A Contentious Pyramid Study Is Retracted

The findings at Gunung Padang were criticized from the start
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 20, 2024 12:00 PM CDT
A Contentious Pyramid Study Is Retracted
Gunung Padang, Cianjur, West Java, Indonesia.   (Getty Images/Ade lukmanul Hakim)

A study that was published to much criticism has been retracted—a move that in and of itself is being denounced by some. The October 2023 study in Archaeological Prospection made what the New York Times calls an "explosive claim": that a site in Indonesia called Gunung Padang may be "the oldest pyramid in the world," with its deepest layer potentially having been "sculpted" by humans as many as 27,000 years ago. That's an astonishing timeline, considering the pyramids of Giza date back 4,500 years.

Indeed, Discover previously summed up the implications like so: "If the findings are true, Gunung Padang shows that Ice Age humans possessed advanced technology, unlike anything we could have imagined ... this is when humans were only capable of building small, temporary shelters out of wood, bone, and animal hides—not megalithic stone structures or stepped pyramids." Critics found fault in the study's methods, saying the findings weren't based on physical evidence of humans, such as artifacts or bone fragments. Rather, the authors relied on radiocarbon measurements of soil from drilling samples. The Monday retraction emphasizes that point, reading in part:

  • "The publisher and the Co-Editors-in-Chief have investigated these concerns and have concluded that the article contains a major error. This error, which was not identified during peer review, is that the radiocarbon dating was applied to soil samples that were not associated with any artifacts or features that could be reliably interpreted as anthropogenic or 'man-made.' Therefore, the interpretation that the site is an ancient pyramid built 9000 or more years ago is incorrect, and the article must be retracted."
At the time of the paper's publication, one critic, archaeologist Flint Dibble of Cardiff University, made this argument to the Guardian:
  • If you went to the Palace of Westminster and dropped a core seven meters into the ground and pulled up a soil sample you might date it as being 40,000 years old. But that does not mean the Palace of Westminster was built 40,000 years ago by ancient humans. It just means there's carbon down there that's 40,000 years old. It is extraordinary that this paper has been published."

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In a statement, the authors call the retraction "unwarranted," writing in part that "the soil samples extracted from the rock-construction layers, identified as Units 1, 2, and 3, have been unequivocally established as man-made constructions ... These layers are accompanied by numerous small portable artifacts, providing tangible evidence of their anthropogenic origin. Moreover, our interpretation does not simply propose the existence of an ancient pyramid ... but rather suggests the presence of a complex structure comprising three construction-rock layers erected in distinct phases: 1,000–2,000 BCE (Unit 1), 5,500–6,000 BCE (Unit 2), and 14,000–25,000 BCE (Unit 3)."

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