Indonesian Geologist says region is perfect match for Plato’s Atlantis (or…. what a science writer could’a asked)

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Needle in a haystack: A field worker sifts through what is left of an ancient structure at the Gunung Padang megalithic site

A little google news search routine that triggers on the word "geologist" and alerts me by email doesn't often pay off, but it came up this morning with a tremendous diversion. It also provides an intriguing lead that surely could take somebody to an interesting and larger feature.

  • Jakarta Post – Hans David TampubolonRI was home to Atlantis, says geologist ; The story comes with the above illus, whose full caption is 'Needle in a haystack: A field worker sifts through what is left of an ancient structure at the Gunung Padang megalithic site, about 60 kilometers southwest of Cianjur, West Java. The structure, which many believe was older than the Egyptian pyramids, has been used as evidence that an advanced civilization had existed in the country long before the rise of other ancient civilizations. Kompas/Andrean Kristianto.' The story itself does not cite these so-called megalithic ruins as evidence for the Atlantic idea. The story, rather, springs from an interview with the geologist-author of a new book that posits Atlantis was somewhere on the partly submerged continental platform, Sundaland or the Sunda shelf, on the southeast corner of Asia and that underlies Indonesia and Malaysia.  

   Now don't get all huffy about how an assertion from Indonesia that the ancient Greeks somehow had plenty of information on a neolithic civilization in the far corner of Asia including details of its sundering and sinking into the sea is flat out ridiculous. It is merely probably ridiculous. And don't just roll your eyes (as I did first time through this yarn) saying that that tired old myth has been given so many hypothetical sites it is worth nothing but jokes. Lots of jokes, sure. But maybe something to ponder without giggling too.

   The story certainly has elements that bear further checking – not so much to expect the Atlantis thing to get more credible, but to look for fascinating back story. One does not know how many experienced and appropriately rational plus skeptical science journalists work in Indonesia's media. Mr. Tampubolon quotes his source, who he id's as Danny Hilman, with what seems to me to be plausible accuracy. But boy the questions that go unasked!

  For instance, further checking revealss that the geologist and book writer is no crackpot wandering beyond the fringe of mainstream science. He surely is the same Danny Hilman Natawidjaja of Indonesia's Institute of Sciences who pops up with some frequency in international press after an earthquake, volcano, or tsunami smacks his tectonically-rollicking nation. Here's one a year ago from the AP's Robin McDowell, who also knew enough to quote the esteemed Kerry Sieh of Caltech (but the story puts Sieh in Singapore, where he could easily have an association too. LATE ADDITION: Indeed he does). A search also reveals that he was quoted back in 2006 in a news story in Science by Richard Stone. He has an association with the Australian National University. He is an authority on the megathrust fault that triggered the tsunami off Sumatra eight years ago. So, this guy is legit. But nothing of these bona fides made it into the Jakarta Post yarn today. Perhaps in Jakarta, to readers interested in such things as geology and Atlantis, he is a well-known figure, maybe a celebrity. But the story still should have recognized his general stature.

   So right there you'd get a better hed: Internationally respected Indonesian scientist suspects Atlantis existed – in Indonesia!

   Second, there is the illus that the Post ran with this story. That's worth exploring with a skeptical but yet open curiosity. I never heard of the Gunung Padang megalithic site. But one finds plenty of pictures of the place (just use google image or similar search). Most sites describing it are in the tourism spectacle school of credulous reporting, or out on the magical-spiritual-ancient-pyramids departments of wooh-wooh thinking. One would like to ask Danny Hilman Natawidjaja what he thinks of that place. He's a geologist. One glance at the photos of the place would tell him the field's littered with basaltic columns that look far more like a collapsed, eroded natural formation than any ancient temple complex. Match the Indonesia pics with ones of the Giant's Causeway in Ireland or  Devil's Postpile in California and you'll start feeling suspicious. Not that ancient peoples could not have rearranged the tumbled columns into structures. But a bald declaration that the place is a civilization's giant reliquary demands expert scrutiny.

   How much fun it might be to ring up Natawidjaja and spend an hour or two going over – Atlantis or no Atlantis – the plausible ways by which a city-state might once have existed there and plunged (or slowly sank, with legend-telling embroidering the details) into the sea. What does his far-flung network of colleagues have to say about his hypothesis? Is the book selling okay (geology at an Indonesian ministry may not pay all that well)? Has he personally a reason to cite Gunung Padang as a plausibility-builder for an Atlantis as well that sank into the seas somewhere near Bali and wouldn't that be romantic? And then, of course, the reporter should check with a few other archeology and geology authorities.

Late Addition: Indeed, Danny Hilman Natawidjaja is a promoter of Gunung Padang:

  • SciDev.Net (July 10, 2012) Sulung Prasetyo: Study claims west Java formations are ancient buildings ; Prasetyo, an environmental journalist, didn't just take Natawidjaja's word for it. He also interviewed the chairman of the Indonesian Association of Geologists who is decidedly skeptical, and also interviewed a Brit geologist who said "..to fritter away time, money and expertise that should be devoted to (earthquake research) on chasing pyramid dreams is inexcusable." Oh, party pooper. The late discovery of this news story puts a little damper on my idea that under the Atlantis froth there is a fine science news story here!

*UPDATE: While wondering about noted science writers who may be in Indonesia I queried an old friend, Jim Cornell, formerly of the Harvard-Smithsonian Ctr for Astrophysics, now retired in Arizona, long time honcho in the International Science Writers Association. After the above item was done and posted I received Jim's reply. It is a gentle scold for not thinking back to a US gov't sponsored environmental journalism speechifying and workshop visit to Brazil years ago, a preliminary to doing some reporting on the burning of much of the Amazon basin…

"Oh, Chas, how soon we forget.  Or maybe it is just age.  While you were hustling prizes in Brazil, close by your side was the most famous Indonesian sci-writer of them all–Mochtar Lubis.  A genius, giant, and genuine journalist-hero, having served more prison time than our combined military tours of duty, mainly for writing truth against whichever dictator was ruling the islands at the time.  His writing on science, technology, and especially the environment was a model for a generation of SE-Asian reporters. And, as I recall, he once worked for the Jakarta Post.

Alas, he is long dead–maybe 10 years or so–and I don't think anyone has replaced him.  Bruce Lewenstein spent some time with him before his death and recorded some history.  You might check with him to see if Mochtar was grooming some young blood.

As an aside, Mochtar joined the late great Howard Lewis and me as "experts" on another science-writing/science-PR junket to S. Korea circa 1997.  On an off day, we visited a "Monument to Fallen Journalists," i.e. those killed in the Korean War, one that I was too young to have been a participant in, by the way, but one in which Mochtar had actually served as a combat correspondent, as he somewhat casually told us at base of the granite shaft, as he searched for the name of a colleague.   A rather moving moment." 

  In any case, glad that the Jakarta Post gave the Atlantis speculation some coverage. Got a kick out of it.