Skip to comments.Did Comets Cause Ancient American Extinctions?
Posted on 05/07/2008 6:40:10 PM PDT by blam
Did Comets Cause Ancient American Extinctions?
for National Geographic News
May 6, 2008
Debate has heated up over a controversial theory that suggests huge comet impacts wiped out North America's large mammals nearly 13,000 years ago.
The hypothesis, first presented in May 2007, proposes that an onslaught of extraterrestrial bodies caused the mass extinction known as the Younger Dryas event and triggered a period of climatic cooling.
The theory has been debated widely since it was introduced, but it drew new scrutiny in March at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada.
Stuart Fiedel from the Louis Berger Group, a private archaeological firm in Richmond, Virginia, argued that the theory fails to address some major questionslike how comet blasts could have wiped out woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats in North America, while leaving humans unscathed.
"If this [impact] was powerful enough to fricassee mammoths and mastodons and short-faced bears and other big fauna that were on the landscape, you would think that it would have decimated the human population as wellnot only by direct thermal shock but by wiping out much of their food source," said Fiedel, who presented his criticisms of the theory to a packed crowd.
"So you should have a marked fall-off or termination of human populations, and we don't see that.
"Ultimately the judgment is supposed to be based on whether this thing works when you throw it at the data, and vice versa," he said.
"And right now I don't think some fairly obvious things are explained by it."
Global Cooling Mystery
No matter how it happened, experts agree that Earth got a shock to its system 12,900 years ago.
The world was in the middle of thawing out from the last ice age, when the Younger Dryas event inexplicably plunged it back into near glacial temperatures. This anomalous period lasted for about 1,300 years.
One widely accepted hypothesis suggests that melting ice sheets and glacial lakes 12,000 years ago dumped so much meltwater into the oceans that it disrupted ocean circulation. This in turn cooled much of the planet, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. Also around this time, large mammals including mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels, and saber-toothed cats went extinct in North America.
Previous hypotheses have suggested that early humans wiped out the large animals in a prolonged act of slaughter referred to by scientists as overkill.
Also around this time, the prehistoric Clovis culture disappeared in North America, while other ancient cultures such as the Folsom began to flourish.
James Kennett, a geologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is one of the main proponents of the comet-impact hypothesis.
He said the theory is consistent in explaining and linking these various phenomena.
"We suggest it's a series of aerial bursts, more of a multiple Tunguska event like a shotgun," he said, referring to the explosion of an extraterrestrial object over Siberia in 1908.
This would also explain evidence of fires across swaths of North America, Kennett said.
He and his colleagues have also found widespread and abundant minuscule diamonds and magnetic particles in the layer of Earth that dates to this time.
These features were formed in the extremely hot and high-pressure environment created by the series of explosions, Kennett suggests.
"It's obviously an outrageous hypothesis in the sense that it wasn't predictedit has come out of left field," Kennett said.
"But all I can say is that I don't know of any other process that can account for the wide display of data that we have and continue to generate other than some kind of an extraterrestrial impact."
South American Quandary
In Fiedel's critique of the theory, he also cited evidence from the archaeological record that he said is inconsistent with the comet hypothesis.
"There's the apparent lack of synchrony with what goes on in South America," he noted.
Radiocarbon dating and other data suggest that the megafauna of South America survived for centuries after their cousins up north were wiped out, Fiedel said.
"You have to ask what kind of blast might peter out by the time it gets to Mexico and not have much effect on South America," Fiedel said.
Kennett agreed that this could be seen as a discrepancy.
"South America is a critical testing point of [the theory]," he said.
But the northern and southern extinction dates based on radiocarbon techniques could be viewed as synchronous, he argued, given their margins of error.
More data need to be collected from the region to better understand the exact timing of the extinctions in South America, he added.
Gary Haynes is an anthropologist at the University of Nevada in Reno.
He said he isn't sure these questions could ever be answered based on radiocarbon data.
"[The Younger Dryas event] is occurring around the time [when] it's almost impossible to get precise dates, because of radiocarbon variations in the atmosphere," Haynes said.
An increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the Younger Dryas event is believed to have made radiocarbon dating from the period imprecise.
"That's always going to be very hard to decide for sure," said Haynes.
"So talking about causation based on that sort of imprecision, you can't do it."
For his part, Kennett pointed out that the theory is still in its early days.
At the moment, only one academic paper about the theory has been published. More are in the works, he said, based on the additional data and analyses he and his colleagues have done over the past year.
"This group is the first group that's ever systematically carried out any examination for the possibility of an extraterrestrial impact at about the time of the megafaunal extinction," he said.
"Now, basically, we are in the mode of testing the hypothesis. It's going to take some time."
I scan headlines on here and 9 times out of 10 I can tell which are your threads.
They tend to be the more cogent and interesting.
A most likely cause was an ancient and earth minded ancestor of Albert Gore.
“”You have to ask what kind of blast might peter out by the time it gets to Mexico and not have much effect on South America,”
Well, for one thing, an explosion’s force falls off as the cube of the distance (not the square) so the difference between Michigan and Michoacan could be considerable.
Tunguska flattened square miles when it hit yet Petrograd was unscathed.
I think it is interesting that not one Clovis Point has been found to have been made after this event.
Perhaps the megafaunas turned gay and lesbian.
At lease Noah saw it coming and found a solution.
Who here has built an arc; or would we need just some good flood insurance, like these folks had?
A comet hits the earth, and there would be at least 40 days and nights of cyclones and hurricanes!
I've used this graph on occasion to show people that Al Gore's CO2-temperature correlation is really a REVERSED one. Because one can clearly see that temperature increases (blue line) actually PRECEEDED CO2 increases (red line) all throughout this 400,000 year time interval. In fact, by an of average 800 years! Yet Gore makes the dishonest claim that it was CO2 that warmed the earth to get us out these past 4 glaciations (roughly every 100,000, the result of periodic changes in Earth's orbit and spin axis). BP = before present.
In any case, perhaps this same graph can be of use in this current discussion?
On second thought, the graph really isn’t that useful, even when zoomed 200%. I had hoped the sharp post ice age temp decrease (at ~13,000 yrs) might show up on it.
An Obama Presidency would be a good time for another comet strike.
Next idiotic brainstorm, please.
I agree that we archaeologists are missing much vital information when we simply screen the dirt to isolate (artifacts or whatever) and then toss that soil back in the hole without examining it with every possible analytical tool.
Of course, there is that ever-present limitation of cost... :-(
Possibly NASA could arrange for a comet to hit Al Gore.
The classic two birds with one stone.
I'll have to ask Mike Collins (the Gault Site) about that one...
Whatever it was, I suspect that its effects were just as pronounced in South America, possibly wiping out either an ancient Egyptian quality civilization, or the last of the giant “terror birds”, very large, predatory birds that might have existed as late as 15,000 years ago. Or both, as they might have co-existed.
When Indians later occupied the area, they had no idea who built the great cities there.
Sounds like an AGW kook theory to me. Global warming melted the glaciers which then caused global cooling. Somehow I have a hard time buying into the warming causes cooling theory.
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