Apr 09 2012

The Sunken City of Cambay

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.

Conclusion:

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.

 

Share

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “The Sunken City of Cambay”

  1. Jim Shaveron 09 Apr 2012 at 10:24 am

    Nice one, Dr. Novella. One typo you might want to correct: “… the oldest human cities are about 7,00 years old.”

    So the story is just one more example of cookie-cutter, sensationalistic, terrible popular science reporting. When I first started reading your post, I was expecting to find out that the original article was an April Fools joke. The BBC has done some great ones in the past. Sigh.

  2. Judy1on 09 Apr 2012 at 2:10 pm

    That we have greater insights into what might greet us when we finally step foot on one of Jupiter’s satellites than we do of some of the topography in the deepest oceans here on Earth, is rather ironic.

    For arguments sake – if one were to stand on Delray beach in Florida (with telescope in hand) and look out over the shallow Cays of the Bahamas; the sea level today would be a whole 300ft higher than it was prior to the great melt of the last ice age. Then again, if we were to stand on the same beach and envisage what the Bahamas would’ve looked like drained of 300ft of sea level … well, go figure.

    Dr Novella – I understand that it would be preferable if every new piece of scientific data or discovery went before a learned clique of a peer-reviewed scientific experts than say someone like me, but sometimes the motivation for not releasing data immediately (as in the case of this discovery made in 2002) has more to do with political expediency than something more noble.

    I know you don’t take this view, but many people still believe that with any new science based discovery; data meant for the purview of a scientific elite to scrutinize will always get to the scientific elite it’s meant for, and, but for national security reasons is never diverted or censored.

    This is laughable.

    Unfortunately, when delving into the subject of sunken cities – shall we say; those found and those yet to be found, it’s the political elite who hold sway. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but in cases such as these, notions of scientific discovery and mankinds search for truth will always come a poor second to statecraft.

    For instance; the Koran makes no mention of the Gulf of Cambay (or Atlantis come to that) having ever existed. So to have immediately released such data back in 2002 might have been seen politically as a challenge to the infallibility of at least one dearly held sacred text.

    The fact that there are 1.5 billion worshippers who believe that the Koran is the infallible word of God would on its own be a good reason for not immediately releasing news of a sunken city.

    Maybe the reason for the Cambay disclosure now is that the political establishment feel that the waters in 2012 are less choppy?

  3. locutusbrgon 09 Apr 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Judy1
    Is this Dr. Novella playing name that logical fallacy with us?

    “I know you don’t take this view, but many people still believe that with any new science based discovery; data meant for the purview of a scientific elite to scrutinize will always get to the scientific elite it’s meant for, and, but for national security reasons is never diverted or censored.
    This is laughable.
    Unfortunately, when delving into the subject of sunken cities – shall we say; those found and those yet to be found, it’s the political elite who hold sway. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but in cases such as these, notions of scientific discovery and mankinds search for truth will always come a poor second to statecraft.
    For instance; the Koran makes no mention of the Gulf of Cambay (or Atlantis come to that) having ever existed. So to have immediately released such data back in 2002 might have been seen politically as a challenge to the infallibility of at least one dearly held sacred text.
    The fact that there are 1.5 billion worshippers who believe that the Koran is the infallible word of God would on its own be a good reason for not immediately releasing news of a sunken city.
    Maybe the reason for the Cambay disclosure now is that the political establishment feel that the waters in 2012 are less choppy?”
    Couple of Questions…
    So the lack of evidence is convincing evidence because of the cover up.? I guess Steve will have to give up his position in the Monsanto corporation. You have figured him out. I am surprised that you posted this on a public blog. I mean if “they” can suppress this find, your better hide yourself better. The NSA,CIA, Freemasons, reptiods, will be on your back in no time.
    If experts got to review new discoveries how could we possibly learn anything? Anthropologists all over the world are locked in small rooms and brain washed by the political elite so the we don’t make Muslims angry. Aren’t these the same guys stacking Muslims up in their underwear and letting those photo on the internet, right? Maybe Idaho is why they are pissed at Americans I mean that is not in the Koran? Hope you don’t take this personally but Really?

    I got, strawman, argument from popularity, maybe slippery slope?
    Anyone else

    To the political elite I will expect my cut in the mail ASAP.

  4. Judy1on 09 Apr 2012 at 3:36 pm

    locutusbrg – Next time please read what was written.

    For a start I said (Dr Novella) “I know you don’t take this view, but …”

    You have completely missed the point of what I said. I believe that we should be sensitive to worldwide held religious beliefs prior to any release of data which may challenge those beliefs.

    Therefore, I don’t blame the political elite for controlling what is deemed right to release now and what in 2002 was not deemed right to release.

    All I am suggesting is that the scientific imperative to always have ‘first peek’ at whatever is unearthed on the global stage will always come a poor second to the wishes of our political masters who in actual fact will get that ‘first peek.’

  5. robmon 09 Apr 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Judy, would you care to elaborate on how the supposed sunken city would be raise issues with the Koran? Especially when a 12,000 year old hobbit was discovered in muslim country the next year and not covered up. Or Çatalhöyük a settlement in Turkey with a population of 10,000 that existed from 7500-5700 BCE didn’t ruffle the elite’s feathers enough to warrant censorship. Any thoughts on what makes this a cover up as opposed to amateur archaeologist making grand pronouncements about their pet theories from little evidence.

  6. Judy1on 09 Apr 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Me thinks a witch hunt is coming my way.

    I am an atheist, so religiously speaking I don’t have any axes to grind.

    But I will say that I highly respect Islam, the Jewish faith the Christian faith the Gnostics, Heathens, Satanists (need I go on) world view.

    That is why I believe that all people of faith and of no faith should if possible be presented with new evidence when it occurs, not 10 years later after some star chamber has decreed that the little people of the world are now ready to receive ‘their’ new evidence.

    10 years out of date!

  7. Khodokon 09 Apr 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Judy1, you misunderstand. There has not been some conspiracy of archaeologists and political elites to suppress this story until now. The newspaper article is 10 years old, not the discovery. The story is simply going through a cyclical resurgence on the internet, as these sorts of stories tend to do. I don’t think the International Archaeological Conspiracy™ has had anything to do with this site at any stage. It’s too busy suppressing *real* forbidden knowledge ;) . Cambay is unqualified amateurs all the way.

    As for your idea of having some sort of religious committee to vet historical or scientific findings before they get published, absolutely not. Certainly, it is always wise to involve interested parties in archaeological research (e.g. Native Americans on Native American sites), and that is a complex issue. But religious carte blanche to censor research? No thanks.

    —————
    More generally, there was a Graham Hancock documentary on Cambay and other such “sites”–”Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age”…but I somehow doubt it was shown on Nova. History Channel maybe. It’s available on Youtube should anyone chose to watch it.

    All the evidence I am aware of for a submerged city at Cambay is on Graham Hancock’s website. (http://www.grahamhancock.com/forum/BadrinaryanB1.php?p=1). The analysis of the side-scanning sonar images would make Richard Hoagland stand up and cheer.

  8. Kawarthajonon 09 Apr 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Steve,

    I thought that the oldest cities were about 9500 yrs old (i.e. Çatalhöyük), but it really depends what you call a “city”. By today’s standards, it would be a quaint little town of mud huts (8000 – 10,000 people) . The city you referred to (Byblos) is thought to be the oldest continuously occupied city, but not the first city. I think a distinction should be made between oldest cities and first cities (most of which are not still occupied or have not been continously occupied). There is also some evidence to suggest that there were even older cities.

    I looked at the photographic evidence of this alleged city underwater on Hancock’s website. Looked like the patterns made by waves to me. With a good dose of paradolia, it could look like a long lost city.

  9. SteveAon 10 Apr 2012 at 7:27 am

    Judy1: “10 years out of date!”

    This post is about a 2002 news-story on something that was discovered in 2001.

  10. Judy1on 10 Apr 2012 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for your comments Khodok.

    SteveA said – “This post is about a 2002 news-story on something that was discovered in 2001.”

    Yes Steve, I’m hopeless at maths too!

    Have you seen any UFO kites lately? If you want to see better through that window of yours overlooking the Thames, I suggest ‘Windowleen’ on a cloth.

    If this isn’t available, then I’ve heard that vinegar and water together on a cloth is just as good.

    Only joking SteveA!

  11. locutusbrgon 10 Apr 2012 at 11:15 am

    Judy 1

    Oh I read what you said. I addressed the factual inconsistencies in your statements. Not what Steve “believes”. Some humor was thrown in because honestly I thought it had to satire.

  12. EvanHarperon 10 Apr 2012 at 6:26 pm

    Graham Hancock has promoted this nonsense in the West but the driving force behind it is actually Hindu chauvenism. The initial story got taken seriously because it came from India’s National Institute of Ocean Technology — a legitimate research institute comparable to the American NOAA. But the Institute made these announcements under the direction of Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, the politican who controlled NIOT and is a member of the notorious BJP party. The “saffron brigade” of Hindu ultra-nationalists think that India must have been the cradle of civilization, and are galled that the really ancient sites in the subcontinent are found in modern Pakistan (as if either designation means anything in the context of 2000+ BCE.)

    A good source is (http://www.flonnet.com/fl1905/19050670.htm), from Frontline, an excellent national magazine in India. The sources there are all Indian archaelogists — which helps put paid to the shabby idea that Cambay is being suppressed by anti-Indian westerners.

  13. neonneroon 30 Jul 2013 at 11:11 pm

    Interesting article! I have ran into this story many times and do think that the founding should have been studied more. It is a shame now that even if more attempts of an excavation were to take place in the gulf of cambay, the established archaeologist would just write it off because of the poorly undertaken dredging of ‘artifacts’ and article in 2002.

    Judy 1 – I don’t see how the discovery would threaten just the Islamic community and not the whole Judeo-christian community as a whole since the Bible is said to state civilization isn’t much older than 2,500 BC, correct me if I’m wrong. Though in India’s case, it’s a critical issue due to the tensions between the Hindu-Muslim communities of the region( political tension excluded).

    Though what intrigues me is that the article never mentions the excavations that were taking place at the very town on the shoreline( since the underwater city is claimed to be the ‘older’ part of the shore line city of Dwarka). It is also a shame that no one talks about the partly submerged city( 6 of the 7 pagodas to be exact, only one of which is visible on the shoreline) of Mahabalipuram on India’s South eastern shore, which was found also found around the same time as the Gulf of Cambat findings. Nat Geo and BBC news both have an article on this, which can be found here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1923794.stm
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/05/0528_020528_sunkencities_2.html

    Graham Hancock’s inclusion in the expedition leaves me with a little doubt on the matter but it was a joint expedition by Indian National Institute of Oceanography and the Scientific Exploration Society based in Dorset, UK, both of whom sent their own divers to explore the site.

    Let me end with this notion though, even the ‘established’ archaeological “theories” are just theories. And it’s a sad shame that most of the the professors of archaeology in many of the worldwide accredited Universities are teaching old ideas and methods! Just because it’s an ‘established idea’ in the 1940′s doesn’t mean it’s correct when we have evidence to disprove it. Especially since many of the archaeological theories of the time were Eurocentric in nature due to the ethos of the WW2 era ( Yes, America was every bit as racist as the Nazis at the time. We had internment camps and even gave amnesty to many Nazi scientists at the war because we wanted to get ahead of the Russians! Regardless of the fact that they were racist and most founded the american neo-nazi party). If you wanna learn the history of a place, it’s best to look at its’ indigenous history as well as many outside sources.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.