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The Hopewell Culture, a vast, interconnected series of Native American societies ranging from Canada to Florida, flourished between 100 and 500 BC.
But its sudden decline, over a thousand years before Columbus brought knowledge of the New World back to Europe, has never been explained.
Now researchers working at a number have different Hopewell Culture sites say they’ve found evidence that a comet could have exploded above North America, bringing death and destruction that spelled the end of a civilisation.
High concentrations of concentrations of iridium and platinum at eleven dig sites suggest an extraterrestrial impact, and a layer of charcoal at around the same depth across the region has led archaeologists to believe that there could have been a massive, intense fire at around the date that the Hopewell societies began to fade.
Anthropologists have connected the physical evidence with ancient tales of a massive calamity that befell the first Americans.
Kenneth Tankersley, from the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, writes in a paper published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports that the Miamis, one of a group of people known as the Great Lakes Tribes, have stories of “a horned serpent that flew through the sky and dropped rocks on the ground before plummeting into the river,”
“When you see a comet going through the air, it would look like a big snake," he said.
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Tankersley says the the Shawnee, who lived in the Northeastern Woodlands at that time, have a legend of a “sky panther” that destroyed whole forests.
He also points out that "the Ottawa speak of a day when the Sun fell from the sky. And when a comet hits the thermosphere, it would have exploded like a nuclear bomb”.
"What's fascinating is that many different tribes have similar stories of the event," Tankersley said.
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His co-author David Lentz says that the impact would have caused a devastating famine: ”It looks like this event was very injurious to agriculture.
"People didn't have good ways to store corn for a long period of time. Losing a crop or two would have caused widespread suffering."
Jewellery and other artefacts from the period also show that people were using large amounts of meteorite material.
Tankersley says that while some of the evidence might also point to a huge volcanic eruption, the presence of large amounts of iridium is a strong indication that some extraterrestrial event spelled the end of the Hopewell people.
The explosion caused by a comet grazing the Earth’s atmosphere would have caused fires spreading over 9,000 square miles.
Some 69 visible comets were recorded in chronicles by ancient Chinese astronomers at around this time,
Steven Meyers, who was also involved in the Hopewell research, says the new discovery could shed new light on how cosmic events affected prehistoric people around the world.
“Science is just a progress report,” Meyers said. “It’s not the end. We’re always somewhere in the middle. As time goes on, more things will be found.”
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