New research appears to shed new light on the origins and early life of the Buddha.
For a few years, archaeologists have been excavating a site in Nepal that is said to be Buddha's birthplace, dating back to the third century BC. They now have evidence of a Buddhist shrine that dates to the sixth century BC — roughly 2600 years ago.
Robin Coningham, a professor of archaeology at Durham University in England, co-led the research team and published his findings in the journal Antiquity. He says the new research provides scientific dating for the earliest Buddhist shrine — challenging long-held assumptions about the life of the Buddha.
The discovery was something of a happy accident. His team originally set out to assist UNESCO and the government of Nepal with a project to preserve a brick temple said to be where the Buddha was born. As they started to excavate, they discovered an older, timber-built temple they hadn't been expecting.
"It's the dating of charcoal and also soil samples from within that earlier timber structure at the site that actually gives us this sixth century BC date," Coningham said. Many scholars had suspected the Buddha lived in the fourth or fifth century BC.
"We'll never actually identify the individual himself, but what we have is right at the beginning of Buddhism as a cult. We actually have a localized structure there, a locallzed shrine, built around a tree. And we know, later, the veneration of the tree as a concept of the Buddha is very important," Coningham said.
"He was, according to Buddhist tradition, born underneath a tree. It gives us this unique glimpse into the very origins of Buddhism."
The new discovery could also boost an effort to develop the site as a Buddhist "Mecca." It already has UNESCO World Heritage status.