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Did a Comet Hit Earth 12,000 Years Ago?

By David Biello

Courtesy of Doug Kennett
Roughly 12,900 years ago, massive global cooling kicked in abruptly, along with the end of the line for some 35 different mammal species, including the mammoth, as well as the so-called Clovis culture of prehistoric North Americans. Various theories have been proposed for the die-off, ranging from abrupt climate change to over hunting once humans were let loose on the wilds of North America. But now nano-diamonds found in the sediments from this time period point to an alternative: a massive explosion or explosions by a fragmentary comet, similar to but even larger than the Tunguska event of 1908 in Siberia.

Sediments from six sites across North America—Murray Springs, Ariz.; Bull Creek, Okla.; Gainey, Mich.; Topper, S.C.; Lake Hind, Manitoba; and Chobot, Alberta—yielded such teensy diamonds, which only occur in sediment exposed to extreme temperatures and pressures, such as those from an explosion or impact, according to new research published today in Science.

The discovery lends support to a theory first advanced last year in that some type of cosmic impact or impacts—a fragmented comet bursting in the atmosphere or raining down on the oceans—set off the more than 1,300-year cooling period in the Northern Hemisphere known as the Younger Dryas for the abundance of an alpine flower's pollen found during the interval.

The cooling period interrupted an extended warming out of an ice age predicted by slight changes in Earth's orbit (known as Milankovitch cycles) that continues today. And it remains an unexplained anomaly in the climate record.

But a series of cometary fragments exploding over North America might explain a layer of soil immediately prior to the cooling containing unusually high levels of iridium—an element more common in cosmic wanderers like meteoroids than in Earth's crust. Paired with the fact that this layer occurs directly before the extinction of at least 35 genera of large mammals, including mammoths, it is strong circumstantial evidence for a cosmic event.

"Very strong impact indicators are found in the sediments directly above, and often shrouding in the case of Murray Springs, the remains of these animals and the people who were hunting them," says archaeologist and study co-author Doug Kennett of the University of Oregon in Eugene, the son in the father–son team helping to advance the new impact theory. "Is it a comet? Is it a carbonaceous chondrite? Was it fragmented? Was it focused? Based on the distribution of the diamonds, it was certainly large scale."

Preliminary searches further afield—Europe, Asia and South America—have turned up similar minerals and elements in sediments of the same age, Kennett says, and his own work on California's Channel Islands tells a tale of a massive burn-off, followed by erosion and a total change in the flora of the region.

"It's consistent with a fragmentary body breaking up with air shocks and possible surface impacts in various parts of North America. It could be above the ice sheet or offshore in the ocean," he says, explaining why no impact crater(s) has been found to date. "Immediate effects on the ground include high temperatures and pressures triggering major transformations of the vegetation, knocking trees over but also burning."

And that would make the climate shift of the Younger Dryas a closer cousin to the massive asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. "This is an event that happened on one day," Kennett notes. "We're going to need high-resolution climate records, archaeological records, paleontological records to try to explore the effects."