From Ancient Egypt to Mesoamerica, the great civilizations of the past had a shared love for building giant pointy things. However, while tourist hotspots like Giza and Chichen Itza may be the first sites that spring to mind when pondering pyramids, the truth is that neither of these iconic locations is home to the oldest pyramid in the world.
The oldest pyramid in Egypt
Just a few miles south of the Great Pyramid of Giza lies the oldest pyramid in Egypt. Located at Saqqara, the Pyramid of Djoser was constructed around 2630 BCE as a burial chamber for King Djoser.
Predating the Great Pyramid – which was built for King Khufu – by about 70 years, Djoser’s structure looks a little different to Giza’s triangular trio as it was created by stacking stone platforms on top of one another, resulting in what’s known as a step pyramid.
The architect behind this design was a high priest named Imhotep, who was also an advisor to Djoser. Renowned for his mastery of art and science, Imhotep was deified after his death, eventually becoming recognized as the god of wisdom and medicine.
For many years, the Pyramid of Djoser was thought to be the oldest pyramid in the world, yet recent discoveries on the other side of the globe have thrown the whole topic wide open, suggesting that the Egyptians may have been pipped to the post in the race to build the first square cone thingy.
The oldest pyramid in Peru
Pyramids were fashionable throughout the Americas in antiquity, with slope-sided temples favored by the Maya, Aztec, and Inca empires. Among the most iconic is Guatemala’s Tikal temple complex, which famously appears in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
However, to find the oldest Pyramid in the western hemisphere, you have to travel a fair way south of the Central American jungle to the high desert of Peru. It was here that archaeologists first stumbled upon a sprawling ancient metropolis called Caral in the early 20th century.
Due to the complexity of the site, researchers initially assumed that Caral must have been built fairly recently, yet a study published in 2001 radically transformed the narrative. Using radiocarbon dating to calculate the age of materials used in the construction of Caral, the study authors found that the ancient city may have been founded as long ago as 2627 BCE.
Based on this discovery, archaeologists now speculate that the site’s six pyramids – including the enormous Pirámide Mayor - could predate the Saqqara structure in Egypt. With the exact age of Caral’s buildings still unknown, though, it’s hard to say which of these ancient civilizations completed their pyramid first.
Gunung Padang – just a hill or the world’s oldest pyramid?
For decades, archaeologists have struggled to decide whether the world’s oldest pyramid resides in Egypt or Peru, yet a late-comer to the contest now threatens to steal the crown. Located in Indonesia, an enormous megalithic complex called Gunung Padang sits upon a conspicuous hill, which some scholars believe may actually be a man-made structure.
First presented in 2018, the theory has caused a great deal of controversy and has failed to convince many within the scientific community. Despite the skepticism, though, a team of archaeologists claims to have found evidence that the hill was deliberately constructed in multiple stages over many thousands of years.
Using ground penetration radar, the researchers say they have uncovered evidence that the base layer was built at least 9,500 years ago and may be up to 28,000 years old. If proven, this would make Gunung Padang the oldest pyramid in the world by a considerable distance.
For now, though, most think it’s just a hill.