- "...and the seven judges of hell ... raised
their torches, lighting the land with their livid flame. A stupor of
went up to heaven when the god of the storm turned daylight into darkness,
when he smashed the land like a cup."
- -- An account of the Deluge from the Epic of
circa 2200 B.C.
- If you are fortunate enough to see the storm of shooting
stars predicted for the Nov. 18 peak of the Leonid meteor shower, you'll
be watching a similar but considerably less powerful version of events
which some scientists say brought down the world's first
- The root of both: debris from a disintegrating
- Biblical stories, apocalyptic visions, ancient art and
scientific data all seem to intersect at around 2350 B.C., when one or
more catastrophic events wiped out several advanced societies in Europe,
Asia and Africa.
- Increasingly, some scientists suspect comets and their
associated meteor storms were the cause. History and culture provide clues:
Icons and myths surrounding the alleged cataclysms persist in cults and
religions today and even fuel terrorism.
- And a newly found 2-mile-wide crater in Iraq, spotted
serendipitously in a perusal of satellite images, could provide a smoking
gun. The crater's discovery, which was announced in a recent issue of the
journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, is a preliminary finding.
Scientists stress that a ground expedition is needed to determine if the
landform was actually carved out by an impact.
- Yet the crater has already added another chapter to an
intriguing overall story that is, at best, loosely bound. Many of the pages
are washed away or buried. But several plot lines converge in conspicuous
- Too Many Coincidences
- Archeological findings show that in the space of a few
centuries, many of the first sophisticated civilizations disappeared. The
Old Kingdom in Egypt fell into ruin. The Akkadian culture of Iraq, thought
to be the world's first empire, collapsed. The settlements of ancient
gone. Mesopotamia, Earth's original breadbasket, dust.
- Around the same time -- a period called the Early Bronze
Age -- apocalyptic writings appeared, fueling religious beliefs that
- The Epic of Gilgamesh describes the fire, brimstone and
flood of possibly mythical events. Omens predicting the Akkadian collapse
preserve a record that "many stars were falling from the sky."
The "Curse of Akkad," dated to about 2200 B.C., speaks of
potsherds raining from the sky."
- Roughly 2000 years later, the Jewish astronomer Rabbi
bar Nachmani created what could be considered the first impact theory:
That Noah's Flood was triggered by two "stars" that fell from
the sky. "When God decided to bring about the Flood, He took two stars
from Khima, threw them on Earth, and brought about the Flood."
- Another thread was woven into the tale when, in 1650,
the Irish Archbishop James Ussher mapped out the chronology of the Bible
-- a feat that included stringing together all the "begats" to
count generations -- and put Noah's great flood at 2349 B.C.
- All coincidence?
- A number of scientists don't think so.
- Mounting hard evidence collected from tree rings, soil
layers and even dust that long ago settled to the ocean floor indicates
there were widespread environmental nightmares in the Near East during
the Early Bronze Age: Abrupt cooling of the climate, sudden floods and
surges from the seas, huge earthquakes.
- Comet as a Culprit
- In recent years, the fall of ancient civilizations has
come to be viewed not as a failure of social engineering or political might
but rather the product of climate change and, possibly, heavenly
As this new thinking dawned, volcanoes and earthquakes were blamed at
More recently, a 300-year drought has been the likely suspect.
- But now more than ever, it appears a comet could be the
culprit. One or more devastating impacts could have rocked the planet,
chilled the air, and created unthinkable tsunamis -- ocean waves hundreds
of feet high. Showers of debris wafting through space -- concentrated
of the dust trails that create the Leonids -- would have blocked the Sun
and delivered horrific rains of fire to Earth for years.
- So far, the comet theory lacks firm evidence. Like a
- Now, though, there is this depression in Iraq. It was
found accidentally by Sharad Master, a geologist at the University of
in South Africa, while studying satellite images. Master says the crater
bears the signature shape and look of an impact caused by a space
- The finding has not been developed into a full-fledged
scientific paper, however, nor has it undergone peer review. Scientist
in several fields were excited by the possibility, but they expressed
about interpreting the preliminary analysis and said a full scientific
expedition to the site needs to be mounted to determine if the landforms
do in fact represent an impact crater.
- Researchers would look for shards of melted sand and
telltale quartz that had been shocked into existence. If it were a comet,
the impact would have occurred on what was once a shallow sea, triggering
massive flooding following the fire generated by the object's partial
as it screamed through the atmosphere. The comet would have plunged through
the water and dug into the earth below.
- If it proves to be an impact crater, there is a good
chance it was dug from the planet less than 6,000 years ago, Master said,
because shifting sediment in the region would have buried anything
- Arriving at an exact date will be difficult, researchers
- "It's an exciting crater if it really is of impact
origin," said Bill Napier, an astronomer at the Armagh
- Cultural Impact
- Napier said an impact that could carve a hole this large
would have packed the energy of several dozen nuclear bombs. The local
effect: utter devastation.
- "But the cultural effect would be far greater,"
Napier said in an e-mail interview. "The event would surely be
into the world view of people in the Near East at that time and be handed
down through the generations in the form of celestial myths."
- Napier and others have also suggested that the swastika,
a symbol with roots in Asia stretching back to at least 1400 B.C., could
be an artist's rendering of a comet, with jets spewing material outward
as the head of the comet points earthward.
- But could a single impact of this size take down
on three continents? No way, most experts say.
- Napier thinks multiple impacts, and possibly a rain of
other smaller meteors and dust, would have been required. He and his
have been arguing since 1982 that such events are possible. And, he says,
it might have happened right around the time the first urban civilizations
- Napier thinks a comet called Encke, discovered in 1786,
is the remnant of a larger comet that broke apart 5,000 years ago. Large
chunks and vast clouds of smaller debris were cast into space. Napier said
it's possible that Earth ran through that material during the Early Bronze
- The night sky would have been lit up for years by a
display of comet fragments and dust vaporizing upon impact with Earth's
atmosphere. The Sun would have struggled to shine through the debris.
has tied the possible event to a cooling of the climate, measured in tree
rings, that ran from 2354-2345 B.C.
- Supporting Evidence
- Though no other craters have been found in the region
and precisely dated to this time, there is other evidence to suggest the
scenario is plausible. Two large impact craters in Argentina are believed
to have been created sometime in the past 5,000 years.
- Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John
Moores University in England, said roughly a dozen craters are known to
have been carved out during the past 10,000 years. Dating them precisely
is nearly impossible with current technology. And, Peiser said, whether
any of the impact craters thought to have been made in the past 10,000
years can be tied back to a single comet is still unknown.
- But he did not discount Napier's scenario.
- "There is no scientific reason to doubt that the
break-up of a giant comet might result in a shower of cosmic debris,"
Peiser said. He also points out that because Earth is covered mostly by
deep seas, each visible crater represents more ominous statistical
- "For every crater discovered on land, we should
expect two oceanic impacts with even worse consequences," he
- Tsunamis generated in deep water can rise even taller
when they reach a shore.
- Reverberating Today
- Peiser studies known craters for clues to the past. But
he also examines religions and cults, old and new, for signs of what might
have happened way back then.
- "I would not be surprised if the notorious rituals
of human sacrifice were a direct consequence of attempts to overcome this
trauma," he says of the South American impact craters.
the same deadly cults were also established in the Near East during the
- The impact of comets on myth and religion has
through the ages, in Peiser's view.
- "One has to take into consideration apocalyptic
religions [of today] to understand the far-reaching consequences of
impacts," he says. "After all, the apocalyptic fear of the end
of the world is still very prevalent today and can often lead to fanaticism
- An obsession with the end of the world provides the legs
on which modern-day terrorism stands, Peiser argues. Leaders of
terror groups drum into the minds of their followers looming cataclysms
inspired by ancient writings. Phrases run along these lines: a rolling
up of the sun, darkening of the stars, movement of the mountains, splitting
of the sky.
- It is in the context of such apocalyptic religions that
a large meteorite, enshrined in the Kaba in Mecca, became the most feared
and venerated object of the Islamic faith, Peiser said.
- By using such language, radical fundamentalist leaders
instill "absolute commitment and fanaticism into their
Peiser said. "Once you believe that the end is imminent and that your
direct action will hasten the coming of end-times, every atrocity is
- No Smoking Gun Yet
- Despite the excitement of the newfound hole in the ground
in Iraq, it is still far from clear why so many civilizations collapsed
in such a relatively short historical time frame. Few scientists, even
those who find evidence to support the idea, are ready to categorically
blame a comet.
- French soil scientist Marie-Agnes Courty, who in 1997
found material that could only have come from a meteorite and dated it
to the Early Bronze Age, urged caution on drawing any conclusions until
a smoking gun has been positively identified.
- "Certain scientists and the popular press do prefer
the idea of linking natural catastrophes and societal collapse,"
- Multiple cosmic impacts are an attractive culprit though,
because of the many effects they can have, including some found in real
climate and geologic data. The initial impact, if it is on land, vaporizes
life for miles around. Earthquakes
hquakesweb sites) devastate an even wider area. A cloud of debris can block
out the Sun and alter the climate. The extent and duration of the climate
effects is not known for sure, because scientists have never witnessed
such an event.
- It might not have taken much. Ancient civilizations,
which depended on farming and reliable rainfall, were precarious.
- Mike Baillie, a professor of palaeoecology at Queens
University in Belfast, figures it would have taken just a few bad years
to destroy such a society.
- Even a single comet impact large enough to have created
the Iraqi crater, "would have caused a mini nuclear winter with failed
harvests and famine, bringing down any agriculture based populations which
can survive only as long as their stored food reserves," Baillie said.
"So any environmental downturn lasting longer than about three years
tends to bring down civilizations."
- Other scientists doubt that a single impact would have
altered the climate for so long.
- Lessons for Tomorrow
- Either way, there is a giant scar on the planet, near
the cradle of civilization, that could soon begin to provide some solid
answers, assuming geologists can get permission to enter Iraq and conduct
- "If the crater dated from the 3rd Millennium B.C.,
it would be almost impossible not to connect it directly with the demise
of the Early Bronze Age civilizations in the Near East," said
- Perhaps before long all the cometary traditions, myths
and scientific fact will be seen to converge at the Iraqi hole in the
for good purpose. Understanding what happened, and how frequent and deadly
such impacts might be, is an important tool for researchers like Peiser
who aim to estimate future risk and help modern society avoid the fate
of the ancients.
- "Paradoxically, the Hebrew Bible and other Near
Eastern documents have kept alive the memory of ancient catastrophes whose
scientific analysis and understanding might now be vital for the protection
of our own civilizations from future impacts," Peiser said.
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