Ancient Rock Art Might Be The World's Earliest Depiction Of A Supernova

The supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (not drawn by an ancient artist). NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC/SAO

Around 6,000 years ago, a gorgeously bright object glowed above the skies of modern-day Kashmir. Somebody, it seems, was particularly inspired by this sight. 

A gang of astrophysicists and archaeologists from the Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in India have come across what they think is the earliest human depiction of a supernova. Their study was recently published in the Indian Journal of History of Science.

The illustration was carved into an irregular stone slab, no wider than 48 centimeters (18.8 inches), in the Burzahom region of Kashmir, India. Previous radiocarbon dating showed that humans lived in this area between 5000 BCE and 1500 BCE, although researchers still aren't certain about the date of the carving.

The illustration depicts two humans (with “exaggerated male organs”) and a dog hunting a stag as two huge shining star-like objects float above the horizon. Due to the proximity of the two objects, the possibility of the second object being the Moon was ruled out. So, the researchers began to sift through astronomical records to see whether it paired up with any other celestial occurrences that would have been seen by ancient humans.

One astronomical event seemed to fit the bill: a supernova known as HB9.

Does this show a supernova? Hrishikesh Joglekar et al/Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

Supernovae are astronomical events of unimaginably violent proportions. Towards the end of a massive star's life, its death is signaled out with a cataclysmic expulsion of energy. Along with bountiful amounts of visible light, these explosions also blast out X-rays, which allow scientists to detect and date past supernovae with pretty good accuracy.

According to their research, HB9 occurred around 4500 BCE, a time when this area would have been inhabited by people. On top of that, the researchers argue that the position of the mystery object also appears to correlate with the position of HB9 in relation to the Moon.

“This suggests that HB9 is the most promising candidate supernova for the pictograph,” the study reads.

"We suggest that the partially drawn object is HB9 since it would be irregular and that the second bright object is Moon [sic] since the apparent magnitude of HB9 is closer to that of the Moon."

Some will undoubtedly argue this conclusion is a bit of leap. After all, it's impossible to ever truly get into the mind of the artist, whoever they might be. Indeed, other scientists have previously conducted similar studies, only to later be debunkedNevertheless, it’s undeniable that ancient civilizations were passionate about the night sky and equally enthusiastic about documenting the world around them with cave art.

[H/T: Quartz]

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