A Possible Radiocarbon Date for the Buddha?

Trolling through the archives I occasionally discover interesting academic papers.

Today I stumbled upon this article from 2013:

In this study, a team of archeologists unearthed the pre-Maurian ground under Lumbini. If I’m reading the paper correctly, they found four layers under Asoka’s stone works. From bottom to top these are:

  1. Pre-human land
  2. Agricultural land
  3. Re-forested land
  4. Wooden structures arranged (religiously?) around a central tree or grove
  5. (The Ashokan brickwork)

It’s interesting enough that Lumbini was actually reforested, but much more interesting is the discovery of the wooden remnants.

In the paper, the authors explain that the later Ashokan structures were at least partially modeled on the earlier wooden structures at the site, leading to the exciting possibility that the earlier structures were also Buddhist.

If that’s the case, then it puts a big dent in the “short chronology” as the wood was radiocarbon dated to somewhere in the ~800–550 BCE range, well before the “short chronology’s” dating of the Buddha in the fourth century but roughly in line with the traditional date of 563 BCE.

There is, of course, the alternate (more likely?) explanation that Lumbini was already a sacred (animist?) shrine for centuries before the Buddha, but if that’s indeed the case, then the Bodhisattva was born at what was already a sacred site (or Ashoka mis-identified the place. And both of those possibilities are interesting in their own right.

What do you think is the most likely explanation for all this? What do you make of the paper? Am I missing something obvious?

I look forward to your learned and thoughtful responses! :slight_smile:


Ah nevermind. This paper was indeed discussed earlier in this thread:

Should have searched better! :sweat_smile:

Feel free to merge or close this thread, @moderators ! :saluting_face:


I read about this some years ago (maybe here on the forum?). A critical response by Prof. Gombrich:

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To summarize from the previous thread: Bhante explained that it’s perfectly expected that Maya would have given birth at an existing shrine and seems to imply that this research doesn’t add much to our knowledge.

While I agree the claims of the paper were over-blown, I’m still grateful that someone is (was?) doing the hard digging over there in India!

Accepting that it was a pre-Buddhist shrine and the “median” chronology (which places the Buddha’s birth at ~490 BCE), this paper informs us that that the shrine that Maya went to was about 1-3 centuries old when she entered. A wooden fence, originally quite simple, by then was already a bit more elaborate, forming almost a wall. It demarked the sacred space around the central tree and provided her with some bit of privacy and shade… Yes, this’ll do, she thought…


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Privacy at a sacred shrine? I don’t know about that…:thinking:

I think it’s more likely the existing shrine was incorporated into Buddhism via this event.

Edit ps. Thanks for the link to the old discussion, I haven’t seen it before :blush:



I wouldn’t project current India/Nepal back on the past. The population then was so much smaller. And we know this site was pretty rural even in early modern times.

In China and Taiwan, they still have these small shrines that most of the time have no one there, but anyone can come to and pray…

But yes. Perhaps some/one of her attendants waited just outside?

I love this world-building!


Right! That’s the interesting part.

Indeed, you get a glimpse at how things might have worked.

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