Gunung Padang Megalithic Site, Indonesia
On the Indonesian island of Java, about 120 kilometres away from Jakarta, the answer to a huge mystery is buried in a mountain. Potentially, it could force humanity to rethink our entire history. Is there proof here of an ancient civilisation – one advanced enough to create the greatest ancient wonder of the world, but so old that any record of it was lost thousands of years before the Egyptians even thought about building their first pyramid?
The mystery intrigues me and so I hire a driver and set out early one morning to head to this site myself. It’s called Gunung Padang and is far off the tourist trail. From Jakarta, it takes about four hours in a car to get there. Although the distance isn’t so great, the roads get clogged with traffic as we pass through small towns and we’re forced to slow down as we wind through uneven volcanic terrain. The last hour is on an unsurfaced rocky path.
It’s hard to imagine what Gunung Padang looks like without seeing it for yourself. Let me try to explain, though. To understand the potential significance – the reason it’s now a focal point for archaeologists – you need to look at it as two parts. The first is what you can see on the surface. The other is the mountain itself… I’ll come to why that’s so important very shortly.
It takes about 20 minutes to hike up to the top of Gunung Padang from the carpark, where there’s a small collection of shops. Stairs made out of rocks make the ascent easier and I pass a few Indonesian visitors on their way down. I see no other foreigners for the whole time I’m here.
At the top, the building blocks of an ancient construction lie scattered across the grass. They are shaped like long rectangular bricks, maybe about two metres in length on average, and they are heavy. These are not manmade like bricks, though. Each piece is solid rock and was forged by a volcano in a time long ago. Man simply transported and arranged them to create whatever once stood here on this peak.
Technically, there are five levels of terraces here at the top of the mountain – but they are divided into two main areas. The first, where I’ve just arrived, has a meditative quality to it. It’s relatively quiet aside from a slight rustling of leaves coming from the trees. (They also provide some welcome shade in this tropical humidity.)
An Indonesian man who is doing some volunteer work here at the site sits down next to me and starts to chat. He tells me that the rocks give off energy. It’s all to do with a special magnetism, he tries to explain. I don’t quite understand but I try to sense whether there is some power coming from them. I’m certainly impressed when he leads me over to two special long rocks and shows me how they make musical sounds when you hit them in the right place.
The second part of Gunung Padang is much larger and is made up of several shallow terraces, each built slightly higher than the other. It’s probably fair to assume that if this was a religious site, the levels represent ascending authority. The rocks here, just like below, are strewn around relatively haphazardly but it’s possible to guess where they may have been used as columns or laid horizontally to construct buildings and altars.
There’s a lot of activity here, the quiet reflective atmosphere of the lower section replaced by groups of workers. It’s on the upper terraces that the intense research into the story of Gunung Padang is taking place. And the quest to find the truth is anything but peaceful, with a furious differing of views and a complicated mix of politics, money and national pride at stake.
At the heart of it is a theory about what is below the surface. Some archaeologists believe that the mountain itself was built by humans. They say that it was an enormous tomb, constructed with volcanic rocks over centuries by many generations. They claim they have evidence from tests that humans may have built it up to 20,000 years ago. If correct, this would obviously make it more than 10,000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids. It would be one of the most incredible historical discoveries of our time.
With such a potentially world-changing archaeological site on Indonesian soil, the national government has thrown an enormous amount of support behind the research effort over recent years. Most of the workers here at Gunung Padang today are, in fact, members of the Indonesian military who have been called up for a different kind of duty. They are doing the hard labour under supervision from scientific experts. There is also reportedly an unlimited amount of funding coming from the government and a special helipad has been built on the top of the mountain for presidential visits. (It is worth noting, though, that this support came from the previous Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his term expired last October. It’s not clear how his successor, Joko Widodo, feels about the project.)
However, despite the insistence of certain experts and the hopes of the Indonesian government, there are a large number of academics who think it’s simply impossible that Gunung Padang was built 20,000 years ago. Firstly, they say the evidence isn’t good enough and there are alternative reasons for why some of the tests have come up with such old dates. But, also, they think it is just illogical to believe that a civilisation could build such an enormous structure but leave no other signs of their existence. One expert, I read, makes the good point that there’s evidence people just 40 kilometres away were using tools made of bone during that period. That seems odd if there was a large advance civilisation just around the corner.
I get talking to one of the archaeologists with good English. He’s busy measuring and photographing some items in a pit that the Indonesian army guys have just dug. He seems unconcerned by the controversy around the age of the mountain and is focused on his small task at hand.
He points to a cluster of rocks arranged in a square shape at the top of one of the terraces. They look like they could be little walls. Maybe that was used as an altar, I suggest. Maybe, he replies. He doesn’t know either.
When I ask about the age of the site, he suggests that maybe it was created about 1200BC. It’s important to remember that, regardless of the truth, this is still a significant monument and a sign of an ancient people who were active in architecture and construction in a way that was ahead of the rest of the archipelago. It is undeniably the largest megalithic structure in South East Asia.
Although he knows a lot about the site, this researcher – like all the others – is no better placed than me to say exactly how this site might once have looked and who built it. The clues are here somewhere, though.