The Problems of Building High-Tech From a Meteoroid Wreck

by Bob Kobres

Part C

The contemporary picture of pre-history has been pieced together with total disregard for the effects impact phenomena had on our ancestors. Obviously the image of our past will be much different when this newly discovered influence is factored in. As already mentioned, it is becoming clear that much ancient lore which has been labeled as pure fiction is actually rooted in fact. It should therefore, not be surprising to find that one of the most ubiquitous topics of folklore, "the fall of mankind," stems from the most damaging of recent impact events.

The notion that humanity at one time lived in a pleasant bountiful environment, where people enjoyed long lives free from warfare and arduous labor, has been shown by contemporary archaeological studies to be a pretty accurate description of late Pleistocene life-style. In his book How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth (1986 English ed.), Swedish researcher Bjorn Kurten concludes a chapter on Pleistocene cave art by saying:

. . . One thing is evident, no matter how paradoxical it sounds: it is a materially as well as spiritually rich culture that is reflected in the painted caves; it is also a culture without wars and without heroes apart from the ordinary man and woman. And it was the tremendous productivity of the mammoth steppe that enabled it to flourish. No Stone Age people of the present day has so rich a material base. Then came the end of the Ice Age, and the great crisis. The spreading forests and the increasing warmth spelled death to many animals and thinned the ranks of others. And so man had to work in the sweat of his brow, his life span was shortened, cannibalism, slavery, and war became prevalent . . .Oh well, I am exaggerating. But it is true nonetheless.

Actually, the only truth stretching Kurten employed here is his assertion that the spreading forest and increased warmth can explain the loss of so many animals. This is merely one theory among many that have been put forth in an attempt to pin down the cause of what is generally called the mega-fauna extinction.

The Swedish edition of Kurten's book was published in 1981; at this time the most popular hypothesis was Paul S. Martain's over-kill scenario. Simply put, this explanation attributes the demise of the large herbivores to our ancestors' hunting zeal. What gave this idea credence was a five thousand or so year gap between the youngest dated mammoth finds on the Euro-Asian continent and the most recent date for animals uncovered in North America. This hiatus seemed to rule out climate change as the culprit, and since there was little well-dated evidence of humans being in North America prior to fourteen thousand years ago, it appeared as if our forebears could have been guilty. Martain's scenario also squared well with a prevalent negative view of human nature. As ruthless hunters, we first eliminated the long-nosed plant eaters from the Old World, and when a path became available across the Bering Strait, we invaded a New World where it was especially easy to bop the animals, the poor beasts being naive and not knowing to fear humans. The New World animals' ignorance of "true" human nature seemed to explain why their decline appeared to have been more rapid than the supposed earlier disappearance of their more wily cousins in the Old World. Kurten obviously did not favor this over-kill hypothesis when he wrote his book, and, as more evidence comes to light, it now appears that humanity will be exonerated from this rap.

Presently, attention is again focusing on climate change as the phenomenon responsible for the mega-fauna extinction. The evidence, however, indicates that it was not a slow shift to warmer weather which did the large animals in, but a sudden shift to cold.

Over the past decade, significantly improved techniques for determining when some past event occurred have become available to researchers. The ability to obtain dates with less material and cross check them via other methods is rapidly dissipating the "fog" that formerly shrouded prehistory. For instance, there has been for quite some time now, evidence for very early human occupation of the Americas. The problem was, and to a lesser degree still is, the small number of early dating sites. Since such evidence was in conflict with the widely accepted notion of a late human arrival, these early dates were generally held to be suspect and probably due to natural contamination or sloppy procedures. Improved dating techniques, combined with a growing number of sites which date well before fourteen thousand years ago, have made it much more difficult to deny an early presence of humanity in the Americas. Similarly, a number of mammoths have been uncovered in the Old World which date much later than those previously found. Even though the quantity of such finds is low, the quality of dating is quite high, and they have been accepted as strong evidence that the large animals did not disappear from that part of the world significantly earlier than their cousins in the New World.

As mentioned earlier, an abrupt onset of frigid weather, known as the Younger Dryas cold event, is fast becoming the prime suspect in the mega-fauna extinction case. Suddenly, around eleven thousand years ago, glaciers which had been receding for several millennia were reestablished up to a thousand miles south of where they had been earlier. Modern dating techniques have, over the past few years, allowed scientists to determine that these glaciers formed and then dissipated in less than four hundred years--possibly within a century. The cause of this severely rapid flip-flop in climate is not yet known. There is, though, a very, very good possibility that the agent which formed the Carolina Bays produced this environmental crisis.

In 1930 an aerial survey covering around five hundred square miles of South Carolina coastal plain was undertaken. This mosaic of photographs revealed some quite unusual features--the area looked as if some outraged giant had blasted it with a colossal shotgun. Newly discovered impact craters were big news in the early thirties: some large structures had been discovered in Australia (Henbury Craters), and British explorer James Philby was, in 1932, led to find some impressive and actually fairly recent craters in the Arabian desert (Wabar Craters), by a guide who sang:

From Qariya strikes the sun upon the town;

Blame not the guide that vainly seeks it now,

Since the Destroying Power laid it low,

Sparing nor cotton smock nor silken gown.

That same year geologist Frank A Melton and physicist William Schriever, both of the University of Oklahoma, had finished a lengthy study of the unusual features revealed by the flying camera two years earlier. They reported their findings at a 1932 meeting of the Geological Society of America, and these were published the following year in the Journal of Geology, under the title "The Carolina Bays--Are They Meteorite Scars?" Later that year (1933), Edna Muldrow captured the attention of Harper's Monthly readers with this opening paragraph:

What would happen if a comet should strike the earth? We do not like to dwell o that possibility, it is true; yet such evasion arises mainly because we are human and it is human to shun the unpleasant. So we bolster our sense of security by the assumption that what has not happened will not happen. This assumption is false. The truth is that the earth in the past has collided with heavenly bodies, and the more serious truth is that it may collide again.

After informing readers of Melton and Schriever's work, Muldrow concludes her six and a half page article, "The Comet That Struck The Carolinas," with a rather graphic "if" scenario:

If the disaster of the Carolinas should repeat itself in the vicinity of New York City, all man's handiwork extending over a great oval spreading from Long Island to Ohio, Virginia, and Lake Ontario would be completely annihilated. One-half of the people, one-third of the wealth of the United States would be completely rubbed out. The world's greatest metropolis would lie a smoking ruin, . . . . Only a few broken struts set awry and throwing lengthened shadows across sullen lagoons would survive as reminders of the solid masonry of the city . . . .

Outside this devastated area would be a larger ellipse, one thousand miles across, where compressed air had worked its will. Its force would level every city, every building; its fiery breath would kill every living thing as far west as Minneapolis and Kansas City, and as far south as Jackson, Mississippi, and Montgomery, Alabama.

Even Europe would not escape, for every Atlantic coastal plain would be ravaged by an enormous tidal wave put in motion when the compressed air forced the Atlantic back beyond the continental shelf.

Many readers of the present article are no doubt wondering why they have never heard of this comet that struck the Carolinas. The answer is scientific controversy--the issue is still "up in the air" so to speak. Melton and Schriever's theory enjoyed about two years of broad acceptance before more "down to earth" explanations started coming forth. None of the terrestrial theories were, until recently, any more testable than the comet strike idea; they were, however, more in line with the picture of a slowly changing Earth, and so were more acceptable to those who favored that view.

The controversy over the origin of the Carolina Bays is a bit too involved to go into here. Interested readers should pick up a copy of Henry Savage's The Mysterious Carolina Bays (1982) for a full historic account. For the purpose of this article it is enough to say that William Prouty, who spent the most time (sixteen years) actually studying these 'bays,' believed them to be impact structures which were formed at the end of the Pleistocene and prior to at least one rise in sea level. This researcher, who was head of the University of North Carolina geology department, died in 1949 and so had no access to radioactive carbon dating. What is notable is that Prouty's stratigraphically derived date places the formation of these features just prior to the younger dryas cold event which is now well dated. Very little research on the origin of the Carolina Bays has been done since Prouty's death. This should soon change.

The in-process shift of research paradigm away from gradualism has renewed interest in features like the Carolina Bays (the number of identified impact structures has risen by several hundred percent over the past decade). Researchers, though, face quite a project in establishing conclusive evidence of the Carolina Bays being impact structures. There are about half a million of these elliptical formations, and they are found along the Atlantic coast from Maryland down into northern Florida. Their number and wide geographic distribution was often used as an argument against an impact origin. To establish them unequivocally as caused by an impact event, a significant number (at least twenty) of 'bays,' located in disparate regions of their occurrence will need to be excavated. This translates into a fairly hefty grant proposal, particularly when the cost of performing definitive tests on materials recovered during excavations is included. Federally provided research money, with the exception of what goes toward new weapon systems, has not been plentiful of late. This makes it difficult for scientists to take on a project like the Carolina Bays. Perhaps this article will help hasten funding for such an undertaking. The money does not have to come from federally endowed sources. In the opinion of this author it will be money well spent; for, if the Carolina Bays are proven to be impact features which were formed a little over eleven thousand years ago, we will have found "Lucifer's" footprints.

The widespread association of an evil serpent with the loss of a happier time for humanity is not due to coincidence, and if certain aspects of this common myth are due to cultural diffusion, these could have just as easily come from the New World to the Old --possibly by way of the red paint people, a recently discovered coastal culture that flourished around seven thousand years ago. This culture left similar artifacts on both sides of the north Atlantic and so probably told basically the same stories on either shore. The idea that our early ancestors were strictly pedestrian is fast fading. It is now established that humans have been in Australia for over forty thousand years--they did not wade there. This aside, one can see even in the familiar Hebrew version of the expulsion from Eden metaphorical signs of explicable extraterrestrial influence. The "fallen angel," Lucifer, in the guise of a "serpent," causes the "immortal old man in the sky" to become angry with his children (creations in "his" likeness) and punish them by expulsion from their sustaining garden, which "he" then guards with "his flaming sword." Much more telling, however, are the stories which were retained by the people in the New World. These bring forth details not found elsewhere. For example, the Walam Olum, a traditional history of the Leni Lenape (Delaware Indians), provides both pictographic and linguistic features which suggest that the "good ole days" were brought to a close by a celestial, "serpentine," intruder.

The symbols, and accompanying text, shown, are from The Lenape and Their Legends, first published in 1884. Noted ethnologist, Daniel G. Brinton, authored this work which concludes with his new translation of the Walam Olum. Prior to presenting the actual text and symbols, Brinton offers his readers a general synopsis of this valuable native American record:

The myths embodied in the earlier portion of the Walam Olum are perfectly familiar to one acquainted with Algonkin mythology. They are not of foreign origin, but are wholly within the cycle of the most ancient legends of that stock. Although they are not found elsewhere in the precise form here presented, all the figures and all the leading incidents recur in the native tales picked up by the Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century, and by Schoolcraft, McKinney, Tanner and others in later days.

The cosmogony describes the formation of the world by the Great Manito, and its subsequent despoliation by the spirit of the waters, under the form of a serpent. The happy days are depicted, when men lived without wars or sickness, and food was at all times abundant. Evil beings, of mysterious power, introduced cold and war and sickness and premature death. Then began strife and long wanderings.

However similar this general outline may be to European and Oriental myths, it is neither derived originally from them, nor was it acquired later by missionary influence.

The comet like pictograph, representing the "Mighty Snake," is drawn much as other cultures around the world rendered celestial serpents. This is no accident; a similar situation exists with the rolling cross symbol. Frequently associated with a deity or the sky, the swastika (a Sanskrit term) has been found on artifacts of cultures throughout the world. Until recently, the widespread use of this symbol was quite a puzzle for researchers. What solved the problem was the find, in the late seventies, of a twenty-four hundred year old silk comet atlas. This unearthed treasure, from the Han dynasty period, depicts twenty-nine comets with captions for each. As the reader can see, the last drawing is in the form of a swastika. The Chinese call this the "Long Tailed Pheasant Star" (it perhaps looked much like a walking bird when the comet's main tail, longer and less bright than the radial jets, is taken into account). The caption also indicates that this object could appear in the spring, summer, fall, or winter. As explained beneath the illustration, this and other factors make it likely that the comet we now call Encke was this "Pheasant Star." More to the point, however, is that people all over the world could see such flamboyant celestial objects; this makes it unnecessary to posit cultural diffusion theories to explain why similar motifs occur in regions which are geographically very remote from one another.

Anyone who has witnessed a water snake in pursuit of minnows can not fail to see how metaphorically apt a serpent is to describe a large comet. This author can remember vividly, as a child, chasing such a creature about in a creek with a friend. The snake, totally submerged, looked to us like the granddaddy of tadpoles. Fortunately the serpent caught its fish and surfaced before we could catch the snake. Needless to say, we were somewhat alarmed at having chased this creature for several minutes, for we did more than once, almost catch it.

This ignorance of potential peril we, as children reared in an early fifties suburban environment, almost fell victim to, has much in common with humanity's present slowness in realizing the actual danger Earth-orbit-crossing objects pose. To us, the creek was an extension of our well-manicured yards--a safe place. Similarly, scientists of the mid-nineteenth century managed to convince themselves that the Earth was safe from cosmic serpents. This is well illustrated in a note which appeared in the February 15, 1872 issue of Nature (Vol. 5, p. 310):

We have reason to know that many weak people have been alarmed, and many still weaker people made positively ill, by an announcement which has appeared in almost all the newspapers, to the effect that Prof. Plantamour, of Geneva, has discovered a comet of immense size, which is to "collide," as our American friends would say, with our planet on the 12th of August next. We fear that there is no foundation whatever for the rumour. In the present state of science nothing could be more acceptable than the appearance of a good large comet, and the nearer it comes to us the better, for the spectroscope has a long account to settle with the whole genus, which up to this present time has fairly eluded our grasp. But it is not too much to suppose that the laymen in these matters might imagine that discovery would be too dearly bought by the ruin of our planet. Doubtless, if such ruin were possible, or indeed probable--but let us discuss this point. Kepler, who was wont to say that there are as many comets in the sky as fishes in the ocean, has had his opinion endorsed in later times by Arago, who has estimated the number of these bodies which traverse the solar system as 17,500,000. But what follows from this? Surely that comets are very harmless bodies or the planetary system, the earth included, would have suffered from them long before this, even if we do not admit that the earth is as old as geologists would make it. But this is not all. It is well known that some among their number which have withal put on a very portentious appearance are merely the celestial equivalents of our terrestrial "wind-bags".

It is important for the reader to understand that the view expressed above did not vanish due to the work of Barringer and others who found evidence of past impact events. Until recently, only the Carolina Bays presented any serious challenge to the notion of a world that changed very slowly. Small impacts were merely incorporated into this dominant view of our planet's past, their effect on Earth being seen as local and somewhat like a violent volcanic eruption. Confidence that our world's geologic and biologic history could be explained within the confines of presently observed phenomena did not really weaken seriously until the mid-nineteen-sixties. Most damning to this view which had dominated the Earth sciences for over a century was the growing number of asteroidal objects that were found where they should not be. One of these Earth-orbit-crossing objects--Icarus--had researchers quite concerned.

In July of 1966, United Press International (UPI) fed to newspapers around the world this short report:

SYDNEY, Australia (UPI) --An Australian scientist says if an asteroid now speeding toward the earth veered just slightly, it would crash into the planet with the impact of 1,000 hydrogen bombs.

Prof. S.T. Butler, professor of theoretical physics as Sydney University, made the statement in an interview with the Sydney Telegraph.

He said the asteroid known as Icarus was speeding toward the earth at 70,000 miles per hour and was expected to pass four million miles away in 1968.

"If Icarus hit the earth, it would be like the explosive power of 1,000 hydrogen bombs," Butler said. He added that four million miles away from the earth was "only a stone's throw for outer space.

Butler said scientists in the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union were closely studying the elliptical orbit of the asteroid. He said it could possibly be destroyed with a high-altitude rocket armed with a nuclear head if it neared the earth.

"It sounds fantastic," Butler said, "but we could land a rocket with pinpoint accuracy 50 million miles away and destroy it. This is where billions spent on space research pays off."

He said the scientists were keeping close tabs on the asteroid.

Butler said scientists feared that if the asteroid altered its course a fraction of a foot, it would come within the earth's gravitational pull.

Butler's suggestion that nuclear tipped rockets could be used to prevent such a collision inspired M.I.T. professor Paul Sandorff to assign, as a hypothetical problem for his systems engineering class, a detailed study of just how to go about this. "Project Icarus," as the study come to be called, drew quite a bit of attention itself. Time magazine ran an article on the endeavor in June of 1967 and the following year the class study was published as a book--Project Icarus--which is unusual for a student project. In this book the reader can find these revealing lines:

"The consequences of a collision with Icarus are unimaginable; the repercussions would be felt the world over. In dissipating the energy equivalent of half a trillion tons of T.N.T., 100 million tons of the Earth's crust would be thrust into the atmosphere and would pollute the Earth's environment for years to come. A crater 15 miles in diameter and perhaps 3 to 5 miles deep would mark the impact point, while shock waves, pressure changes, and thermal disturbances would cause earthquakes, hurricanes, and heat waves of incalculable magnitude. Should Icarus plunge into the ocean a thousand miles east of Bermuda for example, the resulting tidal wave, propagating at 400 to 500 miles per hour, would wash away the resort islands, swamp most of Florida, and lash Boston -- 1500 miles away -- with a 200-foot wall of water".

"In light of the consequences of a collision with an asteroid the size of Icarus, the possibility of such a collision, no matter how remote, cannot go unrecognized. The world must be prepared, at least with a plan of action, in case it should suddenly find itself threatened by what had so recently been considered a folly".

The words ". . . threatened by what had so recently been considered a folly" are most indicative of the alteration in world view taking place in this decade of change. Gradualism was doomed--the writing was on the wall. A little over a decade later hard evidence extracted from clay covering the dinosaurs would be on the table. Interestingly the 1979 discovery of the now famous iridium anomaly by the Alvarez team coincides with the Hollywood release of the movie Meteor, in which Earth is saved from a five-mile-across meteoroid by the combined strength of U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces. The film was inspired by "Project Icarus."

Quite a few long standing misconceptions fell by the wayside as humanity entered the "space age." New information led to new ideas. This cascade of novel input tended to liberalize academia. Students felt free to "grill" their professors on why certain views were accepted. As a result, conclusions arrived at by earlier researchers fell under closer scrutiny.

From the standpoint of this article one of the most important notions to go by the wayside was the idea that primitive people were less intelligent than we moderns. This view of "uncivilized" people was given scientific credence by Charles Darwin who predicted that, upon acceptance of his theory of evolution through natural selection, "Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation." The idea that our distant ancestors as well as contemporary "primitive" people were less mentally evolved influenced anthropological thought beyond the middle of this century. This notion of gradual mental evolution was finally put to test by the extensive field work of French social anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss who contended:

A primitive people is not a backward of retarded people; indeed it may possess a genius for invention or action that leaves the achievements of civilized peoples far behind.

Many of the books this researcher had penned were made available to English speaking people in the sixties. His works were very influential during this intense period of social change.

With this egalitarian view of our prehistoric ancestors, anthropologists are now much less apt to make hasty, condescending judgments about why certain handed down traditions came about. Legends of great floods are no longer simply dismissed as watered up versions of an unusually bad conventional flood. However, the realization that many such stories were not just exaggerations is not based exclusively on a greater appreciation of our early ancestors' ability to discriminate between a bad flood and a DELUGE.

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