Comet may have caused catastrophe on Earth: Collision of celestial body gaining support as likely reason behind string of disasters in the sixth century

A GIANT meteor or comet fragment - the size of some of those which last week collided with Jupiter - may have played a key role in determining human history, according to new evidence.

Scientific investigations suggest that a collision between Earth and a celestial body may have been partially responsible for the final demise of classical civilisation and the onset of the Dark Ages.

Climate data and historical references point to there having been some sort of major world catastrophe around 534/535 AD which had the effect of massively polluting the atmosphere and creating a nuclear-style winter.

Some scientists have speculated that a huge volcanic eruption was to blame, but others are now concluding that it may have been caused not by a volcano - but by a cosmic collision between Earth and a comet or large meteor up to two-thirds of a mile in diameter.

The evidence for some sort of disaster in the mid-530s, comes from an analysis from tree-ring data - an indelible record of past climate fluctuations. Data from north America and Europe show a large and sudden slow-down in tree growth which lasted for about 15 years. As a hemisphere- wide event it is the only one known of its kind. But normal scientific tests to find a volcanic cause have so far failed to discover any trace of an eruption in the mid-530s.

'The tree-ring and historical evidence tells us clearly that there was a catastrophic event at that time. If, as now seems likely, it was not volcanic in origin, then a cosmic collision is the only other real option,' said a leading UK palaeoecologist, Professor Mike Baillie, of Queen's University, Belfast, who has just published the key tree-ring data in the British scientific journal The Holocene.

'The disaster coincided with a deepening of the Dark Ages - and appears to mark a turning point in human history,' he said. Ancient chroniclers recorded that the sun 'became dim' and 'its darkness lasted for 18 months'.

The crops failed in Italy, Mesopotamia, China, the British Isles and elsewhere - and terrible famines, plague and war broke out causing long-term economic and urban decline. In some parts of China, 70-80 per cent of the population died.

The cosmic explanation is probably the front runner - because a large volcanic eruption would normally leave an acid 'signature', detectable in ice cores obtained from deep within the Greenland ice-cap.

These cores - up to two miles long - have enabled vulcanologists to plot the volcanic history of the past 9,000 years. However no trace of any eruption for the mid-530s has been found. 'The volcanic option is the least likely explanation,' said Dr Claus Hammer, an ice core expert at Copenhagen University.

The location on Earth of any sixth-century meteor collision remains a complete mystery. If the impact was on land, the crater should have come to light, although - especially if now flooded - it could well have been misidentified as of volcanic origin. There are also numerous meteor craters around the world's land surface - and not all have so far been firmly dated. The most impressive - Meteor Crater in Arizona - was formed tens of thousands of years ago. Other possible impact sites would include shallow water on continental shelves, and the Antarctic.

According to astrophysicists, a solid-rock meteor capable of causing a worldwide dust veil of the intensity described by the chroniclers, would have had to have been up to two-thirds of a mile in diameter, while a comet fragment would have needed to be one to two miles across.

The celestial body, whatever it was, would have collided with Earth at a speed of at least 10 miles a second - producing an explosion of several hundred thousand megatons (equal to more than one million Hiroshima bombs).

The crop failures, caused by the atmospheric dust veil and the consequent dimming of the sun and climatic disaster, appear in turn to have had large-scale social and political repercussions.

In the Middle East and Europe famine and poverty in the 530s seem to have been a factor in the emergence and spread of the first known great outbreak of bubonic plague in the early-540s. In Constantinople, 45 per cent of the half-million population died from the disease, which spread rapidly throughout the Middle East and Europe and re-emerged many times.

Constantinople's population shrank from around 500,000 in 520 AD to 25,000 by 650 AD.

In China, the mid-530s catastrophe coincides exactly with one of Chinese history's most mysterious events - the total desertion of the Chinese imperial capital Loyang in 534 AD, when the emperor inexplicably ordered its half- million citizens to abandon the metropolis.

This was followed by the political collapse of northern China in 535-545 after 150 years of stability and by an unexplained descent into economic and social chaos by southern China in the 540s after 200 years of economic progress.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - BIM Software - £55,000 OTE

£40000 per annum + OTE £55,000 +Pension : h2 Recruit Ltd: An excellent opportu...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Commodities Brokers / Sales / Closers / Telesales

£10000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Investment consultancy firm sp...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is recr...

Langley James : IT Support, Bradford £16k - £22k

£16000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Langley James : IT Support, Bradford £16...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital