Gunung Padang

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Podcast Transcript

Located on the island of Java in Indonesia, just 100 kilometers from the capital of Jakarta, lies what might be one of the most important archeology sites in the world. 

While it has been known to locals for centuries and to professional archeologists for over 100 years, it has only been seriously studied in the last several decades. 

Some of the estimates of the age of this site, if true, would radically transform what we know about early human civilization.

Learn more about Gunung Padang, perhaps the oldest and largest pyramid in the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Often times when I do an episode about a famous location around the world, I’m able to throw in some sort of personal anecdote about my travels there. 

In the case of Gunung Padang, I don’t have any. It isn’t because I haven’t been to Indonesia, I have. I’ve been to Jakarta, and I could have easily visited Gunung Padang on a day trip if I had so desired. 

The problem is that I had no clue that Gunung Padang existed until several years after my trip to Jakarta. 

I’m guessing that many of you are probably in the same boat. Either your awareness of Gunung Padang came recently, or you have never heard of it at all until now. 

So, unlike other noteworthy archeology sites around the world, it is probably worth giving a brief explanation of what Gunung Padang exactly is. 

Gunung Padang is a structure situated on a hill that consists of five different terraces built on top of each other. Each terrace had retaining walls which are made out of stones of long columns of volcanic rock. The terraces give the structure an appearance closer to that of a ziggurat, like those found in Mesopotamia. 

On top of everything are littered thousands of hexagonal stone columns, similar to those that make up the retaining walls. Many of these are layout in the shape of a rectangle or a square at the top, indicating that they formed the outline of a building or structure of some sort.

The entire structure is 110 meters or 360 feet tall, it is sloped at an approximately 45-degree angle, and there are 370 steps that take you to the top.

The name Gunung Padang means “mountain meadow or alternatively “mountain field” in Sundanese. 

For everything I just said, I have to qualify it with…..maybe. The reason for the qualification is that there might just be a whole lot more to the site than what we currently know. 

One of the reasons why Gunung Padang hasn’t captured the attention of the world is because, unlike other famous megalithic structures, Gunung Padang is situated in the middle of a thick forest. Trees cover most of the structure, which, from a distance, makes it look like a naturally occurring hill.

It has been dubbed Indonesia’s Macchu Picchu. 

Gunung Padang has been known to the people who live in the area for centuries, but it wasn’t a site that was regularly visited, given its location. Many locals probably didn’t know exactly where it was located as it wasn’t a place that they visited.

According to Sundanese tradition, the native people who live in western Java, the structure was built by King Siliwangi in a single evening. 

King Siliwangi was a legendary Hindu king who ruled prior to the arrival of Islam in Indonesia. He has a status similar to that of King Arthur in England. It is doubtful he actually existed, but he may have been modeled after one or more actual rulers. 

The earliest written reference to it occurred back in 1891 when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony. It was referenced in a history book of Java, and it mentions a single visit made by a man the year prior known only as Mr. De Corte.

Despite the fact that the site was known, almost nothing was actually known about it. It was subsequently forgotten until 1979, when some local farmers rediscovered it.

With its rediscovery, it immediately came to the attention of antiquities and archeology authorities in Indonesia. 

Initial research was conducted in the 1980s, and in some very limited digs, they managed to find evidence of pottery and other small artifacts. 

The initial dating of the pottery found at the site put it sometime between 45 BC and the year 22, or about 2,000 years old.

However, the pottery discovered at the site only puts a ceiling on the age of the site, not a floor. Someone could have been occupying the site 2000 years ago and left the pottery, but it doesn’t mean that they built the site. 

Subsequent estimates have pushed the date back to about 500 to 800 BC. 

One of the largest and certainly most controversial studies of Gunung Padang began in 2010 by an Indonesian geologist by the name of Danny Natawidjaja. 

Natawidjaja and his team deployed tools which had not previously been used at Gunung Padang before, in particular, ground-penetrating radar and seismic tomography. 

Natawidjaja is an accomplished geologist. One of the best seismologists studying the Indonesian archipelago and a graduate of Caltech. 

However he is not an archeologist. As part of his research he conducted an excavation of the site using….. a backhoe. 

Archeology has advanced a lot over the last century. Many of the archeological digs conducted in the 19th century were extremely destructive. Since then, standard archeology techniques involve taking a very slow and methodical approach to digging up artifacts. 

If you have ever been witness to an actual dig, you’ll notice how archeologists will painstakeningly use brushes and dental picks to carefully remove objects so they aren’t damaged. They also don’t want to miss something, which even though small, could be extremely important. 

The only thing worse than using a backhoe in the world of archeology would be using dynamite. 

The excavation immediately caused an uproar around the world in the archeological community. 

The excavation ended soon after it began in 2014. However, as bad as the dig was in terms of archeological best practices, it did discover many things. 

Coins were found that were claimed to have been dated back about 5,000 years. They eventually stopped digging when they hit a layer made of sand.

The biggest controversy occurred when Natawidjaja and his team released their findings. They didn’t actually release them in a formal academic paper, which is how almost all research is made public. 

Natawidjaja released his data in a report to the government and in a poster which was displayed at the 2018 meeting of the American Geophysical Union. 

Their conclusions were startling and have the potential to upend everything we know about early human civilization.

Just a few minutes ago when I was describing Gunung Padang, I used the word ‘maybe’. That is because this giant complex built on a hill may in fact not be built on a hill, or at least not built on a hill as large as we think it is. 

According to Natawidjaja, what we can see is simply the top layer of a multilayer structure. The various layers were built on top of each other over time.

The top layer, he believes, is about 3,500 years old.  

Below that is another layer which is built of similar basalt columns, which can be seen on the surface. These basalt columns, the researchers claim, are held together with a mortar made of clay, iron, and silica. This second layer is about 8,000 years old. 

The third and bottom may have caverns or other hollow spaces. This layer may be between 9,500 to 28,000 years old.

These last two claims about the age of the second and third layers would shatter our notions of early human civilization if true.

For the longest time, archeologists thought that civilizations and megalithic structures only began about 6,000 years ago. 

If you remember back to my episode on Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, that has been dated back 11,000 years. 

The discovery and dating of Gobekli Tepe completely rewrote what we knew about ancient people, and even that took a while to be accepted.

What is being claimed about Gunung Padang would be even more revolutionary if true.

Needless to say, there has been a great deal of skepticism about this claim. 

For starters, the research team still hasn’t published anything or made all their findings public. 

Second, if you are going to make extraordinary claims, like human civilization is twice as old as we think it is, you need extraordinary evidence. Right now, there isn’t anything which can prove this theory beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Third, there isn’t any sort of corroborating evidence anywhere else. No archeological digs in the area have found anything which would indicate a culture that was capable of creating such structures so early. 

Finally, politics might be coming into play. The funding for the project was from the Indonesian government and the results of the research were first given to the government. 

If the findings are true, then it means that Gunung Padang would be both the oldest and largest pyramid in the world. Bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Eygpt. It would be a huge coup for Indonesia both in terms of international prestige and tourism revenue. 

The vast majority of mainstream archeologists have been very skeptical of the claims made by Natawidjaja. Other alternative and pseudoarchaeologists have embraced the theory as it supports many of their preconceived notions about when civilization began. 

What we can say for certain right now is that there has been very little research conducted at Gunung Padang since its rediscovery in 1979. 

If the claims of Daniel Natawidjaja are true, then proving them will require a lot more evidence than what they currently have, and it will require excavations using much better techniques than what they used. 

What pretty much everyone can agree on is that Gunung Padang is a very special place that is deserving of more study.  

As it currently stands, Gunung Padang is pretty much still a giant mystery. We don’t know who built it, when don’t know when it was built, and we really don’t even know how big it truly is. 

Hopefully, more funding and attention will be spent at the site over several decades to help answer many of the outstanding questions which surround Gunung Padang.