrestrial in origin] wiped out that culture, then there might not be very much left of it. Solar flare, comet, asteroid…

    We know of the Younger Dryas, and the sudden end of the the Younger Dryas in a rather extreme warming period, and massive flooding, raising the sea level about 350-400 feet. These sudden, catastrophic events could have scoured a civilization from the Earth.

    The Bosian pyramid is a money-generating scam, IMO. I think that Gunung Padang is very suspicious indeed, but a lot more careful research is needed.

  • Nigel says:

    So just a Load of subjective criticism and scepticism , but no real evidence to dispute the claims made by Dr Hilman Natawidjaja??
    Seems a pretty pointless article that smacks of sour grapes – who is the author anyway and are they in any way qualified to spout forth on this subject??

    • Ben says:

      “who is the author anyway and are they in any way qualified to spout forth on this subject??”

      Yeah, never mind that pesky little bio on the side of the page that answers your question exactly.

      I study archaeology and history, specifically on numerous sites I have visited in Southeast Asia, as that is where I now live and you can see many examples of on this page. Although, if you failed to notice the name, bio and picture at the side, I’m guessing you didn’t look far beyond the info you disapprove of. And unlike some others mentioned, such as Hancock and Collins, I have actually been educated in archeological theory and excavation methodology.

      My criticism of Dr. Hilman Natawidjaja is clearly spelled out in this post, and only makes up a small portion of the article. I freely admit I am not familiar enough with all manner of accusations made against him, but the fact that they are being made by a plethora of practicing archaeologists should be enough to at least garner attention and raise an eyebrow on the practices being implemented at Gunung Padang.

      Furthermore, his personal attitude and actions toward the site have, at times, obvious signs of unprofessionalism when he is proclaiming fantastical dates and pushing a national narrative (not as yet in the extreme sense of Osmanagić) when these claims are based on evidence that is, at best, inconclusive and in need of retesting, and, at worst, obtained in a manner that might corrupt the results.

  • Peter Bentley says:

    Thanks for this very balanced post. I stumbled on to Gunung Padang via Hancock, whose opinions I find hard to take (too) seriously so I immediately Googled around and found your website as a voice of sanity among the other pseudo-archaeological / conspiracy-theory articles, so again thanks.
    On the other hand, there are indeed some extraordinary pre-neolithic sites that defy conventional explanation, and I’m convinced that there are lot of things that we have yet to learn about e.g. Gavin Menzies’ 1421 which was an eye-opener
    (I have lived and worked in China for the past 35 years so nothing surprises me anymore!)

    • Ben says:

      Hi Peter, I haven’t read Menzies’ Book yet, although I see it quite often. I really should pick it up.

      If you’ve been in China for 35 years, I assume you made it to Xi’an at some point. A perfect example of this headfirst sensationalism can be found in the rumors of “hidden pyramids” there that have been intentionally covered up by the Chinese government. However, the slightest research into this will show you that not only are these burial mounds displayed prominently in the public museum, they are accessible via public roadways provided you have your own way of getting there. Even the Xi’an International Airport is built in the NW of the city in the largest concentration of them, so they are readily visible to anyone taking off or landing in the city.

      If the government is trying to cover them up, they’re not doing a very good job. But, you’ll never convince a die-hard “truther” of this since Hancock, Tsoukalos, or Sitchin, etc. have said otherwise.

  • Peter Bentley says:

    Hi Ben,
    I have often been to Xi’an and explored the surrounding countryside (our company has an office there) but I was not aware of any conspiracy-theory regarding “hidden pyramids” aka burial mounds there. All the Xi’an burial mounds are in full view (as you correctly point out) – including, biggest of all, the huge so-far-excavated mound (huge hill !) of the 1st Qin Emperor.
    Gavin Menzies’ “1421” is an epic book and Admiral Zheng He’s fleets are now well-attested by several Chinese scholars. I buy into his thesis that the Chinese did map much of the world, including the Americas and perhaps even Antarctica, but I’m not so sure about Menzies’ follow-up books ( “1434” et al )
    I’m now skimming through Hancock’s “Magicians of the Gods” (having given up on his much earlier “Fingerprints of the Gods” ) and trying to cut the noise/signal level down to a reasonably readable and acceptable level.
    I find it hard to believe that there was an antediluvian / pre -younger-dryas “super” civilization, although whatever ice-age civilization there was at that time certainly seemed to know how to cut-n-haul stone of enormous size and weights ! (My brother lives near Presili where the Stonehenge bluestones came from – a very long way from Salisbury plain !)
    But what I find most strange, and a point I find rarely commented-on, is the fact that the earth’s 25,920 year “great precession cycle” seems to have been known to the “ancients” and thus passed down to the “less ancients” e.g the Egyptians and the Hermetic historians. Surely in order to discern the 25,920 cycle some civilization must have been observing AND RECORDING the positions of the heavens for at least 52,000 years, if not much longer (?)
    This is probably not the place to debate such more general ancient historical matters, but generally speaking it gives credence to – at least – the possibility of a very ancient history for Gunung Padang (with or without Hancock et al)
    I hope these comments are helpful, but if not please feel free to edit/delete

    • Slavenko Sucur says:

      Hi Ben and Peter

      I live near Bosnian “pyramid”…its a scam.
      However, if you read carefully Graham, number of his long standing claims, most importantly one about catastrofic events almost 12000 years ago have recently been supported – literally last couple of months researchers have undubtely conrfirmed that there was meteor shower in north America and Europe at that exact timing – isnt it more then curious coincidence it fits Platos Atlantis dissapearance timing perfectly (literally within dozen of years).
      Other then that his other thesis that one of stellas at Gobekli Tebe represents star constellations in certain moment in time – was also corroborated by other set of credible scientists.

      Now…i am not saying all GH says is bullseye..but he seems to be onto smt..so shouldnt be dismissed any more that lightly.
      Gunung Padanh is SOMETHING. Dr Hilman as far as i can remember sent samples to number of world labs and they confirmed extraordinary dating – now…if it was me, i would be very agressive with pushing such info inti everyones face…

    • Slavenko Sucur says:

      Also, if of any value, if you look at this:
      https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Danny_Natawidjaja2
      He seems quite credible.

  • Lawrence Pevec says:

    Before leaving Indonesia in June of 2018 I made a point of hiring a car and driver and visiting the site. My partner and I got there just at dawn and were the only visitors during our 3 hour visit. I’m happy to read your balanced review of the site also. I am not an archeologist or paleontologist but am interested in human origins and asorted theories regarding ancient civilizations. I have read the Sitchen’s suite of books and some of Hancock and try to keep an open mind about it all.

    I would really like to keep up with any developments on GP and hope you can point me toward authentic articles on websites you trust. Thanks for a great post.

  • Wow that is so cool! I like your blog

  • Karlo says:

    Dear writer,
    Thank you so much for some direly needed insight into this site. Just doing a quick research while planning a possible visit before a trip to Java and any serious info on this site is next to impossible to find. Really glad to see the comparison to the Bosnian pyramids. Another site to compare is perhaps Caral in Peru, which in fact has shown to be one of the oldest civilizations if not the oldest in the American continents even though only recently the interest in it started to grow. If you haven’t yet I surely recommend a check and visit!
    Kind regards, Karlo

    • Ben says:

      Hi Karlo, thanks for reading. If you’re interested in visiting, I’d recommend contacting Guik at the Bule Homestay in Cianjur. Very friendly hosts, great English and they can take you directly to the site too.

      Bule Homestay Cjianjur

      Enjoy the Java trip!

  • Vivienne says:

    I suggest you google Colin Thierreys powerpoint youtub presentation titled ancient Sumerians – where he spends an in depth exploration of the ancient temple – from his relationship with the PHD qualified archaeologist who has spent significant and rigourous application of dating methods. That is the “core” sampling that was included in the dating methodology – and knowing the high level of sceptic mania, he went to great lengths to ensure legitimisation. I happen to “know” this period was real – with or without a pyramid and physical artefacts which were actually found on the site including a never seen before stone “key” to open an inner chamber that swells beyond its size with exposure to moisture.

    I know this existence from the cosmological and lineage factors that can’t be fully evidenced in scientific material world – its a different reality but no less real. The legacy I refer to is still being practiced today by tribes throughout Asia-Oceania.

    Once it was thought that Africans where humans are now held to come from – were not humans but savages. That was “science” as well… not so long ago.

    • Ben says:

      Hi Vivienne, thank you for reading. I have spent time looking up your suggested Colin Thierreys hypotheses and not found much.

      Your comment on the core sampling completely misses the mark on what core sampling is. And the statement that you “feel” or “know” this is the truth without any tangible evidence means nothing. I would be very happy to debate you on tangible evidence. However, your personal feelings and blind belief that something Gram Hancock or Andrew Collins insists is the truth really doesn’t amount to much.

  • Hi, Firstly thanks for liking my blog.
    Secondly, ancient sites are always intriguing, I’ve not seen many (and never been to Indonesia) but the few I have seen always amaze me. With so few tools, ancient man created some stunning (and long lasting) edifices. I once visited Saqqara (Egypt), the oldest complete stone building complex known in history. It was stunning.
    Nearer home and much younger are our own neolithic villages (https://bakerbalham.wordpress.com/2017/01/02/a-circular-walk-on-new-years-day/).
    Finally, I compliment you on a very professional looking blog and wish you happy touring.
    Regards,
    Richard

    • Ben says:

      Thanks Richard, I was just in Egypt in October. You are right that the Saqqara complex is stunning, but it’s a shame that the Djoser pyramid is currently inaccessible and in need of massive stabilization efforts. I hope you got the chance to see some of the other very impressive sites there too. So many that it’s overwhelming to choose which to tour.

  • alightchaser says:

    Hi Ben, this is fascinating. Don’t know much about the historical dialog on Gunung Padang. I hope you find what it is you’re looking for in your travels.

  • Karstin says:

    Nicely researched. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to exploring your blog further.

  • This is very fascinating! I’m sure you’ve seen some interesting historical sites that leave many minds to wonder or better yet, use the creative and imaginative of ones mind. Thank you for sharing your passion with us Ben!

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