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The Sunken City of Cambay

by Steven Novella, 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.

12 Responses to “The Sunken City of Cambay”

  1. Jim says:

    As an Indian, I am all too familiar with the cultural undercurrents of historical findings in India. There may not be any other civilization on the planet which was repeatedly invaded, ending with British. And most of the ancient Indian history was compiled during British Raj, which left a bad taste in the mouths of many nationalists who feel these early archeologists made up theories to maintain superiority of the British over the natives. The history books are also accused of whitewashing the atrocities carried out by the invaders, such as Timur (the government can’t really be blamed for avoiding issues could light the powder keg that India is).

    And the civilization they consider to be the greatest may have its origins elsewhere irritates them too. There is a huge controversy – without much substance – about the origins of Indian civilization (google “Aryan invasion” and you get 3.3 million hits).

    Another example is the Adam’s Bridge which links India with Sri Lanka, a chain of limestone shoals. The mythical lord Rama supposed to have created a bridge here, and believers were successful in blocking a project to create a shipping channel across Adam’s bridge.

    As usual the non-experts are the most vocal bunch. Anything that supports their preconceived notions of antiquity is welcome.

    The only article I could find which mentions some experts calls the ‘oldest civilization’ claim as questionable.

  2. Janet Camp says:

    Sad to see this from the BBC, a source I usually give much credence to. This “find” is right up there with those credited to “Biblical Archaeology”, an unfortunate “specialty” that gets its ideas touted on the occasional PBS special that probably turn up on cable channels such as Discovery as well.

    • Syd Foster says:

      Sadly, the BBC has long betrayed the tradition of truth they built for themselves during the 2nd World War. Until very recently they were still giving equal time to climate change denialists, long after it was clear that they were just paid shills for Phillip Morris etc (and I don’t recall seeing that info ever explicated on the BBC). They often do sensationalist soundbite driven pseudoscience publicity for the likes of Hancock. Back in the mid 80s they were uncritically announcing that homeopathy cures farm animals.

      It’s weird, because they also do some pretty decent science reportage, and of course the best quality filming of the world’s natural wonders and wildlife etc, not to mention some beautifully done drama etc, so I’m deeply appreciative of the creative and high quality and commercial-free material they provide!

      Still, everything with a pinch of salt (and some follow up research)!

  3. BJ says:

    While it looks like this is bunk, its important to remember that 10,000 years ago the sea levels were much lower. Human habitations on the coasts from that time would currently be underwater. An entire chapter of human pre-history is missing underneath the sea.

  4. Phea says:

    I’ve watched several episodes of “Ancient Aliens”, and was skeptical about the whole premise until the:

    ”Orion correlation hypothesis” – that the pyramids of Gyza are arranged in the pattern of stars in Orion’s belt.

    That pretty much convinced me…

    • Syd Foster says:

      Huh? I’m pretty gullible, so although I tend to take people’s statements at face value, I’m moved to suspect sarcasm here. Pretty much convinced you of what? That the stars are beautifully visible in Egypt?

    • Ubi Dubium says:

      I don’t have a problem with the idea that the Pyramids were intentionally built in the pattern of Orion’s belt. That the stars were important in Old Kingdom religion is not a very outrageous claim. Any civilization capable of doing a massive engineering project like the pyramids is certainly capable of building them in a layout that had meaning for them. (Just as European Cathedrals are all cross-shaped.)

      What disappoints me is that Hancock’s noticing this has led to all kinds of woo, rather than research into how this might fit with the rest of the mythology of that period in Egypt. A shame, really.

    • Adam says:

      The Orion Correlation Theorists fail to mention that the pyramids do not actually match Orion’s Belt. They’re quite a bit off.

  5. markx says:

    What are your thoughts on Goblecki Tepe?

    Supposedly dated to 9,000 BC? And built over a period of some 3000 years?

    And because those artifacts closely resemble others from nearby sites previously carbon-dated to about 9000 B.C., Schmidt and co-workers estimate that Gobekli Tepe’s stone structures are the same age. Limited carbon dating undertaken by Schmidt at the site confirms this assessment.

    Read more:

  6. Javen says:

    The extreme bias inherent in this article makes my rational brain hurt.

  7. joe jonabuwski says:

    i think this whole theory thing is fucked up