Exploring the Nature of Myth
Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi and archaeologist Bruce Masse recently teamed to co-edit Myth and Geology (2007-Geological Society of London Special Publication 273), the first professional textbook on the nascent subdiscipline of geomythology. Geomythology pairs geological evidence of catastrophic events and reports of such events encoded into the mythological lexicon of ancient societies.
In the following contributed essay, archaeologist Thomas F. King discusses Masse's chapter "The archaeology and anthropology of Quaternary period cosmic impact," in the 2007 Springer Press book Comet/Asteroid Impacts and Human Society: An Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by geologist Peter Bobrowsky and astronomer Hans Rickman. The chapter uses geomythology to investigate the possible catastrophic comet or asteroid strike which may have led to disaster legends which have come down to us today.
Scientists who model the probabilities of comet and asteroid impacts on Earth estimate that a really devastating impact--capable of killing more than a billion people (at today's standards) and wiping out civilization as we know it--has happened only every million years or so. Archaeologist Bruce Masse thinks such impacts may have happened more frequently, or at least more recently than believed by the astrophysical community. If he's right, the danger posed by near earth objects (NEOs) is possibly greater than we've thought. Masse's ideas are detailed in "The archaeology and anthropology of Quaternary period cosmic impact," a chapter in the 2007 Springer Press book Comet/Asteroid Impacts and Human Society: An Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by geologist Peter Bobrowsky and astronomer Hans Rickman.
Bruce Masse's Passion
Masse, like many of today's archaeologists, isn't based in a museum or university, but works for a government agency--in his case, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. His day job involves managing the more than 2,000 archaeological sites on Laboratory lands--making sure they're not damaged by the Laboratory's operations. But his passion over the last few decades has been studying the archaeological and anthropological record of celestial phenomena and earthly catastrophes. In the Springer chapter he presents a startling picture of how such events may have been linked during the course of the Quaternary period--the last 2.6 million years.
Masse became interested in how cosmic phenomena like eclipses and comet encounters were perceived by ancient people while doing research in Hawaii in the late 1980s. The genealogical traditions of Hawaiian royalty, he found, were full of descriptions of things that happened in the sky--comet encounters, meteor showers, eclipses, supernovae. Some of the same events are described in historic European, Chinese, and Muslim records. Masse was able to plot dozens of precise matches between Hawaiian tradition and the astronomical observations of literate observers elsewhere in the world. The more he looked at mythology, the less mythical it appeared, where celestial phenomena were concerned.
Encoding a Cosmic Event
When he thought objectively about how myths come to be, and who creates and sustains them, it made sense that they would encode impressive and hard-to-account-for events. "A myth," he says, "is an analogical story created by highly skilled and trained cultural knowledge specialists (such as priests or historians) using supernatural images in order to explain otherwise inexplicable natural events or processes." The priest doesn't just invent his story of the sun being eaten by a giant dog; he comes up with it as a means of explaining an eclipse that has his people scared out of their wits.
Masse began examining both the mythology and the archaeology of areas around the sites where asteroids or comets were known or suspected to have fallen to earth during the Quaternary, and especially during the last 11,000 years, known as the Holocene. Science is aware of at least twenty-seven known Quaternary impact sites, marked by craters and often the remnants of meteoritic iron and melted stone. Other impacts are known from the presence of glassy melts and tektites created by an impact or explosion in the atmosphere (an airburst). Virtually all are on land, where scientists have been able to record, study, and date them using radiocarbon age determination and other geophysical methods. Since the Earth's land masses make up only about a third of the planet's surface, it follows that in the last 2.6 million years there have been roughly 75 comet/asteroid strikes potentially big enough to leave physical signs on the ground, with even larger numbers striking the oceans. Few of these were big enough to have wiped out a civilization had one existed in the neighborhood, but each one could have killed a lot of our ancestors.