Skip to comments.Did Asteroids And Comets Turn The Tides Of Civilization?
Posted on 07/11/2002 1:56:44 PM PDT by blam
Did Asteroids and Comets Turn the Tides of Civilization?
By Mike Baillie
The heart of humanity seems at times to have lost its cadence, the rhythmic beat of history collapsing into impotent chaos. Wars raged. Pestilence spread. Famine reigned. Death came early and hard. Dynasties died, and civilization flickered.
Such a time came in the sixth century A.D. The Dark Ages settled heavily over Europe. Rome had been beaten back from its empire. Art and science stagnated. Even the sun turned its back. "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon, to feel the mighty vigor of the sun's heat wasted into feebleness," Italian historian Flavius Cassiodorus wrote at the time. "We have summer without heat. The crops have been chilled by north winds, (and) the rain is denied."
In China, "the stars were lost from view for three months." The sun dimmed, the rain failed, and snow fell in the summertime. Famine spread, and the emperor abandoned his capital amid political and economic disasters.
Then came pestilence. The Justinian plague, named for a Byzantine emperor, apparently began in central Asia, spread into Egypt, and then swept across Europe. Hundreds of thousands died.
The world had gone to hell in a hurry, if the historical accounts can be believed. But with neither evidence of global disaster nor a viable cause, the records were widely doubted by historians.
New evidence, however, supports the tales of ancient scribes and identifies brief but brutal times of worldwide ecological catastrophe. The evidence is in tree rings, which clearly show several years of cold weather that stunted growth beginning in A.D. 536 and especially after A.D. 540-541. The rings show similar events that began in 1628 B.C. and 1159 B.C., and rare written documents of those times seem also to describe cataclysmic social collapse.
What weapon does nature wield that is powerful enough to alter the course of civilizations within a few years? The most likely explanation, the best fit with the evidence, is that described by both Chinese and Europeans as dragons in the sky: Pieces of comets (or perhaps of asteroids) crashed into Earth, spewing a veil of dust that encircled the world and dimmed the sun.
A much larger and rarer bolide (an exploding meteoric fireball) is assumed to have ended the reign of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. A smaller and more common one exploded over the Tunguska River in the Siberian wilderness 91 years ago with 2,000 times the power of the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. And just five years ago, astronomers watched the fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plow spectacularly into Jupiter.
I believe the association between the tree-ring data and historical documents and folktales is real: Earth faced catastrophic environmental dislocation at or around 1628 B.C., 1159 B.C., and A.D. 540 (and probably in 2354 B.C. and 208 B.C., as well) because of near-miss comets, either through dust-loading of the atmosphere as Earth passed through the comet's dusty tail or through direct bombardment by cometary fragments. (They must have been near misses, because if we had been hit by a full-blown comet in the past 10,000 years or so, we wouldn't be here today.) This hypothesis is not proven, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.
The strongest evidence comes from tree rings and the science of dendrochronology. Tree rings record the age of a tree, with a distinct ring of growth produced each year. The width of each ring depends on growing conditions, so each year's growth in a particular area leaves a unique signature (a reflection of fat, moderate, or lean growing conditions) in the tree-ring record.
By calibrating the rings through progressively older trees from a specific region, archaeologists can build millennia-long chronologies that allow them to date ancient wooden artifacts. (See Discovering Archaeology, May/June, page 45.) The pattern of tree rings in an artifact can be matched to the regional chronology to determine the year in which the tree died.
A less-well-known consequence of these chronologies is that we can now identify periods in which trees grew very little or not at all. This is indicated by clusters of extremely narrow rings, which suggest extremely cold growing seasons. A band of these narrow rings occurred after A.D. 540 and lasted about six years in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America.
Similar ring patterns are found around 1159 B.C. and 1628 B.C. These dates may coincide with the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations across Eurasia. They may also be recalled in the biblical book of Exodus and contemporary records from China.
The first inkling that tree rings might record catastrophic events came in the mid-1980s from dendrochronologist Val LaMarche and volcanologist Kathy Hirschboeck. In the extremely long-lived bristlecone pines of the western United States, they noted a frost-damage ring at 1627 B.C. and suggested it might reflect the massive eruption of the Santorini volcano in the Aegean Sea. Similar frost rings followed the eruptions of Krakatoa in Indonesia (1883) and Katmai in Alaska (1912).
After a major volcanic eruption, Earth is veiled by a layer of fine debris circulating in the stratosphere. This layer reflects sunlight away from Earth, causing the surface to cool.
As a result of their suggestion, I searched the ring patterns derived from oak logs that had been preserved in the peat bogs of Ireland. I found that many trees exhibited the worst growth - the narrowest rings - of their lifetimes starting in 1628 B.C. Only a few other such events were seen in the rings, but two others were at 1159 B.C. and A.D. 540. Those years are close to dates for acid-rich layers (attributed to volcanic eruptions) that had been identified in ice cores taken in Greenland. We seemed to be onto something.
Mandate of Heaven
Then astronomer Kevin Pang of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) noted that 1628 B.C. and 1159 B.C. roughly mark the beginning and end of the Shang Dynasty of Bronze Age China. Both ends of the dynasty featured, according to ancient Chinese texts, environmental disasters - dimming of the sun and summer frosts that caused crop failures and famine. Pang notes also the Chinese concept of "mandate of heaven," wherein a dynasty reigned only as long as it protected the well-being of its people. This notion might have originated in the coincidence of dynastic change and climatic disaster.
The Caltech team also noted similar descriptions from A.D. 536-545 that describe climatic disruptions that led to catastrophic famines and great loss of life.
Much was going on in the world around these three dates. The four centuries of the Greek Dark Ages, which began after the Mycenaean era of mainland Greece collapsed amid great social upheaval, are thought to have begun in the twelfth century B.C. This period also saw the end of the once-mighty Hittite civilization of Anatolia in the Near East and of Bronze Age Israel.
The situation in Egypt is more ambiguous. Egypt's prosperous New Kingdom grew out of a century or so of warfare and upheaval known as the Second Intermediate Period, which itself followed the end of the Middle Kingdom. The New Kingdom has been dated from 1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C. While that is 70 years later than our two dates (1628 B.C. and 1159 B.C.), the time span is almost exactly the same. Some scholars have questioned traditional Egyptian dating, and it seems possible the timing of the New Kingdom, some 3,500 years ago, might be a little off.
Then the volcano hypothesis began to dim. Volcanologists noted that volcanoes normally would not be powerful enough to collapse dynasties - the dust and acid, even if sufficient to dim sunlight, washes out of the atmosphere within a few years. And a review of the ice-core evidence from Greenland failed completely to confirm an exceptional volcanic eruption at A.D. 540.
It appears now that something far more damaging than volcanoes may have been at work here, especially after seeing unassailable proof that comets can hit planets: the extraordinary spectacle of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter in 1994. Comets appear in Chinese records of events at the beginning and end of the Shang dynasty. Were the catastrophic environmental downturns at 1628 B.C., 1159 B.C., and A.D. 540 caused by encounters with comets?
Archaeologists and astrophysicists do not necessarily read each other's work, and it mostly escaped notice that three British cometary astrophysicists - Mark Bailey, Victor Clube, and Bill Napier - had published a highly relevant paper in 1990. They wrote that Earth had been at increased risk of bombardment by cometary debris in the period A.D. 400-600. They based their conclusion on the increased number of great meteor showers during that period.
It's hard to overestimate the devastation that could result from a serious bolide impact on Earth. The impact of fragments measuring between one and several hundred meters across can cause fiery, multimegaton explosions that destroy natural and cultural features across huge areas through fire blasts, earthquakes, and tidal waves (if the debris arrives over the sea).
The danger in A.D. 400-600, concluded Bailey and colleagues, was of Earth running into a "cosmic swarm" of objects the size of the one that exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908. Some astronomers believe we can expect Tunguska-type impacts every 50 years on average, while an impact with explosive power in the 1,000- to 10,000-megaton range - a super Tunguska event - is likely in any 5,000-year period. Such impacts could trigger enormous global ecological catastrophe.
Impacts between those two extremes might be expected often enough to account for these calamities. Direct evidence, however, is scanty. Associating craters to specific events is problematic at best; the Tunguska event left no significant crater at all, since the bolide exploded a few kilometers above the surface. Impacts in or over the ocean would not leave physical evidence.
We turned, then, to the written record and oral traditions. Comets were extraordinary objects that seemed rarely to escape written notice. Zachariah of Mitylene noted about A.D. 540 that - a great and terrible comet appeared in the sky at evening time for 100 days." Chinese texts about the same time say: "Dragons fought in the pond of the K'uh o. They went westward. ... In the places they passed, all the trees were broken." Similar descriptions are common throughout the Old World.
Sixth-century events generally are well-dated. But with more ancient documents and traditions, dating usually is ambivalent at best. This is why similarly spaced events in the second millennium B.C. are so interesting. What are the chances of similarly spaced events in both Hebrew and Chinese histories, both with cometary associations, arising by chance?
There is, I feel, a strong case for the contention that we do not inhabit a benign planet. This planet is bombarded relatively often. If this story is correct, we have been bombarded at least three times - and probably five times - since the birth of civilization some 5,000 years ago. And each time, the world was changed.
MIKE BAILLIE is a leading dendrochronologist and Professor of Palaeoecology at Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. His book, Exodus to Arthur, describes in detail his theory of comet encounters and turning points of civilization.
Copyright 1999, Discovering Archaeology
Discovering Archeology, July/August 1999
Moses called down a host of calamities upon Egypt until the pharaoh finally freed the Israelites. Perhaps he had the help of a comet impact coupled with a volcano. A volcano destroyed the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea (between today's Greece and Turkey) around the middle of the second millennium B.C. Researchers Val LaMarche and Kathy Hirschboeck suggest the volcano might be associated with tree-ring evidence for several years of intense cold beginning in 1627 B.C. Could that form the basis for strange meteorological phenomena recorded in the biblical book of Exodus?
In the book of Exodus, which describes events a few hundred kilometers from Santorini, we read of a pillar of cloud and fire, a lingering darkness, and the parting of the Red Sea. An enormous column of ash must have hung in the sky over the eruption (the Israelites pillar of cloud by day and fire by night?), and the volcano doubtless caused a tsunami, or tidal wave (which could have drowned a pharaoh's army). The Exodus story is traditionally dated to either the thirteenth or fifteenth century B.C. Those dates, however, depend ultimately on identifying the Pharaoh of the Oppression, and historians have never proven to which ruler that infamous title referred. Many biblical scholars will disagree, but I suggest that a seventeenth-century B.C. date is not impossible.
The argument can be bolstered. Equally catastrophic meteorological conditions are recorded in the Bible for the time of King David. Psalm 18, in reference to David, speaks of terrifying events: Earth shook and trembled. The foundations of the hills moved and were shaken. ... Smoke ... fire ... darkness ... dark waters ... thick clouds of the skies ... hailstones and coals of fire. On some chronologies, David is placed 470 years after the Exodus. The spacing between the two disastrous events recorded in Irish tree rings at 1628 and 1159 B.C. is 469 years. The Exodus story includes dust, several days of darkness, hail, dead fish, undrinkable water, cattle killed by hail, water breaking out of rocks, the earth opening, the sea parting as in a tsunami, and so on. Someone looking at the Exodus story and knowing descriptions of other distant volcanic effects might offer the possibility that the Israelites escaped from Egypt under the cover of a major natural catastrophe. There may be veiled references to comets in the biblical narrative, leading to the possibility that the Santorini eruption itself may have been triggered by a bolide (comet or asteroid) impact.
David Levy, co-discoverer of the comet that bears his and Jean Shoemaker's names, has argued that the description of the angel of the Lord in the sky over Jerusalem with a drawn sword (1 Chronicles 21) could be a reference to a comet. The Angel of the Lord was, of course, also present at the Exodus, as it was traveling in front of Israel's army. Further, there are indications that as the Israelites left Egypt, the night was as bright as midday. The nights over Europe were reported to have been daytime-bright after the only known modern bolide impact, the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908.
These stories raise the question of whether comets recorded by the Chinese at the start and end of the Shang Dynasty, at very near the same dates, were the same as the comets that may be recorded in the Old Testament. I believe that we know the answer: In the last five millennia, several dynastic changes and dark ages have been the direct result of impacts and/or volcanoes. The consequences of such events must have been devastating, leading to apocalyptic imagery in religious writing and predictions of the end of the world. Zachariah of Mitylene lived through the environmental disaster that began about 540 A.D. In the mid-550s, he wrote in his twelve-volume records of the trials the world had survived: In addition to all the fearful things described above, the earthquakes and famines and wars, ... there has also been fulfilled against us the curse of Moses in Deuteronomy." The curse included pestilence, consumption, fever, fiery blasts from the skies, mildew, a rain of powder and dust, and darkness. The curse of Moses must have seemed an appropriate description of life after the impact of a piece of a comet.
Hey, it works for me at the conceptual level. It's the dates I have a problem with. But dates are not always correct either...
Scholars, builders, designers of fine art and civic leaders all dead. Bye-Bye Civilization. Hello, bang your neighbor over the head for his stew pot time.
It would be interesting to see somebody do similar analysis using the Greenland ice layers, since they go back 100,000 years as opposed to the 7,000 represented by tree-ring analysis.
Exactly. I was discussing the 540 AD (Probable impact) event with a FReeper the other day and the fact that the Dark Ages (Beginning in 540 AD), were called the Dark Ages because it was dark. He said no-one had written about that during that time. I said, the writers were all dead. LOL. (actually it was written about)
Now there's the NEW thought for the day. ---ggg--. If you come across that article again Blam I'd like to read it.
The data is available from the following cores: Camp Century, Milcent, Dye 2, Dye 3 and Summit. Your chance to write a book? (They're not as accurate as tree rings though)
I do believe I can find it. I have to go outside and fuss at the dogs first, we have a visiting stray that has them all worked up.
Not far from the truth. Knowledge was kept in the hands of a few. If something happened to the few then the whole collapsed. Archeologists always are going on about the mysterious disappearance of some civilization or another. It is no mystery. Natural disaster or war, generally some mixture of the two can end everything very quickly. They really dont get how fragile things were back then.
I once read a book that mentioned that all the written documents we have from the year 1000 would all fit nicely into a cardboard file box with room to spare. War or fire destroyed a lot of stuff. It is really amazing that anything survived at all.
I thought you saw this the other day when I linked it to another thread on which we were both commenting.
Yes, some of it. (He's one of the reasons reputable scientists largely shun this subject today.)
"If Baillie is right, history has overlooked probably the single most important explanation for the intermittent progress of civilisation. Worse, our modern confidence in benign skies is foolhardy, and our failure to appreciate the constant danger of comet "swarms" is the result of a myopic trust in a mere 200 years of "scientific" records."
Baillie himself notes that :
"There is, I feel, a strong case for the contention that we do not inhabit a benign planet. This planet is bombarded relatively often. If this story is correct, we have been bombarded at least three times - and probably five times - since the birth of civilisation some 5,000 years ago. And each time, the world was changed."
In their book "The Origin Of Comets", Bailey, Clube, and Napier write :
"the destruction and chaos accompanying the fate of the Roman empire [midway through the First Millennium] was all but total, the almost complete breakdown of the old order leading to a loss of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of antiquity which was far from temporary."
(Most people do not know that there are 500,000 of these spread across the east coast of the US. Some think they are Tunguska type explosions/near impacts from comet fragments)
Thank you for the ping, Carry Okie
Sorry, I don't have a ping list. I just call up people who have expressed an interest in the past, also, I don't know how to do a ping list anyway. These posts usually end up either in my bookmarks or in the Gods, Graves, Glyphs files set up by Ernest_at_the_Beach. I will try to remember to ping you.
Baillie says the significant dates that show up in the tree rings are: 3195BC, 2354BC, 1628BC, 1159BC, 540AD and two 'minor' events at 207BC and 44BC. All these events, except the 540AD one, are recorded in the ice core (acid layer=volcano) data. The lack of data (acid layer)for the 540AD event in the ice cores leads him to suspect a celestial connection.
Moreover, it is silly to say the dark ages started then in some grand cataclysm. The dark ages began much earlier and were not a grand cataclysm but a slow historical process. The causes of which were not written on the sky, but in perfectly understandable and perfectly boneheaded practices of the governors of the Roman empire, in lost wars, etc. Whether the article writers like it or not, grand historical events of entirely human making are far too common to need explanation by such distant and esoteric causes.
Then there are particular claims like multi-megaton impacts every 50 years. This seems incredibly unlikely, given that all of one has ever been even remotely documented in all of recorded history, a little less than 100 years ago. By hypothesis, there were 7 others since the time of Galileo. Where are they? Where is any observation of their effects? Not even one in any location where anybody would see any aftermath?
Then there is the idea that it must be associated with comets. Um, how? A full straight on hit by an entire comet would indeed be spectacular enough, and on geological timescales (millions and hundreds of millions of years) is believeable enough. But cometary debris? Give me a break. It is more rarified than snow, and the same composition. Tossing it in seems entirely an appeal to ridiculous astrological beliefs of the distant past, which were based on entirely false ideas of what they were in the first place, let alone what they caused.
The hard realities of the matter are that sure, stuff from space can and does hit the earth, but also recorded history is but the flies of summer compared to the time scales involved in such solar system phenomena. A few thousands years is nothing, and that is all there is any real record of. As for 1159 BC and 1628 BC, the idea that anybody knows anything truly reliable about them is pretty silly, let alone shifting dates of civilizational events clear around the globe by 70 years arbitrarily. Let alone the idea that civilizational changes need any such esoteric and remote causes, when we know perfectly well that e.g. Dorians arriving can make a Greek "dark age", and Germans arriving a western European one, and Mongols arriving can revamp China, etc. There are about 100 times too many big civilizational shifts to map all of them to impacts from space.
Moreover, such explanations have a long and entirely dubious history. Sunspots and a solar minimum are suppose to explain the crisis of the early 17th century, for example. Little things like the Reformation or the 30 years war depopulating central Europe are supposed to be mere aftershocks. Yeah right. And Gustavus Adolphus was fated by a meteor, and born under the sign of whatever, too. Praetorian guards selling the empire to the highest bidder, dozens of civil wars, whole nations invading the empire, ridiculous economic practices, systematic slavery, declining population induced by all of the above and by changes in morals, are all supposed to not matter at all. Which is rather like Kim Il Sung blaming 7 years of famine in North Korea on the weather.
That would have been sufficient.
What(???) has to do with the phases of the moon?
I say in a billion years descendants of the cockroaches will be running this place.
-Ovid, The Metamorphoses
Nothing like a comet to take care of the Pogues.
Care to try again, without the big bad (childish) attitude?
I've not seen anything new. I like your idea about the pollen possibilities.
Well, certainly if the Democrats have any thing to do with it.
(11) DOUBTS ABOUT VOLCANIC CATASTROPHE AD 536
From Steve Zoraster
Although I enjoyed David Key's "Catastrophe: A Quest for the Origins of the Modern World," I ended up doubting the volcanic eruption explanation at the end of the book. Among the scientific "facts" I had trouble with were:
1) The claim that "Up to ninety-six thousand cubic miles of gas, water vapor, magma, and rock were hurled into the atmosphere." (Page 267 of the American edition.) This sounds more like a Chicxulub scale event than a larger Tambora.
2) The lack of reported tsunami impacts recorded in already literate China, Japan, or India. Krakatoa killed mainly through a tidal wave, and it is hard to understand how an event so much larger, which supposedly sundered Java from Sumatra, would not have caused a much larger tsunami, with results recorded across vast distances in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
3) Fixing the date of the eruption at 535 when the calibrated C14 dates are between 6600BC and 1300AD. (Note 1, Chapter 32. Page 316 of the American edition.)
By the way, I would like to ask Mr. Key about these issues, but don't know his e-mail. Can you or one of your readers help?
(12) SIXTH CENTURY "COMET" VECTOR
From Leroy Ellenberger < email@example.com >
I read your comments in 5 April CCNet and offer the following remarks:
1. I've read Saunders' review in New Scientist, but not Keys' book, and cannot imagine how Keys could go so far down the "volcano road" in face of the fact that there is no major volcanic acidity signal in the Greenland ice cores at ca. A.D. 540 as there is a corresponding acidity signal in Greenland for every other known major volcanic eruption in the past 2000 years, while Baillie makes a good case in Exodus to Arthur (1999), which was reviewed by New Scientist in their first issue for 1999, for a cosmic vector associated with the climate crisis in the sixth century.
2. The cosmic vector is NOT the close passage, or even an impact, of a comet, per se, but the cumulative effects of successive atmospheric accretion events over a number of years as Earth repeatedly intercepts large amounts of cometary debris from the dense portion of a meteor stream (in the case the Taurids, if Clube and Napier's model is on point, as I believe it is), whose most spectacular manifestation would be a succession of Tunguska-like detonations high in the atmosphere which greatly attenuates surface-level insolation. Baillie makes the case that much of the sixth century "dragon" lore associated with Arthur and Beowulf was inspired by such events, at which time accounts from China refer to dragons fighting at night and leaving the forests trampeled as they passed, which is not too bad for a folk-impression of a Tunguska-like event.
Clube has documented the fact that every period of millennial or eschatological concerns in the past 2000 years prior to the 19th century, marked by portents in the sky, occurred at times when Chinese records tell us the Taurid firefall flux was enhanced.
Cromwell rode the Taurid stream portents to fame and lost favor when the payoff did not turn out as he predicted. But this aspect of Cromwell's career is not dwelled upon recently nor evident in the 1960s film "Cromwell". I invite you to read my "Are Comets Evil?" at the end of the file < http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/velidelu.html > for more of the flavor of Clube & Napier's model and how its impact on culture has been largely overlooked, if not ignored.
Literacy was very high in the Empire by the standards of any period prior to the 19th century, and not confined to the clergy, nor even the clergy and nobility. Women were often well-educated (witness Anna Comnena's biography of her father, the Emperor Alexius, replete with learned references to Scripture, classical literature and the scientific theories of the day.) The author of the piece reported plainly buys the anti-Eastern line of Western European historians like Gibbon who want to claim the mantle of (pagan) Rome for their modern Western ideas, and therefore have made up the false name "Byzantine Empire" for the (Christian) continuation of the Roman Empire after Constantine moved its capital to New Rome (Constantinople).
Looking for a global or cosmic catastrophe to explain the "Dark Ages" is a bit like looking for a global or cosmic explanation for the American Civil War (or War of Northern Agression, if you prefer).
Now why don't you and JasonC go outside and play and leave it to the adults to think great ORIGINAL thoughts, speculative or not. This thead is not for amateur thinkers and pedantic regurgitators.