For a cosmic week, news of the distant past and the skies above

By Tom Baxter

For a week when so many eyes have been fixed on the heavens, here’s some celestial news worth a closer look.

There’s a British writer named Graham Hancock who specializes in what has been described as “alternative history” or “pseudo-archaeology,” a genre that uses cosmic explanations to explain ancient events. As a boy I read with fascination Immanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision,” which offered extraordinary explanations for all sorts of things. I had moved on by the time Erich von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” came out, but it’s a more recent example.

In his books “Fingerprints of the Gods” and “Magicians of the Gods,” Hancock has argued than an ancient civilization, older than any we’ve known about, was destroyed when a comet struck the earth in about 10,450 BC, causing its axis to shift so that the civilization ended up where Antartica is now.

Hancock has no scientific training in the subjects he writes about, and experts have roundly rejected his ideas as bunk.  Every now and then, however, lightning strikes, or to put it in more scientific terms, somebody takes another look at a rock.

At a site called Potbelly Hill, or Gobeckli Tepe in Turkish, archaeologists have for several years been excavating the oldest monumental center so far discovered. Gobeckli Tepe, located about 20 miles north of the Syrian border, is thought to be about 12,000 years old.

Gobeckli Tepe has been challenging conventional ideas for years now, because it seems to suggest that people were building stone temple complexes and carving pictograms — pictures that stand for ideas — before there is any evidence they had begun growing crops and raising livestock. That turns our understanding of how early civilizations developed completely around.

At first, archaeologists took the strange carvings on the huge slab known as the Vulture Stone to be associated with burial rituals from that period. Then last April, two engineers at the University of Edinburgh, Martin Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis, published a startling hypothesis. They believe the Vulture Stone is a grim memorial to an event in which the earth was struck by a shower of comet fragments, with precise astronomical indicators to mark a date around 10,950 BC. Gobeckli Tepe, they say, was an observatory built after this global catastrophe to track meteors and comets.

People who are serious about these things will no doubt object to the prominent mention of Hancock, who has made lots of claims that haven’t been proven. Others have proposed, based on as-yet unsettled geological evidence, that a comet strike around this time caused huge changes to the earth’s environment. But one way to appreciate the revolutionary nature of what the Scottish researchers are proposing is to note that they sound closer to Hancock than his detractors.

Even without the wilder theories, Gobeckli Tepe poses some real challenges to our understanding of the past. It’s only a detail in the larger story, but if those who believe parts of a huge comet struck the earth are correct, the comet would have been have been a presence in the sky rivaling the sun and moon for 10,000 to 20,000 years before it struck. How would that have affected the human imagination, and how would our ancestors have accounted for its disappearance?

The date the researchers think is recorded on the Vulture Stone comes within 60 years of the estimated beginning of the Younger Dryas Cold Event, when the Northern Hemisphere, which had been getting warmer since the previous ice age, changed directions very abruptly and grew cooler and drier.

Whether the comet caused this, and whether the Vulture Stone is a memorial to the disaster, the Younger Dryas marked the beginning of settled agriculture and cities, as the abundant resources previously available to hunter-gatherers grew scarcer. We thought writing and monumental architecture also began in this period, before the discoveries at Gobeckli Tepe.

There’s reason to hope Hancock just got lucky on this one: He also believes that a large chunk of that comet is still out there, and will return to wipe us all out in 2030. His writings aren’t subject to peer review, but presumably the Edinburgh researchers’ theory is being subjected to an exhausting examination. There could be much more to learn from the excavation at Potbelly Hill, assuming, God forbid, no one blows it up. We wait for new developments from the distant past and the skies above.

 

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

1 reply
  1. Jeff Nesmith says:

    Tom: The Younger Dryas refer to a small tundra plant that disappeared with the melting of glaciers in northern Europe, then mysteriously returned to the fossil record for several centuries. This happened because a melting North American ice sheet broke loose and dammed what was to become the Mississippi River, sending glacial melt water that normally would have flowed into the Gulf of Mexico rushing into the North Atlantic instead, along a path roughly corresponding to what is now the St. Lawrence River. This infusion of freshwater caused the north Atlantic to become less salty and stopped the gradual northward movement of Atlantic water. The latter process normally occurs because water evaporates from the north Atlantic and a portion of it falls as rain or snow onto Pacific Ocean drainage basins in northern Canada, rather than back into the Atlantic. The resulting imbalance causes north Atlantic surface water to become overly saline, meaning heavier, and it sinks, creating an oceanwide drift northward that pulls heat from the equator. Without that heat conveyor, northern Europe became colder and the melting of the Ice Age was temporarily interrupted. Receding glaciers returned to northern Europe — until the Mississippi “ice dam” melted and normal processes could resume. (See accounts published by Wallace Broecker of the Lamont Dogherty Observatory.) The “huge comet” was probably a hell of a lot of snow. Jeff NesmithReport

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