Journey to Gunung Padang

The Case for a Lost Ice-Age Civilization in Indonesia

Twenty thousand years ago, during the depth of the last ice age when sea levels were as much as 130 meters lower than the present, the current Java Sea was not a sea at all, but fertile land. Here lay plains and forests bounded by the mountains of Java to the south and the mountains of Borneo to the north, and through this land a major river system ran from west to east. With the rise of sea levels at the end of the last ice age, the land was overtaken by ocean water.

Was Atlantis located here? Was it part of the very ancient heritage of the Nusantara civilization? (Nusantara—archipelago—refers to the Indonesian identity.) Indonesian geologist Dr. Danny Hilman Natawidjaja (Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology) in his book Plato Never Lied: Atlantis is in Indonesia (Jakarta: Booknesia, 2013) makes just such a claim.

This now inundated area was the southern portion of the ancient subcontinent known to geologists as Sundaland. It may have been rather paradisiacal, as described by: “The scientific facts on the natural conditions of Sundaland in the glacial age give [a] vivid description, illustrating a very beautiful nature with a convenient climate and its extraordinary natural supports . . . the low lands in Sundaland which now have been inundated, turning into the Java and Karimata sea, were picturesque lands flowed [fed] by rivers as big as the Nile with the temperature of only 25 to 20 centigrade [77 to 68 Fahrenheit], surrounded by the mountain ranges with active volcanoes. Furthermore, the research on fossils and the DNA mitochondrial mapping reveals that the colonization of modern human[s] in Nusantara and most parts of the world had begun since [by] 60,000-50,000 years ago.” (Plato Never Lied, pp. 123-124).

What about the ancient people who inhabited this land? Who were they, and what happened to them as their territories sank beneath the waves? Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer (Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, 1998) has argued, based on a variety of geological, archaeological, genetic, linguistic, and other data, that populations spread out from Sundaland as the area was inundated at the end of the last ice age. Dr. Hilman Natawidjaja and the group of scientists he is working with may have identified genuine physical structures created by the Sundaland people: A megalithic site on Java, known as Gunung Padang, dating back to the late ice age, 12,000 and more years ago!

I had heard about Gunung Padang and read a few brief articles describing the site, some of which dismissed it as either a natural feature misinterpreted as human-made, or accepted that it was an artificial construct but estimated its age at no more than a few centuries to a few millennia. Unexpectedly in early November 2013, I received an email from Dr. Hilman Natawidjaja. Having read my book Forgotten Civilization (2012), he knew of my work developing evidence that pushes back the origins of civilization to a time before the end of the last ice age (that is, before circa 9700 BCE). Dr. Hilman Natawidjaja invited me to participate in a professional fieldtrip to Gunung Padang, followed by a conference devoted largely to discussing the site. On 3 December 2013 my wife Katie (Catherine Ulissey) and I left for Jakarta. We toured Gunung Padang on 5 December and the next day I spoke at the International Cultural Conference and Festival, GotraSawala 2013 (held at the Savoy Homann Bidakara Hotel, Bandung, West Java).

Gunung Padang, which can be translated rather literally as Mount Padang, or Mount “Meadow/Field,” is also said to connote in Sundanese “Mountain of Light” or “Mountain of Enlightenment.” Today many local people consider it a sacred area, a tradition that may stretch back to antiquity. The site is located in Cianjur Regency, West Java province, about 65 kilometers [40 miles] west of Bandung and about 80 kilometers [50 miles] south of Jakarta (6° 57’ S; 107° 1’ E) on the top of Mt. Padang at a height of approximately 885 meters [2,903 feet] above sea level (the top of the site is about 110 meters [361 feet] above the modern road and parking lot at the base). Java is a land of earthquakes and active as well as dormant volcanoes; Gunung Padang fits into the latter category. The mountain is composed of igneous andesite lava rocks, which formed some millions to tens of millions of years ago. As the lava cooled, it created structures known as columnar joints, and this is the key to understanding Gunung Padang.

Columnar jointing forms as lava cools, contracts; and cracks propagate through the rock. This results in columns, which are tightly packed together and generally roughly hexagonal in cross-section (quadrilaterals, pentagons, heptagons, and octagons are also found). A key point is that these natural columns form vertically, and that is how they remain if not rearranged by humans or tilted en masse by geological processes. In some well-documented cases, such as Nan Madol on the island of Pohnpei, Micronesia, similar natural rock columns were used to build stone structures, rather like building a log cabin, but in this case the “logs” are stone. At Gunung Padang I observed the same building techniques. Rock columns had been carefully separated from each other and used to build a structure that overall appears to be a rough step pyramid, referred to in Indonesian as a “punden berundak” building. Very telling, and in my opinion, definitively demonstrating that this is genuinely a human-made structure, is that many of the rock columns are arranged horizontally as walls and also apparently as roofs over chambers that have been detected inside the structure. In my short reconnaissance of the site, I did not find any rock columns in their original natural positions. Where did the stone columns come from? Were they transported to the site to build the structure? I suspect not. Rather, the rock columns found at Gunung Padang may have originated from this site. The natural lava columns may have been disassembled on the spot and then reassembled to build the punden berundak.

Presently the structure on Gunung Padang consists of five distinct levels, or terraces. Via a modern path, first constructed in the 1980s, one climbs a series of stairs on the northern face of the mountain to reach the structures. The five terraces together cover an area about 150 meters [492 feet] long by 40 meters [131 feet] wide and the long axis of the terraces is oriented approximately N 17° W, pointing north in the direction of Gunung (Mount) Gede, a mountain 30 kilometers [18.6 miles] away that many local people consider a sacred spot.

Since 2011 Dr. Hilman Natawidjaja and his colleagues have carried out noninvasive geophysical studies (ground penetrating radar, electrical resistivity, and low energy seismic analyses) and core drilling (boreholes) at Gunung Padang. Using these combined techniques, below the surface the group has identified various layers of rock and sediment that may represent distinct human building phases and various natural and man-made surface topographies.

Within Gunung Padang cavities, chambers, or voids, have been identified using the geophysical techniques. These may be natural lava tubes in the volcanic rock, but they may also have been modified and used by ancient humans (on Easter Island I have observed natural lava tubes which were artificially modified and used). A major chamber appears to lie about 20 to 30 meters [66 to 98 feet] under the top of the mountain; as seen in the geophysical cross-sections, it has a length of roughly 15 meters [49 feet] and a height of roughly 10 meters [33 feet]. It may be flanked by smaller cavities. There is evidence of an entrance to the cavity or chamber from one of the deeper layers (labeled Layer 3 by Dr. Hilman Natawidjaja and his group), which was subsequently covered over or buried by later layers, and also evidence of collapsed constructions within this deeper layer.

What are the ages of the various layers, and thus the dating of the structures and human activity, at Gunung Padang? Dr. Hilman Natawidjaja and his group have collected a number of samples taken from the boreholes and preliminary archaeological excavations, which they have used to obtain radiocarbon dates. Dates from the site range from about 1000 to 500 BCE in shallow archaeological excavations, to dates going back to the range of 20,000 BCE in the boreholes at depths below about 11.2 meters [36.7 feet] —the latter dates placing Gunung Padang well into the last ice age. Some particularly relevant evidence, in my opinion, includes a date of 7820 to 7600 BCE obtained in a borehole at a depth of 3.9 meters [12.8 feet], a date of circa 11,600 BCE obtained at a depth of 8 to 10 meters [26 to 33 feet], a date of 14,840 to 14,690 BCE at a depth of 11.15 meters [36.6 feet], and a date of 21,630 BCE at a depth of 11.3 meters [37.1 feet].

How so we interpret these dates? The first important observation is that they indicate that the site of Gunung Padang goes back to before the end of the last ice age, circa 9700 BCE. Based on the evidence, I believe that human use of the site began by circa 14,700 BCE. Possibly the earliest use of the site goes back to circa 22,000 BCE or even earlier—we just do not know.

In my assessment, Layer 3 (some 4 to 10 meters [13.1 to 32.8 feet] or so below the surface) includes the period of the very end of the last ice age, circa 10,000 to 9500 BCE, when major climatic changes took place, with dramatic global warming, rising sea levels, torrential rains, increased earthquake and volcanic activity, widespread wildfires, penetrating radiation due to solar outbursts, and other catastrophes occurring across the surface of Earth. I believe these changes were initiated by solar activity; and in particular at the end of the last ice age, our Sun went through a period of major, but sporadic, solar outbursts that would have affected the entire globe. The best place to seek refuge would have been in caves and underground shelters, and Layer 3 at Gunung Padang appears to correspond to the use (as evidenced by an entrance) of the chamber found within the mountain. Remember, too, that there is evidence of collapsed structures in Layer 3, possibly the result of the tumultuous conditions at that time.

Visiting Gunung Padang, pondering the dates and evidence of collapse and rebuilding that may have occurred here, I could not help but think about another major site—representing very ancient civilization—that spans the end of the last ice age, namely Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. I have made the case that the circle of megalithic stones at Göbekli Tepe known as Enclosure D dates back to at least circa 10,000 BCE (see Forgotten Civilization). Dr. Klaus Schmidt, the lead archaeologist at Göbekli Tepe, has stated he believes portions of Göbekli Tepe, as yet not fully excavated, may date back 14,000 years—that is, to circa 12,000 BCE, some two thousand years before the end of the last ice age (comment by Schmidt as relayed by Graham Hancock in a posting on Facebook, 10 September 2013). At Göbekli Tepe there is evidence of fallen and broken pillars that were re-erected, hastily built walls between the pillars that may have served as protective shelters, and Dr. Schmidt has reported that there is a cave associated with Göbekli Tepe (Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe: A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia. Şanlıurfa,Turkey: ArchaeNova, 2012, p. 103.), which was entered and apparently used by the ancient inhabitants of the site. This activity at Göbekli Tepe was occurring at the same time, as best we can determine, as the possible use of the cave or chamber at Gunung Padang. The evidence of catastrophe at Göbekli Tepe (collapsed pillars and crude reinforcement walls) appears to correlate with the collapsed structures of Layer 3 at Gunung Padang. I also think of Egypt and my own work on re-dating the Great Sphinx. The extreme weathering and erosion seen on the proto-Sphinx (the head was re-carved and the monument reused during dynastic times), caused by torrential rains, could have been a result of the extreme climatic changes at the end of the last ice age. Furthermore, there is a chamber in the bedrock under the Sphinx.

Putting together the evidence of Gunung Padang with that derived from Göbekli Tepe, the Sphinx of Egypt, and other sites and lines of data from around the world, I believe we are coming closer to understanding the cataclysmic times and events at the end of the last ice age. Genuine civilizations of a sophisticated nature existed prior to circa 9700 BCE, which were devastated by the events that brought the last ice age to a close (in my opinion, caused ultimately by major solar outbursts orders of magnitude more powerful than anything seen in the last few thousand years).

In modern times Gunung Padang was rediscovered and recorded in a 1914 report on the antiquities of the area. But it was effectively forgotten again until 1979 when local farmers once more rediscovered the punden berundak on Mount Padang. Since 1979, Gunung Padang has become a modern pilgrimage area and tourist site. Some consider it a sacred area and use it for ritualistic purposes; accompanied by a “juru kunci” (caretaker or “key master”), the devotees first purify themselves at a natural spring found at the base of the stairs before making the holy ascent to the mountaintop. At the top of the site, I watched as visitors rapped or pounded with their knuckles and fists on an andesite column that lay on the surface. I had to try it myself—the column rang like a bell. Similar “musical rocks” are found at other ancient sites, such as a famous partial obelisk at Karnak in Egypt which more than a few tourists have hit with their fists to make it sing.

Gunung Padang is fast being regarded as part of the very ancient heritage of the Nusantara civilization, a source of nationalistic pride. Various local authorities and members of the public are actively promoting the site. A banner placed across the road welcomed us to Gunung Padang, and upon our arrival, we were met by local dignitaries who were eager to have us visit. Dr. Hilman Natawidjaja and his group hope to continue researching Gunung Padang, including carrying out detailed archaeological excavations at the site. But not everyone agrees or approves. On my way to Gunung Padang, I saw a large banner posted by the side of the road reading “Stop …!!! Penelitian Gunung Padang” (“Stop Research on Gunung Padang”). Some believe that the site should be left undisturbed, either out of respect for the past or because they simply do not want to face new knowledge that might upset their current worldview—for the implications of advanced civilization in Indonesia before the end of the last ice age force us to rethink what we believe we know about the origins of civilization. Gunung Padang is further evidence that the standard story concerning the rise and trajectory of sophisticated culture needs to be rewritten.

Robert M. Schoch, a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. His most recent book is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (Inner Traditions, 2012). Website: RobertSchoch.com.

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.