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A story popped up on the internet in late 2013, recycled in early 2014, claiming “NASA Images Find 1.7 Million Year Old Man-Made Bridge.” Claptrap. It’s not a bridge. It’s simply a natural tombolo: “a deposition landform in which an island is attached to the mainland by a narrow piece of land such as a spit or bar.”
The conspiracy theorists and some religious fundamentalists disagree.
It’s been called the Adam bridge, the Rama, Sethu (also Rama Setu – setu is Sanskrit for bridge), Ramar and the Hanuman bridge, and Setubandhanam.
According to the legends in the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic poem, it was
…built by the Vanara (ape men) army of Lord Rama in Hindu theology with instructions from Nala, which he used to reach Lanka and rescue his wife Sita from the Rakshasa king, Ravana.
It’s a twisting stretch of shoal and sandbank in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, about 18 miles (30km) long (depending on where you measure from, it can be reported as long as 35km). At high tide, the water is about 12 feet (4m) deep on average (apparently it ranges from 1m up to 10m deep in some places). The chain of shoals is roughly 300 feet (100m) wide.
It was reportedly passable on foot up to the 15th century until storms deepened the channel: temple records seem to say that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it broke in a cyclone in 1480 CE.
Let’s clear the first fallacy right away: the discovery of the “bridge” isn’t new, nor did NASA recently “discover” it in a photograph. Wikipedia tells us:
The western world first encountered it in “historical works in the 9th century” by Ibn Khordadbeh in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms (c. AD 850), referring to it is Set Bandhai or “Bridge of the Sea”. Later, Alberuni described it. The earliest map that calls this area by the name Adam’s bridge was prepared by a British cartographer in 1804, probably referring to an Abrahamic myth, according to which Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain (identified with Adam’s Peak) in Sri Lanka, where he stood repentant on one foot for 1,000 years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint.
The tombolo was photographed by NASA’s Gemini missions back in 1966 (photo here). However, that was before the internet existed to let wild and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories go viral.
Another NASA mission in 2002 produced a second photograph of the region (photo here) which, of course, spun the online conspiracy theorists off on a wild goose chase trying to “prove” it was the remains of a human-made structure connecting Sri Lanka with India.
Well, it isn’t. Wikipedia tells us it’s long been known as a natural formation, but that geologists differ in their views as to how it formed:
In the 19th century, there were two prevalent theories explaining the structure. One considered it to be formed by a process of accretion and rising of the land, while the other surmised that it was formed by the breaking away of Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland. The friable calcerous ridges are broken into large rectangular blocks, which perhaps gave rise to the belief that the causeway is an artificial construction… which essentially consists of a series of parallel ledges of sandstone and conglomerates that are hard at the surface and grows coarse and soft as it descends to sandy banks.
Studies have variously described the structure as a chain of shoals, coral reefs, a ridge formed in the region owing to thinning of the earth’s crust, a double tombolo, a sand spit, or barrier islands. It has been reported that this bridge was formerly the world’s largest tombolo before it was split into a chain of shoals by the rise in mean sea level a few thousand years ago.
Based on satellite remote sensing data, but without actual field verification, the Marine and Water Resources Group of the Space Application Centre (SAC) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) states that Adam’s Bridge comprises 103 small patch reefs lying in a linear pattern with reef crest (flattened, emergent – especially during low tides – or nearly emergent segment of a reef), sand cays (accumulations of loose coral sands and beach rock) and intermittent deep channels…
The geological process that gave rise to this structure has been attributed in one study to crustal downwarping, block faulting, and mantle plume activity while another theory attributes it to continuous sand deposition and the natural process of sedimentation leading to the formation of a chain of barrier islands related to rising sea levels…
Another study explains the origin the structure due to longshore drifting currents which moved in an anticlockwise direction in the north and clockwise direction in the south of Rameswaram and Talaimannar. The sand was supposedly dumped in a linear pattern along the current shadow zone between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar with later accumulation of corals over these linear sand bodies… another group of geologists propose crustal thinning theory, block faulting and a ridge formed in the region owing to thinning and asserts that development of this ridge augmented the coral growth in the region and in turn coral cover acted as a `sand trapper’.
Back in 2002, there were unsuccessful attempts by actual scientists to debunk the “ancient civilization” theory and inject some needed common sense and real science into the discussion. The Times of India had a story in 2002, noting:
Hanuman bridge is myth: Experts
Eminent astrophysicist J V Narlikar, when contacted in Pune, said he had seen reports claiming about the mythical bridge, but there was no evidence to suggest that what had been located had links with the bridge mentioned in the Ramayana.
“There is no archaeological or literary evidence to support this claim,” eminent historian R S Sharma told The Times of India in Patna.
“The Ramayana itself is not that old. Nor had human habitation occurred 1.75 million years ago,” Sharma, an acknowledged authority on ancient Indian history, said.
Well, science be damned when it interferes with your own personal mythology. The “man-made” bridge story re-emerged in 2013, with new NASA images of the tombolo, setting the pseudo-science dweebs into another frenzy of wild exaltation. See? they said, toldja-so. NASA says so. It’s proof of an ancient civilization. Claims that it was part of Atlantis and Lemuria quickly followed.
They’re all wrong in their claims. One hundred percent off the mark, every last one of them.
NASA said nothing of the sort, and has been trying to distance itself from any such ludicrous claims for more than a decade. But hey, on the internet, that’s the expected standard of truthiness.
Like most unresearched internet tales, this one got spread around – mostly on the pseudoscience and conspiracy theory sites, but also on some fundamentalist Hindu sites – with hardly a word altered. Google shows 58,400 results searching that headline. The final paragraph of this tale claims,
This information may not be of much importance to the archeologists who are interested in exploring the origins of man, but it is sure to open the spiritual gates of the people of the world to have come to know an ancient history linked to the Indian mythology.
Let’s start with the alleged age of the “bridge” in this wacky tale: 1.7 million years (the age of the rocks on the periphery of the tombolo, by the way, not the actual shoals or corals).
What does the fossil record say about that age?
Those weren’t humans as we know – i.e. Homo sapiens – them back then: they were Homo erectus, a much more primitive version of our species, which existed even before Neanderthals! They came out of Africa about 1.85 million years BP, or possibly from Asia.
These were the first humans to engage in social behaviour that led to the change from scavenger to hunter-gatherer over many millennia, but they were still very primitive, grouping together in small bands and extended family units, gathering plants, fishing, hunting and scavenging. They used knapped stone tools, and some wood and bone tools. Wikipedia tells us:
There is no evidence that Homo erectus cooked their food.
There’s no evidence that humans had even developed fire back then. Homo erectus used very primitive stone tools – basically just choppers, scrapers and pounders. It’s the stone age… not the bridge-building or engineering age. That will come in about, oh, 1,694,000 years or so. So how would a primitive human, not even able to start a fire on its own, build an engineering marvel that would challenge 21st century builders?
One and three-quarters million years ago, humans didn’t even have language so they could communicate such concepts as “build,” “straight line” and ‘drop that boulder here.” Language might have developed a million years later, as Wikipedia tells us (although when language first developed is hotly debated, it’s often pegged at about 500,000 years ago):
The possible use of rafts during the Lower Paleolithic may indicate that Lower Paleolithic Hominids such as Homo erectus were more advanced than previously believed, and may have even spoken an early form of modern language.
This is, of course, between 840,000 and 800,000 years BP, not 1.7 million years ago. If the earlier Homo erectus had vocal communication, it was probably limited to simple sounds paired with gestures. Sort of like rap music. It wasn’t a complex language that a bridge builder would have needed.
This period of the Paleolithic was in the boundary between the very primitive Oldowan and the more recent Acheulean tool-making eras. However, these were still very primitive, and humans would not develop sophisticated tools for more than a million-and-a-half-years – until the Mousterian age, some 300,000 years ago.
During the Paleolithic, humans grouped together in small societies such as bands, and subsisted by gathering plants and fishing, hunting or scavenging wild animals. The Paleolithic is characterized by the use of knapped stone tools, although at the time humans also used wood and bone tools. Other organic commodities were adapted for use as tools, including leather and vegetable fibers; however, due to their nature, these have not been preserved to any great degree.
So no, our distant ancestors were not actually highly evolved civilizations building bridges across the narrow strait that links India and Sri Lanka. Or anywhere. They were hunter-gatherers who spent the vast majority of their days surviving. And don’t give me that paleo-diet balderdash: these weren’t philosophers: they were just hairy survivalists.
As for the actual age of the tombolo, it’s been the subject of many studies, and none date it even close to 1.7 million years old, as Wikipedia tells us:
..the Geological Survey of India (GSI) concluded through the dating of corals that Rameswaram Island evolved beginning 125,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating of samples in this study suggests that the domain between Rameswaram and Talaimannar may have been exposed around 18,000 years ago. Thermoluminescence dating by GSI concludes that the sand dunes between Dhanushkodi and Adam’s Bridge started forming about 500–600 years ago.
Investigation by the Centre for Remote Sensing (CRS) of Bharathidasan University, Tiruchi, led by Professor S.M. Ramasamy dates the structure to 3,500 years. In the same study, carbon dating of some ancient beaches between Thiruthuraipoondi and Kodiyakarai shows the Thiruthuraipoondi beach dates back to 6,000 years and Kodiyakarai around 1,100 years ago. Another study suggests that the appearance of the reefs and other evidence indicate their recency, and a coral sample gives a radiocarbon age of 4,020±160 years BP
NASA itself responded to the earlier claims (in 2002), allegedly by stating,
“Remote sensing images or photographs from orbit cannot provide direct information about the origin or age of a chain of islands, and certainly cannot determine whether humans were involved in producing any of the patterns seen,” said NASA official Mark Hess….NASA said the mysterious bridge was nothing more than a 30 km long, naturally-occurring chain of sandbanks called Adam’s bridge. Hess said his agency had been taking pictures of these shoals for years. Its images had never resulted in any scientific discovery in the area.
“Our office supports only astronaut photography of the Earth. The chain of small islets connecting India and Sri Lanka are real geographical features that have been mapped for centuries. Chains of islands form a variety of natural geological processes and their occurrence is not evidence of any human activity.”
Didn’t stop people from spreading the story regardless of what NASA said.
You can see the “bridge” in this video:
What remains about the water shows no evidence of construction. It looks like a typical sandbank. In fact, no proof of human construction has ever been found. Proponents of the bridge hypothesis have ways to explain this apparent anomaly, from erosion to environmental effects. Here’s an aerial view from a plane:
There are many videos of the “bridge” on Youtube that show it as a natural landform. But then watch this video, made by Hindu apologists:
To to unskeptical, it looks pretty convincing. Almost scientific. But wait, what’s a “yojana”? Wikipedia says it’s
…a Vedic measure of distance that was used in ancient India. It is equivalent to about 8 miles as per modern measures of distance, though the exact value is disputed among scholars (between 5 to 8 miles).
The Ramayana itself says:
Some were holding poles for measuring the bridge and some others collected the material. Reeds and logs resembling clouds and mountains, were brought by thousands of Vanaras who, lead by the command of Rama, fastened parts of the bridge. The bridge was tied with trees having blossom at the end of the boughs. Some Vanaras looking like demons, seized rocks resembling mountains and peaks of mountains, and appeared to be running hither and thither. Tumultuous sound occurred when the rocks were thrown into the sea and when mountains were caused to fall there.
On day one, as fourteen Yojanas of bridge was completed speedily, thrilled with delight were the Vanars, resembling elephants. In the same manner, on the second day, twenty more Yojanas were constructed speedily by the Vanars of terrific bodies and of mighty strength. Likewise, on the third day, twenty-one more Yojanas of the bridge was completed in the ocean speedily by the colossal bodied Vanaras. On the fourth day, a further twenty-two Yojanas were constructed by the Vanars dashing with a great speed. In that manner, at last on the fifth day, the Vanars working quickly constructed twenty-three yojanas of the bridge which finally reached the other side of the seashore.
…The Devas and Gandharvas saw Nala’s great bridge, having a width of ten yojanas and a length of hundred yojanas and the construction of which was a very complex enterprise indeed.
So add up all the yojanas and you get 100 yojanas. That’s between 500 and 800 miles (800-1,280 kms) long and 50-80 miles (80-128 kms) wide. The tombolo is about 30 kms long and at best 100m wide (and narrower in some places). Somewhat of a discrepancy in sizes.
Do a quick calculation and you see that the description of 100 by 10 yojana (800 by 80 kms – 64,000 sq. km – by the smaller measurement) or 64 million sq. m. of material. At around 8:50 in the video, it suggests the “bridge” had to be at least 2m tall, so the volume would be at least 128 million cubic meters (at the larger measurement of 12 kms to a yojana, it would be 288 million cubic meters).
That’s freakin’ HUGE, an accomplishment that – were it true – would dwarf even modern engineering feats. Where would they get the material, the logs, the stones as big as elephants? And where is the archeological evidence of this massive scouring and razing of the earth that should have left scars for millennia? **
Then there’s the likelihood this bit of faux news is really a political and religious ploy. As Environmental Graffiti Notes:
Rama’s Bridge, also called Adam’s Bridge, is a 30-mile-stretch (48 km) of 103 sandbanks that form a natural connection between the island of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, India and Mannar in northwestern Sri Lanka. Geological evidence suggests that the bridge is a remnant of a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka. Though usually a symbol of connection and peace, this particular bridge has caused controversy galore between Hindus, Moslems, politicians and environmentalists for quite a while now.
The problem starts with the perceived origin of the bridge. Hindus claim that the bridge was built by Rama and his army when they invaded Lanka (today’s Sri Lanka) to free Sita, Rama’s wife who had been abducted by the ten-headed demon king Ravana. Rama’s victory over Ravana is still celebrated today with the festival of Dussera and his return to India three weeks later as Diwali, falling this year on October 17th. As proof, Hindus cite the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, which describes Rama’s life.
So one has to wonder – seriously – if this is simply a political or religious hoax. The Krishna organization website (a fundamentalist Hindu organization) reports:
The first signs of human inhabitants in Sri Lanka date back to the Stone Age, about 1.750.000 million years ago. These people are said to have come from the South of India and reached the Island through a land bridge connecting the Indian subcontinent to Sri Lanka named Adam’s Bridge. This is related so in the epic Hindu book of Ramayana.
Well, that’s simply false. This sort of claim is clearly theologically-motivated. Human activity on Sri Lanka is contemporary with other human activity in the region: less than 500,000 years old. Wikipedia sets us straight (and see here, too):
The pre-history of Sri Lanka goes back 125,000 years and possibly even as far back as 500,000 years. The era spans the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and early Iron Ages. Among the Paleolithic human settlements discovered in Sri Lanka, Pahiyangala… which dates back to 37,000 BP, Batadombalena (28,500 BP) and Belilena (12,000 BP) are the most important. In these caves, archaeologists have found the remains of anatomically modern humans which they have named Balangoda Man, and other evidence suggesting that they may have engaged in agriculture and kept domestic dogs for driving game.
Five hundred thousand years ago means Homo erectus again. And 125,000 years ago, early humans were simply primitive tool users – not bridge builders. The dating of settlements is considerably younger than the proposed 1.7 million years.
And as for the date of 5076 BCE in the second video – that’s a popular date in Hindu mythology, but as for civilizations then, it’s the late Neolithic period: the time of the Mehrgarh in Pakistan (Mehrgarh II, actually; a period of technological discovery when people began using ceramics and copper tools). The more advanced Indus valley civilizations of northern India really don’t get started until around 3300 BCE, about the same time as the Sumerians, and reached their mature period around 2600 BCE.
Advanced enough to build a bridge of this scale and scope? Possibly. But not probably. Filling in a few holes where the water makes transit difficult, maybe.
The Sri Lankan heritage site tells us (without identifying sources or scientific papers):
Oldest human found in Lanka – Pathirajawela in the Deep South. A student from Bundala Central School recovered the oldest Lankan human’s remains and his stone tools in Pathirajawela near Ambalantota. This Lankan had lived 20,000 years before the Neanderthal inhabited the earth. It has been estimated, at an international average, that the population density for Lanka, at the time was 0.8-1.5 per Sq Km in dry zone and 0.1 in wet zone. They had lived in groups of 1-2 families, not in large groups due to scarcity of food. With this proof of pre-historic settlement in Lanka, Pathirajawela also exposed a flake and stone tool industry belonging to 125,000 to 75,000 BCE. This meant that the Lankans had already started their long journey towards civilisation.
So no, the tombolo wasn’t built by humans 1.7 million years ago. Why would anyone make that claim (aside from the loony conspiracy theorists)? On the Delhi Science forum it a deliberate, religious fraud was suggested:
Before we examine this case of the Hanuman Bridge of Ramayana and the NASA pictures, we need to delve into the mindset of the Hindu fundamentalists who are currently attempting to use science in their claims of scriptural correctness. This mindset believes that there is a deep-seated “western” conspiracy to deny Hindus the rightful place as the most ancient civilisation. The “proof” of this conspiracy is that there are a few “western” men – David Frawley (initiated name Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) and Michel Cremo (initiated name Drutakarma Dasa) — who are themselves saying that there is a “western” conspiracy to deny Hindus their rightful place. Interestingly, in the eyes of Hindu fundamentalists, who are puffed up with pride of their ancient past, no Indian really counts. Only the white man, proclaiming the antiquity of Hindu civilisation is to be taken seriously. All Indians who do not agree with such white men, are followers of Marx and Macauly and are part of this “western” and leftist conspiracy.
The Ramayana controversy has all these elements. Old NASA photographs that have been put in the public domain recently were used for this deliberate fraud.
One of the opponents to a proposed shipping channel dredged across the tombolo said in an interview:
If there are alternatives, why do they want to demolish the ‘bridge’?
Simply because America is out – have you not been watching the way places of Hindu faith and shraddha have been denigrated!
But what is the motive?
Americans! Americans! Americans and the Christians. I mean, Christians because of Americans and Americans because of Christians, and Christians themselves.
Do you know what their academy of religion in America gives out? That the trunk of ganesha is like a phallus. For them phallus is visible everywhere.
Okay, maybe he was off his meds that day. The reference to America seems to be part of a conspiracy theory popular in India that radioactive materials – thorium – are under the shoal and America wants it for its own. Or it may be a reference to a notion the US wants the strait to be declared international waters. it’s also been spun by Hindu nationalists into a conspiracy between America and either the Sikhs or Muslims to occupy/.destroy Hindu sacred sites.
The Kafila site has a post called “The ecological argument against the Sethusamudram project” which notes some of this historical background to this debate and the ongoing efforts by the Hindu community to keep the mythology alive and legal efforts to prevent a shipping channel from being carved through the shoal:
There was also a demand to declare Ram Sethu a ‘national archaeological monument’ (Singh, 2007). In response, the government filed an affidavit from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), stating that the so-called Ram Sethu was in fact a natural formation. Further, the affidavit said that the ASI is a ‘science and technology department’, and that while ‘due deference may be given to the feelings of the petitioners’, the issue has to be approached in ‘a scientific manner’ (Sinha 2007). Therefore, mythological texts could not form the basis for government policy:
The Valmiki Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and other mythological texts, which admittedly form an ancient part of Indian literature, cannot be said to be historical records to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the events depicted therein…
Thus, the ‘secular’ argument justifying the destruction of the limestone formation was that the bridge is not ‘man-made’ but natural. As Bidwai noted approvingly, the ASI affidavit quotes studies by the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, which ‘conclusively’ show that the Sethu formation is ‘purely natural’. Claims by Hindutvavaadis that the imagery collected by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) proves that the structure is ‘man-made’ were refuted by the ASI, backed by a statement from the NASA, with the argument that remote visual images are not sufficient to establish the origin of the structure. Further, a study conducted by the Geological Survey of India around Adam’s Bridge, is cited by the ‘secular’ side, which, based on drilling holes into submerged rocks, found ‘no evidence’ of man-made structures. It revealed rather, that the reef consists of three cycles of sedimentation of clay, limestone and sandstone – a natural phenomenon that occurred thousands of years before humans settled in peninsular India (Bidwai 2007)…
…it was religious belief the Court asked the government to take into account while implementing development policies, and to alter the proposed project accordingly.
The Hindu fundamentalist community wants the tombolo to be a bridge to justify its claim Rama was a real, historical person, and the events related in the Ramayana not mere mythology. Literalists, not unlike Christian literalists. Maybe Rama was a real person but that doesn’t mean hyperbole and exaggeration isn’t in the scriptures, as it was in many classical texts.***
The belief in a historical Rama forms both the basis of the literalists’ claim and their continued propagation of the ancient “bridge” story (unwitting supported by the many credulous Western conspiracists and unthinking Facebook sharers). Online conspiracy theorists desperately want to believe in magic, miracles and supernatural beings, in government cover-ups and paranormal explanations – but not in science, fact or simple logic. Sad, really.
The Rediff.com site noted in 2007:
The Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge belongs to all humanity, being an important heritage site; hence the government should not allow it to become another issue affecting Hindu sensitivities.
Well, it isn’t a heritage site. It’s a natural feature. An argument may be made that natural features should be preserved, and there are good concerns about the environmental impact of a channel carved through the shoal, but calling it a heritage site demeans the word.
Please, please, stop spreading this codswallop about some 1.7-million-year-old “bridge”. It’s politically and religiously motivated, it’s a focal point for Hindu nationalist and religious sentiments, but it’s not science, it’s not archeology and it certainly isn’t factual. Be skeptical.
* Like all wildly improbable and scientifically unsubstantiated claims of uber-ancient human civilization, it’s hookum. The Ica stones of Peru for example, purporting to show images of advanced humans and dinosaurs coexisting in the Mesozoic are now recognized as hoaxes. See this, this, and this reference. Here’s a quote from an article about Michael Cremo’s delusional beliefs:
American scholar Michael Cremo’s recent books Forbidden Archaeology and Devolution of Man based on scientific discoveries prove that the Darwin theory has hardly any truth and that man came on earth at least two billion years ago. Cremo and his co-author Richard Thompson have quoted a lot of archeological evidences which undoubtedly prove that scientists in the last 150 years have collected so many facts which disprove many fundamental theories in history, linguistics and science. Many scientific journals had also published these discoveries but the mental block created by the evolution theory of Darwin and the limit of 5,000 years of human history did not pay due attention to the new discoveries. These scientific discoveries and facts prove that the history of mankind is billions of years old.
However, as Blaise Pascal wrote, people love being deceived. Deception is more welcome than truth, since it doesn’t damage their own self-esteem:
There are different degrees in this aversion to truth; but all may perhaps be said to have it in some degree, because it is inseparable from self-love… We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us.
** So on day one, workers – those magical apemen – laid more than 17.92 million cubic meters of material. Impressive, if you consider the volume of the Great Pyramid – one of the greatest engineering marvels of the ancient world – is only 2.5 million cubic meters and took between 10 and 20 years to erect! And the apemen did this for five straight days, each day laying more than the last. Let’s say one person can move 10 cubic metres a day. That means you’d need a workforce of about 1.8 million on day one. The Ramayana also tells us
Several others were employed in drawing up strings that went a hundred Yojanas long, in order to ensure a straight line.
Yet the tombolo is very curved, not a straight line at all. Somehow these inconsistencies don’t bother the believers.
*** It’s not the point of this piece to debunk Hindu legends. Many probably have a historical, factual basis, just like Western Biblical myths. But like all mythology and religious stories, they accumulate layers of myth, superstition, paranormal, didactic lessons and exaggeration that occlude our perception of any historical validity. Rama may well have been a real person, but don’t let that obscure the modern theological and political basis for this story.
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