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Study on ‘World’s Oldest Pyramid’ Is Retracted by Publisher

ScienceStudy on ‘World’s Oldest Pyramid’ Is Retracted by Publisher


The American publisher of a study that challenged scientific orthodoxy by claiming that an archaeological site in Indonesia may be the world’s “oldest pyramid” says it has been retracted.

The October 2023 study in the journal Archaeological Prospection made the explosive claim that the deepest layer of the site, Gunung Padang, appears to have been “sculpted” by humans up to 27,000 years ago.

The study’s critics say that it incorrectly dated the human presence at Gunung Padang based on radiocarbon measurements of soil from drilling samples, not artifacts. The journal’s American publisher, Wiley, cited that exact reasoning in the retraction notice it issued on Monday.

Gunung Padang is widely considered a dormant volcano, and archaeologists say that ceramics recovered there so far suggest that humans have been using it for several hundred years or more — not anything close to 27,000 years. The pyramids of Giza in Egypt are only about 4,500 years old.

The retraction, based on a monthslong investigation, said that the study was flawed because its soil samples “were not associated with any artifacts or features that could be reliably interpreted as anthropogenic or ‘man-made.’”

Some archaeologists said in interviews that they welcomed the retraction. But the study’s authors called it “unjust,” saying in a statement on Wednesday that their soil samples had been “unequivocally established as man-made constructions or archaeological features,” in part because the soil layers included artifacts.

“We urge the academic community, scientific organizations, and concerned individuals to stand with us in challenging this decision and upholding the principles of integrity, transparency, and fairness in scientific research and publishing,” the authors wrote.

The study’s lead author, Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, an earthquake geologist, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did Wiley or the editors of Archaeological Prospection, Eileen Ernenwein and Gregory Tsokas.

One prominent supporter of Mr. Natawidjaja’s research, the journalist Graham Hancock, said in a statement he did not see the retraction as “fair, justified or good science.” He said that instead of issuing a retraction, the journal should have published critiques of the paper, a move he said would have allowed readers to make up their own minds.

“Science should not be about suppression,” said Mr. Hancock, who interviewed Mr. Natawidjaja for an episode about Gunung Padang on “Ancient Apocalypse,” his 2022 Netflix documentary series.

The Society for American Archaeology has said that Mr. Hancock’s Netflix show “devalues the archaeological profession on the basis of false claims and disinformation.” He has vigorously rejected that argument, arguing that archaeologists should be more open to theories that challenge academic orthodoxy. Netflix did not respond to a request for comment on the retraction.

People from Indonesia have long traveled to Gunung Padang, a hilltop site dotted with stone terraces, to hold Islamic and Hindu rituals. A domestic narrative portraying it as a very, very old pyramid had support, and financing, from the central government during the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who left office in 2014. His successor, President Joko Widodo, cut off the funding.

Archaeologists said in interviews on Wednesday that they welcomed the retraction.

One of them, Noel Hidalgo Tan, an archaeologist in Bangkok who had relayed his concerns about the study to Wiley, said that he considered the retraction “entirely appropriate” because the study’s evidence did not support its conclusions.

“It was unfortunate that the paper had to get to this stage,” said Dr. Tan, who works at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Archaeology and Fine Arts. “But it was better to be retracted than to have nothing said about it at all.”

Dwi Ratna Nurhajarini, the head of the Cultural Heritage Conservation Office in West Java Province, the location of the site, said the study’s conclusions should be re-examined in light of the retraction.

“The structures at Gunung Padang are indeed layered and terraced, reminiscent of civilizations from Indonesia’s distant past,” she said by phone on Wednesday. “But their age might not be as old as suggested.”

Rin Hindryati contributed reporting.



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