A research team, led by the University of Edinburgh, recently finished translating an enigmatic tablet in what could be the world’s first temple in modern-day Turkey. Their works suggests that a tablet known as the “Vulture Stone” appears to not only have a date stamp on it – the equivalent of 10,950 BCE – but it also describes a catastrophic comet swarm taking place at the same time.
Scientists have long been fascinated with this period of history, which appears to feature wildly fluctuating temperatures, regional extinction events, and even the demise or disappearance of several ancient human tribes. Could this tablet be what the authors refer to as the “smoking gun” that confirms a huge impact event took place back then, triggering these events?
This particular temple in Turkey, Göbekli Tepe, sits atop a mountain ridge. At least 13,000 years old, the site has been interpreted by experts as being either a sanctuary, a worshipping location for a cult of the dead, or an early astronomical “observatory”.
It’s clear from a wealth of archaeological evidence that ancient civilizations across the world were particularly good at documenting skyborne phenomena, from supernovae to meteor showers, even if they were unaware of what they were seeing. Plenty of ancient sites like this – such as Stonehenge – are thought to be designed around the movement of the Sun, Moon, and stars, so the idea that Göbekli Tepe has a similar architectural intent isn’t unreasonable.
The team behind this new study ran with this idea, and interpreted the carvings found around the site as being “star asterisms”, which are essentially sketches of constellations.
Based on the position of certain stars, they concluded that one of the carvings – the Vulture Stone – is actually a timestamp. They also note that the carvings appear to depict the Taurids, which is an annual meteor shower associated with the comet Encke.
Encke is thought to have been part of a larger cometary body that fragmented around 20,000 years ago. Putting all the pieces together, the team think that this is all strong – if circumstantial – evidence that a cometary swarm impacted Earth when these carvings were made, one that brought about a climatic disaster named the Younger Dryas.
Image in text: part of the Vulture Stone. Alistair Coombs/MAA