Study claiming humans built 25,000-year-old pyramid in Indonesia removed by magazine

The journal Archaeological Prospection has retracted a controversial study claiming that people began building a ‘pyramid’ in Indonesia as early as 25,000 years ago.

In November 2023, the study received widespread media attention (including from IFLScience) for its extraordinary claim that a mountain in Indonesia is actually the world’s oldest pyramid, built by ancient people. But the response from archaeologists since its publication has been deeply skeptical of its bold conclusions.

According to the newspaper, Gunung Padang – which translates to ‘Mountain of Enlightenment’ – was not formed naturally, but was “meticulously sculpted” into its current form between 25,000 and 14,000 years ago. If this were true, it would be significantly older than the world’s oldest pyramids, with the team writing that it “suggests that advanced construction practices were already in place before agriculture may have been invented.”

Among other bold claims were that there were “hidden cavities or chambers” at the site, and that the site itself appeared to have been buried several times “possibly to conceal its true identity for conservation purposes”.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and other archaeologists were far from convinced that the team had provided this, especially given the way it would rewrite the history of human development. Lutfi Yondri, an archaeologist at BRIN in Bandung, Indonesia, told Nature that his work showed that people in the area lived in caves between 12,000 and 6,000 years ago and left no evidence of the “remarkable masonry abilities” supposedly developed by people from the region used. area thousands of years before them to build the “pyramid”.

Flint Dibble, an archaeologist at Cardiff University, UK, told Nature that the paper used “legitimate data” but drew unwarranted conclusions. For example, the team used radiocarbon dating and claimed that “dating organic soils from the structures revealed multiple construction phases dating back thousands of years BC, with the first phase dating to the Paleolithic.”

According to the team, soil samples from the parts of the mound they consider the oldest part of the “structure” date back 27,000 years. While this may be true, other archaeologists have pointed out to Nature that these soil samples showed no signs – such as bone fragments or charcoal – that indicate human activity. Essentially, without other, more convincing signs of human activity around it, it is just evidence of truly ancient ground.

It was these concerns that led to an investigation and subsequent retraction by Archaeological Prospection.

“The publisher and co-editors-in-chief have investigated these concerns and have concluded that the article contains a major error,” the magazine said in a retraction notice. “This error, which was not identified during peer review, is that the radiocarbon dating was applied to soil samples that were not associated with artifacts or features that could be reliably interpreted as anthropogenic or ‘man-made’. Therefore, the interpretation is that the site is an ancient pyramid built 9,000 years or more ago is incorrect and the article should be retracted.”

Responding to the retraction, the authors called the decision “unjust” and claimed it was “unequivocally identified as man-made structures or archaeological features, rather than natural geological formations,” in a statement on Facebook. “These layers are accompanied by numerous small portable artifacts, providing tangible evidence of their anthropogenic origins.”

A more likely explanation, until stronger evidence is provided, is that the mound is a natural formation.

“Material rolling down a hill,” as Dibble explained to nature, “on average, orients itself.”

[H/T: New York Times]

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