The great religious myths of the past seem so extraordinary to us - Moses leading the Jews on their exodus from Egypt, the ancient legend of Atlantis, the Chinese tales of dragons battling across the sky. Are these the stuff of legend or were ancient scholars doing the best they could to describe events beyond their comprehension? Using modern scientific knowledge, can we discover what was really happening?
Professor Mike Baillie is an expert in the field of dendrochronology, that is, tree-ring dating, at Queen's University, Belfast. Over the past 100 years, scientists across the globe have been reconstructing a global chronology of tree growth going back 10,000 years. Because tree growth varies from year to year based on environmental conditions, it is possible to study the chronologies to build up a picture of the climate that existed when these trees were alive. Using this method, scholars have identified evidence of alarming environmental events in the past, affecting the entire planet, with profound consequences for the human groups living at those times.
Allied to this work,
an independent line of investigation into historical volano activity seemed
to indicate a possible cause of these climatic shocks. By studying Greenland
ice cores for acid layers deposited after volcanic eruptions, scientists
can give broad dates for significant past eruptions. Interestingly, several
of the broad dates given matched up within the timeframe of the environmental
shocks recorded by tree ring events.
The best early candidate for an example of this volcano/catastrophe scenario was the massive eruption on the Mediterranean island of Thera, circa 1450 BC which had severe effects on the advanced Minoan civilization based on nearby Crete. This eruption is generally considered to be the best 'scientific' explanation for the legend of the lost city of Atlantis.
However, problems with this scenario began to build with the identification of a major tree ring event cenetred on 1627 BC. This conflicted with the date of 1390 (+- 50) BC which ice-core workers had identified for a major eruption. Convential Egyptian archaeology also dates the Thera eruption at 1450 BC. What was the true story? Did Thera erupt in 1450 or 1627? Was another volcano to blame for the 1390 ice-core layer? Or was something else the cause of the 1627 tree-ring event?
This led Baillie to
explore other sources of knowledge for the 2nd millenium BC, for instance
in the middle of the millenium the Xia dynasty in China came to an end,
being replaced by the Shang dynasty. From the tree rings we know that this
was a time of climactic uncertainty. The dust veil thrown up by a volcanic
eruption would mean cold weather, bad harvests, famine and even plague.
For an king proclaiming that he rules with a Mandate for Heaven, this is
a recipe for overthrow.
The Old Testament also records the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, conventionally dated at 1250 BC. This was a time of plagues, and mysterious signs in the sky. By pushing out the timeframes for these events - it is possible for the archeological dates to be incorrect by a few hundred years, can we find something to link them together and give a fuller explanation?
This is where Baillie
brings the subtitle of the book into play, 'Catastrophic Encounters With
Comets'. A strike by cometrary debris could produce similar consequnces
to a volcanic eruption - debris would block out the sun, cooling the climate;
geological disturbances may also be possible. At Tunguska in 1908 a lump
of cometray debris exploded above Siberia with a huge fireball, great noise
and earthquakes. As it was an airburst explosion, the only evidence of
the event was a huge patch of flattened forest.
If an ancient observer, and not a modern scientist had witnessed the Tunguska explosion, how would he have described it? In Exodus the Jews are led to freedom by the Angel of the Lord, standing between Earth and Heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand. Chinese myths record battles in the sky between dragons. Is this how our ancestors would visualise a comet? We should not underestimate our ancestors, nor the scope of their activities.
Baillie continues with this theme by focusing on another climactic event around 540 AD, which is clearly recorded in tree rings, but not in the ice core layers - strongly suggesting a cometary strike, and not as some have suggested, that the CIA has been covering up evidence of alien visitation! A cold spell at this time had tremendous consequences for humanity. Hundreds of thousands died as Constantinople was ravaged by plague, and the last hope of the Roman Empire crumbled. The myths surrounding King Arthur and his wizard Merlin can also be re-interpreted with comets in mind, as can the story of Beowulf and Grendel. One of the suggested dates for the death of the quasi-mythical Arthur is 539 AD.
At this point, you can see that much of the evidence that Baillie has collected in support of his cometary hypothesis requires re-interpretation, not just of myths and religious texts, but also of conventional archeological dates from Egypt and China. This could be justified if we had stronger evidence for cometary strikes at those times, by but Baillie's own admission, with comets we have a possible major vector for environmental and human change that is to all intents invisible. Most strikes would result in airburst explosions, traces of which would only be recorded in ancient texts. I would imagine that if another Tunguska event is observed by modern scientists those ancient texts will be looked at more closely, let us hope we are lucky again and it occurs in a deserted area like Siberia.
The idea that environmental events, of which comets are but one example, can have profound consequences for humanity and human history, is an idea whose time has clearly come though. Baillie persuasively argues this 'minimal' case for comets. Historians record cultural collapses and population movements since the end of the last Ice Age. Astronomers tell us that Tunguska class strikes would have happened frequently over the past 10,000 years. "In a great whodunnit of history astrophysicists have the 'gun' and archeologists-historians have the 'corpse', but no one suspects a 'shooting'. The ideas of catastrophism and environmental determinism have been so marginalized that archeologists-historians do not accept comets as even a possible vector of historical change." It seems highly implausible however, that humans have been lucky enough to escape without consequence events like Tunguska.
Unfortunately Baillie then goes on to undermine attempts to have his hypothesis taken seriously by suggesting that one way we can protect ourselves from the terrible consequences of impacts is to 'conform to the rules of the Lord of Creation and ask to be spared'. This one small paragraph opens up such a can of worms that I am at a loss to understand why Baillie would even think about putting it in.
Overall then, this book is an interesting read, although perhaps a shorter, more solidly based article would be a better introduction to the topic. I think that biblical scholars and students of ancient myths and art would find it of special interest in trying to understand what was actually being described by our ancestors. I would not however, feel comfortable arguing anything other than Baillie's 'minimal' hypothesis with anyone.
The book is referenced in "70 Great Mysteries of the Ancient World" edited by Brian M. Fagan as a category in the section "The Fall of Civilizations":
Then there are catastrophic
events of an extraterrestrial dimension, such as cometary impacts. Palaeoecologist
Michael Baillie belives scientists have overlooked one of the major causes
for the collapse of civilizations: comet swarms. We know about the huge
impact that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, but Baillie warns that
we should also look for smaller, but possibly frightening frequent events.
His tree-ring studies point to a series of global environmental traumas
over the past 2500 years, which may mark such events as the biblical Exodus,
the disasters which befell Egypt, a major famine in China and the onset
of the European dark ages. Baillie believes that massive, long-forgotten
cometary events devastated or severely weakened civilizations whose collaprse
we are still at a loss to explain.
According to Baillie, the debris associated with close-passing comets (cosmic swarms) was a major factor in the course of human history. His combination of climatological data, archaeological evidence, historical records and folklore is at present a purely hypothetical scenario. Unfortunately, scientific proof will be hard to find, for many climatic events leave few traces behind. But the Baillie hypothesis reminds us that we have much to learn about climatic and natural phenomena which have affected life on earth and may affect it again in the future.
# EXTERNAL RESOURCES
Fire, Flood and Comet : Ben Rudder reviews the book for New Scientist magazine. (9/1/99)
In the Telegraph, Robert Matthews reports on the discovery of the crater from a devastating meteor impact 4,000 years ago which probably destroyed ancient civilizations. (5/11/01)
CCNet is an internet resource site dedicated to ancient catastrophes, and has featured articles about Mike Baillie.
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