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[JAKARTA] A government-led study in Indonesia has stirred controversy, following its claims that the pyramid-like formations on Mount Padang in West Java, Indonesia, are actually ancient manmade structures that could hold the key to designing buildings capable of withstanding devastating earthquakes.

"According to the results of our carbon tests, the ancient buildings on Mount Padang in West Java are at least 10,000 years old," Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, a seismologist from the Indonesian Institute of Science and head of the geology research team in the President's Special Staff for Social Affairs and Disaster, told SciDev.Net.

This would make the structures older than the 3,800-year-old pyramids of Giza, in Egypt, and indicate that civilisation in Indonesia began much earlier than previously assumed, said Natawidjaja.

He added that as the structures are near the Cimandiri fault line and often experience earthquakes, they must have withstood many such events, including the devastating earthquakes that occur every one or two centuries in the region.

Natawidjaja believes the key to the structures' stability probably lies in the large cavities — recently revealed by ground-penetrating radar — within them. The largest cavity is estimated to be up to ten metres in diameter. The researchers are exploring how interconnections between the structures, the design of their foundations and the rock types have enabled them to withstand shaking.

But these conclusions have been contested by Rovicky Dwi Putrohari, chairman of the Indonesian Association of Geologists, who says that the so-called 'pyramid' is not manmade but a result of natural processes.

He told SciDev.Net that the shape of the rock beam at the top of the mountain is the result of a geological process known as columnar jointing, where the lava emerging from past volcanoes solidifies, then cools, ruptures and becomes rock in the form of long blocks.

Michael Welland, a consultant geologist based in London, has also expressed scepticism about the claims, pointing out that the area is dotted by chains of volcanoes, and that even if the structures have survived earthquakes, they are unlikely to be able to withstand hot lava.

"The idea that research into earthquakes from historic records can shed light on managing the future and saving lives is well-founded and based on good science," said Welland. "But to fritter away time, money and expertise that should be devoted to it on chasing pyramid dreams is inexcusable."

Natawidjaja, however, remains convinced that his team has made a significant discovery.