At the end of the Pleistocene era, woolly mammoths roamed North America along with a cast of fantastic creatures – giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, camels, lions, tapirs and the incredible teratorn, a condor with a 16-foot wingspan.
About 12,900 years ago, these megafauna disappeared from the fossil record, as did evidence of human remains. The cause of the mass extinction and the human migration is a mystery. Now a team of scientists, including Brown University planetary geologist Peter Schultz, provides evidence that an asteroid impact likely caused the sudden climate changes that killed off the mammoths and other majestic beasts of prehistory.
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the international team lays out its theory that the mass extinctions in North America were caused by one or more extraterrestrial objects – comets or meteorites – that exploded over the Earth or slammed into it, triggering catastrophic climate change.
The scientists believe that evidence for these extraterrestrial impacts is hidden in a dark layer of dirt sometimes called a black mat. Found in more than 50 sites around North America, this puzzling slice of geological history is a mere three centimeters deep and filled with carbon, which lends the layer its dark color. This black mat has been found in archaeological digs in Canada and California, Arizona and South Carolina – even in a research site in Belgium.
The formation of this layer dates back 12,900 years and coincides with the abrupt cooling of the Younger Dryas period, sometimes called the “Big Freeze.” This coincidence intrigued the researchers, led by Richard Firestone of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who thought that the black mat might be related to the mass extinctions.
So the researchers studied black mat sediment samples from 10 archaeological sites dating back to the Clovis people, the first human inhabitants of the New World. Researchers conducted geochemical analysis of the samples to determine their makeup and also ran carbon dating tests to determine the age of the samples.
Directly beneath the black mat, researchers found high concentrations of magnetic grains containing iridium, charcoal, soot, carbon spherules, glass-like carbon containing nanodiamonds and fullerenes packed with extraterrestrial helium – all of which are evidence for an extraterrestrial impact and the raging wildfires that might have followed.
Schultz, professor of geological sciences at Brown and an impact specialist, said the most provocative evidence for an extraterrestrial impact was the discovery of nanodiamonds, microscopic bits of diamond formed only from the kind of intense pressure you’d get from a comet or meteorite slamming into the Earth.
“We don’t have a smoking gun for our theory, but we sure have a lot of shell casings,” Schultz said. “Taken together, the markers found in the samples offer intriguing evidence that North America had a major impact event about 12,900 years ago.”
Schultz admits that there is little decisive evidence about the actual details about the impact and its effects. Scientists suspect that a carbon-rich asteroid or comets were the culprits. The objects would have exploded over North America or slammed into it, or both, shattering and melting ice sheets, sparking extreme wildfires, and fueling hurricane-force winds – all of which could have contributed to changes in climate that led to the cooling of the Younger Dryas period.
“Our theory isn’t a slam dunk,” Schultz said. “We need to study a lot more sediments to get a lot more evidence. But what is sobering about this theory of ours is that this impact would be so recent. Not so long ago, something may have fallen from the sky and profoundly changed our climate and our culture.”
The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation funded the work.
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