In the science world, much of the research is inaccessible to the layman. If the concepts being studied aren’t orders of magnitude over the heads of the general public, then the means to participate are just not available, whether due to cost or physical location. There are exceptions, however, such as astronomy. In fact, amateur astronomers have been integral to progress in the field, and professional scientists welcome their input, often using their backyard observations as a starting point in the process of discovering some of the most interesting objects and events in the night sky.
Archaeology is sometimes thought of in those same terms, though that really depends on who you ask. Archaeology is the study of human activity in the past, through observation and analysis of the effects of material culture. Essentially, that means that archaeologists look at artefacts and locations and try to determine what those items mean within the context of the particular culture in question. It can be a difficult process, and it requires those who undertake it to be well-read in the humanities, and to have a background in the physical sciences. They must be experts on history, and be conversant in psychology, biology and sometimes physics. But these things aren’t exclusive to archaeologists. Anyone can be well-read on the humanities. Many laymen are experts on history and are conversant in biology and physics. And since almost every archaeological find is ultimately dependent on subjective interpretation, it would seem that the field is more open than some would like to think.
The products of archaeology are not the artefacts and ancient buildings that they study; the product is the information gleaned from those items. The dusty trinkets and buried structures are the tools archaeologists use to measure the impact lost cultures had on their environment, and on the members of their societies. The problem arises when that story, or stories as the case may be, don’t readily betray the secrets of their originators. Even among the so-called experts, agreement is hard to come by, and when those who look in on the golden circle from the outside get into the fray, things can get messy.
In the world of archaeology, there are some basic truths that form the foundation of the study. One of those truths is the general anthropological timeline, which outlines not only the progression of human development, from the early emergence out of Africa, to our spread throughout Asia and Europe and eventually Australia and the Americas. Other foundational elements include the individual demographics and histories of all of the various civilizations that existed between then and now. But that timeline is only a truth in so far as the majority believe it to be…and there are other voices in the crowd.
It has generally been thought that our ancestors began building monuments and structures for ritual purposes at a specific time in our history. That time is roughly 9000 years ago, or in the 7th millennium BCE. The prevailing wisdom of archaeology says that disparate cultures across Europe and Asia began developing the skills necessary to construct long lasting works of art and primitive architecture using stone as a medium around this time. There were probably many failed starts and half-developed projects that never saw the light of day, but of the examples we know about, the oldest are apparently no older than about 7000 years, indicating that it took roughly 2000 years to hone our skills. By about 5000 years ago, we were building sophisticated structures like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, and thus our progression from primitive hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies with the time and wherewithal to develop a culture of our own was well underway.
One important aspect of the above, is the implied idea that these skills were developed independently by different cultures. Each culture, we’re told, invented, practised and perfected their techniques on their own, with little to no help from other peoples. This is the accepted wisdom.
There are elements of the archaeological record that would seem to disagree however. One of those elements is a megalithic/Neolithic site in the Southeast Anatolia region of modern-day Turkey: Göbekli Tepe.
Breaking Orthodox History
Discovered in 1964 through an archaeological survey conducted by researchers from Istanbul University and the University of Chicago, Göbekli Tepe is a temple structure consisting of several T-shaped stone pillars and round structures. The pillars are decorated with stylized, anthropomorphic carvings of animals and crude humanoids, and in general the site fits with the standard archaeological timeline in terms of its construction and artwork. However, when researchers dated the site they found something quite incredible. It was built in the 10th millennium BCE.
That’s at least 4000 years earlier than any other structure of similar sophistication and construction anywhere in the world. This discovery alone is exciting for its implications, and its potential to alter the accepted timeline – and there are those in the old guard of archaeology who refuse to accept that age, for the very reason that it challenges the accepted wisdom.
There are several methods of dating ancient material and artefacts. Visual inspection and comparison to similar artefacts of known age is the very bottom of that scale, and radiometric dating is at the top. The various clocks we use in this process are all based on measuring the decay rates of certain naturally occurring radioactive elements contained within all organic material. These elements, carbon-14 being one of the many available, have defined and universally consistent half-lives – meaning that over a given period of time, the isotope will decay at a certain speed – and when we compare the amount of that element contained within the artefact being dated to these half-life measurements, we come away with a general but solid understanding of the age of that item.
There are problems with this process, however. Firstly, of the various isotopes that can be measured, all of them have half-lives between thousands of years to millions and even billions of years. This is why we use so many different elements as clocks in the dating process, and it means that for any given analysis, we can only get a date-range for an artefact. Beyond a certain age, we cannot say that an artefact or structure is “x number of years old”; we can only say that it’s “at least as old as”, or that it “dates to between x age and y age”. And of course, the larger the clock scale, the greater the margin of error. When your reference isotope decays over a period of millions of years, you aren’t going to be able to pinpoint an age to within a thousand years.
The second problem is that not all materials can be dated radiometrically. Stone or rock cannot be dated directly. The age of a rock can only be determined by its relationship to other materials that can be dated. In geology, the terms superposition, faunal succession, crosscutting relationships and inclusions relate to the methods used for determining the age of a rock, and they all refer to material that is found with or inside the rock in question. What this means is that, in a site such as Göbekli Tepe, the age of the site can only be found by dating organic material found underneath or within the stone used to build it. The idea being that such material is going to be related to the age of the structure, because it was in place prior to the structure being built or the stone being placed in position. This presents a unique problem. It means that the dates given for sites such as Göbekli Tepe are not really of the site. They are indirect conclusions extended to the site by logical inference. If, by some weird coincidence, organic material that is older or younger than the site managed to contaminate the samples used in the radiometric dating, the results would be skewed and inaccurate.
This inherent uncertainty in the process is both a blessing and a curse. It is used by archaeologists to both include certain sites in specific cultural epochs and to exclude them, and as may seem convenient, several such people reject the given age of Göbekli Tepe on these grounds.
But another Neolithic site also has the potential to shatter the accepted wisdom of our history, and to bring about a new paradigm of understanding with regard to ancient culture and development. That site is Gunung Padang in Indonesia.
The Mountain of Light
Gunung Padang is a series of stone-walled terraces and standing-stone shapes that sit atop Mount Padang, in or near the village of Karyamukti in the Cianjur regency of West Java, Indonesia. Though it has been known to locals for millennia, it was first described academically in the Dutch naturalist manual Rapporten van de Oudheidkundige Dienst in 1914. Not much had been known about it outside of that brief mention until recently, and now it’s embroiled in ongoing controversy.
Several teams of geologists and archaeologists have given Gunung Padang serious attention, and initial dates for the site were given as between 500 and 1500 BCE, and then eventually to 5000 BCE. That date puts it in line with other Neolithic sites in Europe, such as Stonehenge, and isn’t entirely unexpected, as the parent cultures in both regions are thought to be about the same age.
The site is used, even today, by the Sundanese people of West Java as a place of reflection, meditation and spiritual energy, and the entire hill is considered sacred to their culture. The name means “Mountain of Light” or “Mountain of Enlightenment” in the local Sundanese dialect. This reverence for the site has hampered efforts to study its origins and significance, and though its surface has been fully surveyed, little was known about what lies underneath it.
That all changed in 2012 with geologic testing undertaken by the government of Indonesia. Researchers used ground-penetrating radar (tomography) and geoelectric analysis to determine what the visible site is built on. They found that Mount Padang is not just a hill; instead, they believe it is actually a pyramid. Researchers claimed to have imaged structures, courtyards, pillars, and buried terraces, all indicating that the structure was built in the manner of a stepped pyramid.
This finding is astounding all on its own. Asia has relatively few pyramids, in any style, and some have long wondered why that should be, when other cultures of the same age and younger were prolific in the building of pyramid-type structures. As such, it has been asked, rhetorically, if there are more pyramids in Asia than are apparent; are these ancient structures just hidden from view beneath natural overgrowth?
Just in terms of our collective understanding of Asia’s early cultural development, the discovery of the Gunung Padang pyramid is extremely important, but there’s much more to it than that.
Armed with this new information, researchers redirected their attention away from investigating what could be seen on the surface, and focused their efforts underground. They undertook a geological survey that included drilling several core samples at various locations around the site. Core sampling, in case you are unfamiliar, is the process of using specialised equipment to obtain a cylindrical shaft of material from whatever is beneath the drilling site, ultimately giving a cross-section of that material going down several meters. From that, analysts can determine the true tomography of the site, by understanding how each layer of material was formed or constructed, and incidentally, date such material. And this is where things get a little weird.
According to some, namely Dr. Daniel Natawidjaja, senior geologist of the Research Center for Geotechnology at the Indonesian Institute of Science (an organization operated by the Indonesian government), the core samples confirmed the earlier findings that suggested that the hill was indeed manmade. Natawidjaja explains that the core samples provided evidence of complex structures and pillars, and most interestingly a material thought to be an early form of mortar cement. It’s speculated that this cement, which is found to consist of 45% iron ore, 41% silica, and 14% clay, was used as a mortar base to strengthen rock pile walls and pillars, and to repair elements of the structure that suffered damage over the years.
As the material was analysed and dated, using the radiometric dating techniques described above, researchers began to get very excited. As they drilled deeper and deeper into the hill (or pyramid), they found that the material was older and older. They produced dates from 3000BCE to 5000BCE, to 10,000BCE, and at 90 feet below the surface, they found material that is approximately 24,000 years old, putting the origin of this site at 22,000 BCE.
Needless to say, such dating holds the potential to shatter the accepted wisdom regarding our history. If they hold up, it would place the culture responsible for building Gunung Padang squarely in the peak of the last ice age, a time when conventional wisdom says humanity’s numbers were at the lowest they’ve ever been. According to history text books, it shouldn’t have been possible that an ancient civilization existed which was capable of this level of development and architectural sophistication, but there it is.
An Alternative History?
Enter the alternative history theorists. There is a certain movement in fringe culture, a community of sorts, of individuals who study these kinds of findings and use them to challenge the status quo, as it were. And some from this community now assert that these sites, Göbekli Tepe and Gunung Padang, could be direct evidence of an advanced prehistoric culture that has been left out of the history books.
Some, such as author Graham Hancock, theorise that Gunung Padang is evidence of the Lost City of Atlantis. Atlantis, of course, is the famed super-culture described by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in his famed Socratic dialogues titled Critias and Timaeus. Atlantis has been the focus of a great many alternative history theories, and is the obsession of many academics and historians. Supposed evidence of it has been found all over the world, though none, thus far, has really panned out. There are reasonable criticisms of the idea that Gunung Padang has anything to do with Atlantis, even just by virtue of its location. It is so far removed from the historical origins of the story that it’s almost laughable, but the timeline seems right.
Others, namely senior advisor to the Indonesian President, Andi Arief, suggest that Gunung Padang is actually a remnant of the lost civilization of Mu.
You may not be familiar with the people of Mu, but their legend is almost as wild as that of Atlantis. Mu is a supposed lost continent, and was first hypothesised by 19th century author Augustus Le Plongeon. Le Plongeon was a historian specialising in Mayan culture, and he wrote extensively on the subject. He was the primary proponent of the theory that the Mayans predated the Egyptians, and he believed that all of the major ancient cultures were first populated by refugees from the lost or sunken continent of Mu, which he theorised to have once been a landmass in the Atlantic Ocean.
Le Plongeon’s theory was later taken up by author and inventor James Churchward, who claimed to have found ancient stone tablets from the lost people of Mu, who were known as the Naacals. Through his research, Churchward placed Mu in the Pacific Ocean, connecting the Hawaiian Islands with Easter Island and the Polynesian Archipelago.
Both Le Plongeon and Churchward believed that the Naacals of Mu were the parent culture for the early civilizations of India, Babylon, Persia, Egypt and the Maya. Mu’s given proximity to Southeast Asia and Gunung Padang might have provided opportunity for travel between those two areas during the suggested timeline.
Whether we’re talking about Atlantis or Mu, or Lemuria even, the results of the study at Gunung Padang do seem to point to the existence of some kind of advanced culture that apparently flourished during the last ice age. But critics are quite vocal in their opposition to this idea.
As far as the radiometric dating of Gunung Padang is concerned, everything is on the up and up. The analysis was done by a reputable, and some would say, prestigious lab in the US (BETALABS), so the numbers are considered solid. The material they dug up is without a doubt roughly 24,000 years old. But what did they dig up?
The entire story rests on a single point, a point that most in mainstream archaeology deny is valid. Is Gunung Padang a pyramid or similar structure, or is it just a hill? While the tomography results do seem to suggest that there is some kind of structure beneath the visible monument, the conclusion may be premature. All of the work done to date has been undertaken by professional geologists, whose normal purview is rocks and the environment, not archaeological material. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate their work – after all, they use the same techniques in their work as archaeologists do – but it does leave open a door for criticism.
If the underground ‘structure’ beneath the ruins of Gunung Padang was not in fact man-made, then it follows that the material that was dated wasn’t associated with a specific artefact or structure. It was just organic material that was pulled out of the ground based on the preliminary tomography results. If the hill that the ruins of Gunung Padang sit upon is just a natural formation, the mystery of the anomalous dating instantly disappears. Indeed, it is thought by most who oppose the theory that the hill is actually a volcanic cone or mound, which would mean that the material used in the radiometric dating was just volcanic dirt, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find that such material is quite old.
One other concerning feature of the story is that the Indonesian government has – and has long had – a penchant for politically twisting the history of its country in an effort to compete with its neighbour, China. It seems that some Indonesian leaders want to establish their country as the birthplace of Asian culture, and they tend to seek out storylines that confirm that bias. Andi Arief, the senior advisor to the Indonesian President mentioned above, is a well-known proponent of the One World Origin theory, which claims that all of the major civilizations in our history were parented by a single large and highly developed civilization that has since been lost to time. So it’s not surprising to find that he has been instrumental in disseminating the theory that Gunung Padang is evidence of such.
In the end, we have an interesting story, but still not a lot of real information to go on. Does Göbekli Tepe indicate that humanity developed sophisticated architectural techniques before it is generally accepted to have emerged? Is Gunung Padang evidence of a lost civilization, one that may have been part of an unknown One World Origin?
The jury is still out, but there are seemingly good arguments from both sides, and so the research continues.