Apr 09 2012
According to a BBC article by reporter Tom Housden, scientists have discovered the ruins of an ancient city off the coast of India in the Gulf of Cambay. Artifacts from the city have been carbon dated to about 9,500 years ago. According to the article:
The remains of what has been described as a huge lost city may force historians and archaeologists to radically reconsider their view of ancient human history.
To put the significance of such a find in perspective, the oldest human cities are about 7,000 years old, and the oldest Indian city is Harrappa, about 4,600 years old. If the Cambay ruins are genuine, then that would predate the oldest known human city by more than two thousand years and the oldest Indian city by 5,000 years. The implications of this, if true, would indeed be huge. The BBC article offers this quote:
“There’s a huge chronological problem in this discovery. It means that the whole model of the origins of civilization with which archaeologists have been working will have to be remade from scratch,” he said.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the entire story to begin to unravel, once a critical eye it turned toward the claims. I always like to consider the plausibility of such claims. In this case, finding a city older than any previously known city is not entirely implausible. It’s possible that a culture in one location developed a city which did not survive and was forgotten to history. The oldest example of anything is always only as old as the oldest example discovered, and so scientists are frequently pushing back the date of the “oldest” something as new discoveries are made.
I disagree with the quotation above – this would not cause archaeologists to rewrite ancient human history from scratch. Like most scientific discoveries made in a discipline that is already fairly well developed, new discovery tend to deepen knowledge or provide further context, but rarely overturn well-established facts. This would be an interesting new piece to the puzzle of ancient human history, but could be little more than a side note as far as other ancient civilizations are concerned.
However, the new find does stretch plausibility, as it seems unlikely that there would have been a civilization capable of building a massive city 5,000 years earlier than evidence suggests for that part of the world. It seems incongruous with existing evidence, and that is reason for skepticism (not a-priori rejection, but certainly a high level of scientific skepticism).
Regarding the story itself, I noted that it was published by the BBC in 2002 – a decade ago. That led to the question – well, why haven’t I heard of this before? I am a pretty avid reader of science news, and sure some things can slip beneath my notice, but this would be a huge science news story and I would be very likely to have seen it. Where is all the follow up research? Where is the Nova or National Geographic special? There seems to be a disconnect between the magnitude of this science story and the coverage it is getting – that is, if it were real.
So let’s take a closer look at that BBC article. The sensationalism in the article does not bode well, but that could simply be the result of bad reporting rather than a dubious story. One basic question to ask about any science news item is – who are the scientists involved. Hmmm… the article does not mention them by name. That is odd – I read many science news stories, and the names of the scientists and their institutions are almost always prominent – partly because the information likely came from a press release promoting the institution’s research. The scientists are described variously as “marine scientists,” “marine archaeologists,” and “oceanographers.” Again, that could be just bad reporting, but it all seems rather vague to me, and makes me really curious as to who these “marine scientists” are.
One expert named in the article is Graham Hancock, who is a known pseudoarchaeologist with many fanciful notions about ancient civilizations. Hancock is the promoter of the “Orion correlation hypothesis” – that the pyramids of Gyza are arranged in the pattern of stars in Orion’s belt. He is also author of the “non-fiction” book, Supernatural: Meetings With the Ancient Teachers of Mankind. The fact that he has his hand anywhere near this discovery is enough to cast significant doubt upon the finds. (Hancock, by the way, is the source of the above sensational quote.) Are there any legitimate scientists involved with this discovery at all?
The BBC articles quotes one real archaeologist:
However, archaeologist Justin Morris from the British Museum said more work would need to be undertaken before the site could be categorically said to belong to a 9,000 year old civilization.
While it may seem like good reporting to include a dissenting opinion from an expert, this kind of reporting is actually counterproductive. Naming a prestigious institution, even in expressing skepticism, lends credibility to the whole story. The comments from Morris sound generic and vague, as if he was asked over the phone about the find and gave general comments, without have the opportunity to examine the claims in detail. The quote above also makes it sound like there is some real evidence, but of course we need to verify that evidence – as if this is all just part of the normal scientific process. This is the opposite of “damning with faint praise.” Morris is “promoting with faint criticism.”
I suspect he just wasn’t familiar enough with the specifics of the Cambay sunken city claims, or perhaps he was and this is simply how we was selectively quoted by the reporter. That is very likely – reporters often conduct interviews with experts not to find out what the story is, because they have already written it. Rather they are just mining for quotes they can plug into the story – “insert generic skepticism from expert here.” Given the overall terrible reporting on this story, this latter scenario seems very likely.
What about the carbon dating? First, where are the artifacts? Who has examined them, and who conducted the carbon dating? The mention of carbon dating also always raises a red flag for me. That is the dating method most in the public consciousness, and so it gets mentioned very often in dubious article or articles about dubious research. Other less-well-known dating methods usually crop up in legitimate articles. Carbon dating is used and will often be mentioned legitimately, but its mention does always prompt the question – is this a legitimate use of carbon dating. In this case the article mentions pottery and beads (also not verified), which cannot be carbon dated. Further the fact that the city is under the ocean makes it very unlikely that organic matter would have survived for thousands of years. It is very unlikely that such a find would contain anything that could be carbon dated.
Reports mention that the carbon dating was conducted on pieces of wood, but the source of the wood is questionable. Apparently in historic times that part of the gulf was covered with forest.
Finally, I like to go to official sources to see what the experts have to say about such things. I would think such a find would have many articles 10 years later in the published literature, or at least discussion on official archaeology cites. The only reference I could find, however, was on Bad Archaeology. Not surprisingly the author, Scott de Brestianat, trashed the claims and made many of the same points I did. Other articles simply mention that the archaeological community has disputed every aspect of the claims made for a sunken city.
It seems that the claim of a sunken city in the Gulf of Cambay is just another pseudoarchaeological claim made by dubious researchers and wholly rejected by the legitimate archaeological community. The BBC article is an excellent example of terrible science reporting, but unfortunately has lent credibility to the story in the eyes of the public.
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