Recent Cosmic Impacts on Earth

Do Global Myths Reflect an Ancient Disaster?

Exploring the Nature of Myth

Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi and archaeologist Bruce Masse recently teamed to co-edit Myth and Geology (2007-Geological Society of London Special Publication 273), the first professional textbook on the nascent subdiscipline of geomythology. Geomythology pairs geological evidence of catastrophic events and reports of such events encoded into the mythological lexicon of ancient societies.

In the following contributed essay, archaeologist Thomas F. King discusses Masse's chapter "The archaeology and anthropology of Quaternary period cosmic impact," in the 2007 Springer Press book Comet/Asteroid Impacts and Human Society: An Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by geologist Peter Bobrowsky and astronomer Hans Rickman. The chapter uses geomythology to investigate the possible catastrophic comet or asteroid strike which may have led to disaster legends which have come down to us today.

Scientists who model the probabilities of comet and asteroid impacts on Earth estimate that a really devastating impact--capable of killing more than a billion people (at today's standards) and wiping out civilization as we know it--has happened only every million years or so. Archaeologist Bruce Masse thinks such impacts may have happened more frequently, or at least more recently than believed by the astrophysical community. If he's right, the danger posed by near earth objects (NEOs) is possibly greater than we've thought. Masse's ideas are detailed in "The archaeology and anthropology of Quaternary period cosmic impact," a chapter in the 2007 Springer Press book Comet/Asteroid Impacts and Human Society: An Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by geologist Peter Bobrowsky and astronomer Hans Rickman.

Bruce Masse's Passion

Masse, like many of today's archaeologists, isn't based in a museum or university, but works for a government agency--in his case, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

His day job involves managing the more than 2,000 archaeological sites on Laboratory lands--making sure they're not damaged by the Laboratory's operations. But his passion over the last few decades has been studying the archaeological and anthropological record of celestial phenomena and earthly catastrophes.

In the Springer chapter he presents a startling picture of how such events may have been linked during the course of the Quaternary period--the last 2.6 million years.

Masse became interested in how cosmic phenomena like eclipses and comet encounters were perceived by ancient people while doing research in Hawaii in the late 1980s. The genealogical traditions of Hawaiian royalty, he found, were full of descriptions of things that happened in the sky--comet encounters, meteor showers, eclipses, supernovae. Some of the same events are described in historic European, Chinese, and Muslim records. Masse was able to plot dozens of precise matches between Hawaiian tradition and the astronomical observations of literate observers elsewhere in the world. The more he looked at mythology, the less mythical it appeared, where celestial phenomena were concerned.

Encoding a Cosmic Event

When he thought objectively about how myths come to be, and who creates and sustains them, it made sense that they would encode impressive and hard-to-account-for events. "A myth," he says, "is an analogical story created by highly skilled and trained cultural knowledge specialists (such as priests or historians) using supernatural images in order to explain otherwise inexplicable natural events or processes." The priest doesn't just invent his story of the sun being eaten by a giant dog; he comes up with it as a means of explaining an eclipse that has his people scared out of their wits.

Masse began examining both the mythology and the archaeology of areas around the sites where asteroids or comets were known or suspected to have fallen to earth during the Quaternary, and especially during the last 11,000 years, known as the Holocene. Science is aware of at least twenty-seven known Quaternary impact sites, marked by craters and often the remnants of meteoritic iron and melted stone. Other impacts are known from the presence of glassy melts and tektites created by an impact or explosion in the atmosphere (an airburst). Virtually all are on land, where scientists have been able to record, study, and date them using radiocarbon age determination and other geophysical methods. Since the Earth's land masses make up only about a third of the planet's surface, it follows that in the last 2.6 million years there have been roughly 75 comet/asteroid strikes potentially big enough to leave physical signs on the ground, with even larger numbers striking the oceans.

Few of these were big enough to have wiped out a civilization had one existed in the neighborhood, but each one could have killed a lot of our ancestors.

We have no myths extending back 2.6 million years, of course, but myths have survived in some cultures for hundreds and even thousands of years (Consider Jason and the Argonauts). So it isn't outlandish to think that Holocene impacts might be reflected in the myths of nearby peoples. They might also have left archaeological traces. Masse began to compile the results of ethnographic, oral historical, and archaeological studies in areas surrounding known and probable Holocene impact sites, and he found evidence suggesting that such traces do exist.

At Saaremaa Island in Estonia, for example, where a meteor is known to have struck sometime between about 6400 and 400 BC, myths speak of a god that flew to the island along the track the meteor is calculated to have taken, and of a time when the island burned.

Archaeological and paleobotanical evidence suggests a multi-generational break in human occupation and farming in the area beginning sometime between 800 and 400 BC, and a village about 20 km from the impact crater shows evidence of having burned at about the same time. At Campo de Cielo in Argentina, a crater field littered with small meteorites, dated to between 2200 and 2700 BC, myths recorded in the early 20th century reportedly tell of an impact by a piece of the sun. In most cases where impacts are well documented, however, no pertinent archaeological or ethnographic studies have been reported, and in most places where myths or archaeology suggest the possibility of cataclysms, no obvious craters or tektite fields have been yet documented by geophysicists.

But if myths can codify records of celestial phenomena, as Masse's Hawaiian work shows, then a consistent regional pattern of mythic accounts describing catastrophe from the sky might suggest the existence of an impact event that has not yet been identified geophysically, and indicate fruitful locations for geophysical investigation.

To pursue this possibility, Masse and his geologically-trained brother Michael undertook a comprehensive analysis (reported in Myth and Geology) of over four thousand myths recorded throughout South America east of the Andes, conveniently gathered into a database by UCLA. What particularly stood out in the analysis were 284 myths describing cataclysms that, in the view of those reciting the story, caused more or less universal death, triggering a new creation of humanity.

Destruction Myths

The Masse brothers found that the destruction myths almost always described one or more of four phenomena--a great flood, a world fire, the falling of the sky, and a great darkness. When two or more of these phenomena were described by myths in the same culture, they fell into a consistent sequence. At least in the Gran Chaco, the flood was earliest, then the fire, and more recently the falling sky and the darkness. Their analysis suggested that the last two events--falling sky and great darkness--reflect aspects of volcanic eruptions. The world fire and great flood myths are different.

Some of the world fire stories quite explicitly describe the impacts of celestial objects. The Toba-Pilaga of the Gran Chaco, for example, speak of a time when fragments of the moon fell to earth, igniting a fire that incinerated the whole world, burning people alive and leaving corpses floating in the lagoons.

Evidence suggests that this event may be associated with the Campo del Cielo impact crater field in northern Argentina dated around 4500 years ago. In the highlands of Brazil there are stories of Sun and Moon fighting for a red feather ornament, which fell to earth together with hot coals that started a world fire so hot that even the sand burned. The UCLA database contains a number of such stories.

Do these myths reflect one or more cataclysmic fires caused by cosmic impacts that devastated eastern South America? Masse thinks it likely enough to justify more research.

But the stories of the great flood give even more cause for thought. In South America it is the most commonly reported worldwide catastrophe. Masse found it in 171 myths among groups scattered from Tierra del Fuego in the south to the far northwest part of the continent. It is consistently the earliest disaster, always reported prior to the world fire, falling sky and darkness. In the vast majority of cases only a single great flood is described, which Masse thinks makes it unlikely that it represents recollection of local or regional flooding.

And South America isn't the only place it occurs.

Of course, the biblical story of Noah's flood is well known, as is the related Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh and the flood. Many explanations have been advanced for these flood stories and others in the Middle East, most involving regional events like the sudden flooding of the Black Sea in the early Holocene. Back in 1994 Alexander and Edith Tollmann foreshadowed Masse's research by proposing a cosmic impact as the cause of a worldwide flood in about 9600 BC. The Tollmann's proposal has been widely rejected by scholars, and Masse is very critical of it, saying that the Tollmanns "mix the Biblical creation myth with flood myths, and make generalizations not warranted by the myths they use." Masse emphasizes the need to apply to myth research the same rigorous standards applied to other kinds of scientific study.

Attempting to apply such standards, Masse examined a worldwide sample of flood myths in 175 different cultures all over the world (most gathered and reported by noted anthropologist Sir James George Frazer in the early 1900s)--representing about 15% of the "great flood" myths that have been published in English.

He hypothesized that if these myths reflected a single worldwide cataclysm, then the information encoded in them--the environmental aspects of the flood that they describe--should form a pattern across cultures that is consistent with a single event. Collectively they should create a plausible description of the event as experienced in different parts of the world, and that description should be consistent with archaeological and geophysical data.

He analyzed his 175 myths with this hypothesis in mind, and found that "only a globally catastrophic deep-water oceanic comet impact can account for all the environmental information encoded in the corpus of worldwide flood myths."

Tsunamis and Rainstorms

The majority of the myths describe a torrential, long-duration rainstorm, in many cases accompanied by a huge tsunami. The water is often described as hot, sometimes coming as hot ocean swells, sometimes as burning rain. The described durations of the flood storm in the various myths, when plotted, form a bell-shaped curve with the great majority clustering between four and ten days. Tsunamis are described as extending between 15 and 100 km inland. Survivors typically find refuge in places between 150 and 300 meters above sea level.

Supernatural creatures are associated with the flood storm in nearly half the cases Masse studied. Typical are giant snakes or water serpents, giant birds, giant horned snakes, a fallen angel, a star with fiery tail, a tongue of fire, and similar elongated things in or from the sky. Looking in detail at descriptions in the mythology, particularly those of the Indian subcontinent, Masse sees a close resemblance to the naked-eye appearance of a near-earth post-perihelion comet.

Sixteen of the myths Masse examined describe when the flood storm occurred in terms of seasonal indicators. Fourteen myths are from Northern Hemisphere groups, and place the event in the spring. The one from the Southern Hemisphere places it in the fall--that is, spring north of the equator. Seven stories give the time in terms of lunar phase--six at the time of the full Moon, another two days later. Stories from Africa and South America say it happened at the time of a lunar eclipse, which can only occur when the Moon is full. A 4th century BC Babylonian account specifies a full Moon in late April or early May.

Chinese sources recount how the cosmic monster Gong Gong knocked over a pillar of heaven and caused flooding toward the end of the reign of Empress Nu Wa, around 2810 BC. The 3rd century BC Egyptian historian Manetho says there was an "immense disaster" (but doesn't say what kind) during the reign of the pharaoh Semerkhet, around 2800 BC.

The tomb of Semerkhet's successor, Qa'a, was built of poorly dried mud bricks and timbers showing unusual decay; the following pharaohs of the second dynasty relocated the royal cemetery to higher ground. Masse's analysis of astrological references in multiple myths from the Middle East, India and China--describing planetary conjunctions associated with the flood storm, whose actual times of occurrence can be reconstructed using contemporary astronomy software--leads him to conclude that the event happened on or about May 10, 2807 BC.

What was it that happened? Masse thinks the myths provide clues to that, too. For one thing, they report massive rain, falling for days at a time. This turns out to be exactly what can be expected if a large comet plunged into the deep ocean--it would loft nearly ten times its mass of water into the upper atmosphere, where it would spread widely and then fall, taking days to empty the skies. A large impact in the ocean would also cause gigantic tsunamis, as many of the myths report. In India, for example, Tamil myths tell of the sea rushing 100 km inland, a hundred meters deep.

Plotting the distribution of great flood myths together with specific reported phenomena like directions from which great winds blew or tsunamis came, Masse finds that the most efficient way to account for them is by positing a very large comet impact in the central or southern Indian Ocean. This might not account very well for flood myths in the Americas, but Masse thinks that flooding there could have resulted from partial disintegration of the incoming comet, with two or more pieces falling on different parts of the earth over a period of hours or days.

Some of the myths speak of multiple events happening in close succession. But the really big impact, he thinks, the most lethal of the bunch, occurred somewhere south of Madagascar.

Where, it turns out, there is a possible impact crater on the sea floor 1500 kilometers southeast of Madagascar. Named Burckle Crater and discovered only recently by Masse's colleague Dallas Abbott from Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, it is a little under 30 km in diameter and is visible on bathymetric maps. Stratigraphic cores taken near there suggest that it is an impact crater, but are not definitive. The Burckle Crater needs more study, but it is 3800 meters deep, so it's not an easy place to explore. More readily accessible is the southern coast of Madagascar where recently studied chevron-shaped dune deposits of potential tunamic origin may be indicative of giant waves more than 200 meters in height. Masse and Abbott have joined together with more than 25 other scientists to form the "Holocene Impact Working Group," to better explore Burckle Crater, Madagascar, and other locations bearing potential Holocene physical evidence of impact.

If Masse is right, a comet impact big enough to have devastating effects on human civilization occurred in 2807 BC--a bit under 5,000 years ago. Other smaller impacts and airbursts have happened since then--the most recent being at Sikhote Alin near Vladivostok in 1947. None of these were as devastating as the K-T event that doomed the dinosaurs, but many were big enough to wipe out cities or whole nations if there had been any in the vicinity at the time.

And the 2807 BC event, to judge from the myths, made the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami look like a ripple on the beach.

The Past as Prologue

Would confirmation of a civilization-killing impact 5,000 years ago mean that another one is likely tomorrow or the next day? No, but the more large impacts there have been in the recent past, the more troubling become our prospects for the future. In fact, in the November 2007 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, physicist Richard Firestone and colleagues suggest that the major climatic perturbations and extinctions at the beginning of the Younger Dryas event some 12,900 years ago were caused by an comet impact even more catastrophic than that of the 2807 BC event.

Masse's research highlights the importance not only of studying Earth's past for evidence of impacts, but of searching space for the NEOs that may be incoming. It also shows that when it comes to identifying impacts that have occurred over the last few thousand years, geophysical research isn't the only game in town. Archaeology and the study of humankind's oral traditions have unique contributions to make as well.

This article is a part of the guide to the Climate Change and Archaeology.