by John Tiffany

The Barnes Review

Volume X, Number 4 - July/August 2004
from BarnesReview Website

Spanish version




The universe is a very dangerous place, as historians, astronomers and others are discovering. Impacts of massive objects from outer space - meteorites, comets and asteroids - have played a key role in the prehistory of Earth, and have also affected historical times - in ancient Egypt, for example.


Such incidents have at times been catastrophic, and could well be so again in the near future. A serious enough incident could cause Earth to become a dead planet, with possibly only bacterial life surviving.

There are billions of comets, according to scientists, in what is called the Oort Cloud, in the farthest reaches of the solar system.


Some of these may be supercomets (rather euphemistically called “ice dwarves”), frightening monsters that can be hundreds of miles in diameter; a few even up to approximately 600 miles have now been observed in the Kuiper Belt, half the diameter of Pluto.


And from time to time, these comets and supercomets are disturbed from their normal orbits and come traveling into the inner solar system, where the Earth resides.

A variety of gravitational influences are thought to play a part in perturbing Oort Cloud objects so that their new orbits carry them into the inner Solar System. These include passing stars, so-called “giant molecular clouds” (or GMCs, which are poorly named, as they have a lot more than just molecules in them, including, probably, giant planetoids and protostars; obviously they have very little resemblance to earthly clouds) and tidal forces due to the galactic bulge and spiral arms of the Milky Way.


For example, according to The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy and Spaceflight:

A star that approaches the Sun to within roughly the distance of the Oort Cloud might increase the rate of comet passages near the Earth by a factor of 300 for 2 to 3 million years, so greatly increasing the risk of a catastrophic impact.

Astronomers believe there may well exist also interstellar comets, attached to no star, whizzing around in the galaxy at incredible speeds, perhaps heading our way.

A typical solar system comet might have a velocity of 150,000 miles per hour when it nears the Earth. The kinetic energy is so tremendous that an impact would be comparable to a hydrogen bomb explosion for even a very small comet.

Astronomers tell us that there are more than 100,000 “near-Earth” asteroids large enough to threaten our planet with an impact greater than the largest H-bomb ever built. Furthermore, there is about one chance in 10 that an object of this type could hit the Earth sometime in the next 100 years.

Besides comets and asteroids, there are believed to be some very peculiar objects that could hit the Earth, and may already have done so. For example, “strangelets” composed of quark matter could be traveling in our vicinity at speeds of 900,000 miles per hour. The density of such a strangelet would be 10 million million times that of lead.

Scientists have found that our planet has experienced cyclic episodes of bombardment and extinction at regular intervals during the past 100 million years - specifically 94.5 million years ago, 65 million years ago (the event causing the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species), and 36.9 million years ago. The cycle has a basic “heartbeat” of 30 million years with the standard deviation of each individual episode being 9 million years.

In plain English this means that if you look at the cycle over a long enough period of time - several hundred million years - you will find that linked bombardment and extinction episodes do occur at roughly 30-million-year intervals, but that the gap may become as small as 21 million years in some cases, or as large as 39 million years in others.

Returning to the last 100 million years we find that the intervals between extinction events have been consistently within this range. Between 94.5 million years ago and 65 million years ago the figure works out at 29.5 million years. Between 65 million years ago and 36.9 million years ago the figure works out at 28.1 million years.


Since we know that the bombardments are caused by waves of galactic material that swamp the entire solar system - not just near-Earth space - we think it is a good guess that Mars, and the Moon, would have experienced bombardment episodes, pretty much in tandem with Earth, at around 94.5, 65 and 36.9 million years ago. This has already been confirmed in the case of the Moon.

It is very likely, from the available evidence, that Mars and Earth and their moons experienced bombardment episodes at around 94.5, 65, and 36.9 million years ago. The reader will note that the final interval, from 36.9 million years ago up till today, is longer than the previous two. Indeed, it is dangerously close to extreme upper limit of the cycle - 39 million years.

We could be nearing the end of what is already beginning to look like an atypical and overlong period of quiescence.

Those (notably including most establishment astronomers) who believed that comets are harmless received a startling wakeup call a few years ago. On July 16, 1994, a small, fragmented comet called Shoemaker-Levy crashed into Jupiter. The second alone of the 20 fragments caused a blast equivalent to 250 million tons of TNT - several times more powerful than all the Earth’s nuclear arsenals put together.


If this small comet had hit the Earth instead of Jupiter, it is horrible to think what damage it would have caused. It began to dawn on everyone that the Earth is a vulnerable planet under sometimes-angry skies.

Actually astronomers should not have been so surprised. They had the prior example, on June 25, 1178, of the so-called Canterbury Event, when observers saw a strange phenomenon on the Moon, what could only have been the cataclysmic results of a collision between the Moon and some large object flying through space, such as a comet or asteroid.


It was determined in 1976 by American astronomer Jack Hartung that this impact carved out the lunar crater known as Giordano Bruno - named, ironically, for the Italian 'heretic' burned at the stake in 1600 for professing the existence of inhabited planets other than Earth. It was a narrow escape for Earth, since the bolide,1 whatever it was, could very easily have hit our planet, a significantly larger target than the Moon.


Had it done so, it could have made a crater some seven miles in diameter, like the one it did make on the Moon.


The “near Earth object” involved here is calculated to have been about a mile and a quarter in diameter, and exploded with the energy of an incredible 100,000 megatons of TNT. It is easy to see why some historians think civilization could have easily been wiped out in 1178 had the bolide hit the Earth instead of the Moon.

Then there was another “warning shot,” the Tunguska Event in Siberia on June 30, 1908. The analysis of tree samples in the area by Menotti Galli of the University of Bologna in 1991 turned up powerful concentrations of copper, gold and nickel, suggesting that the object, which exploded in the sky without causing a crater, was a meteor or comet fragment, and not (as some had speculated) a black hole, a piece of antimatter or a malfunctioning alien saucer spaceship.

When the object exploded, about 7:17 a.m., it caused a deafening noise that could be heard 200 miles away. Over Tunguska, a flame or pillar of fire shot up to a height of 12 miles, followed by a giant mushroom cloud of smoke from the burning forest. An area of about 4,000 square miles of forest was devastated.


Thousands of trees were smashed down and left lying on the ground pointing away from “ground zero,” while others were snapped in half or stripped of all their foliage. A reindeer herd of 1,500 animals was exterminated; just a few roasted carcasses were ever found. Had this catastrophic event occurred over Moscow or New York City, history would have been different.

Mars is another case in point. If you study the surface of the planet, it seems that nearly the entire crust is somehow missing from one Martian hemisphere.


Was it blown off in a tremendous impact with a “near Mars object”? Additionally, recent robotic explorations of the red planet have confirmed what was already pretty clear: Mars once had vast quantities of surface water, making it a planet apparently suited for life of some sort.


It may also have had more of an atmosphere before the great impact.

  • What happened to the higher forms of life on Mars, if such ever existed?

  • Were they destroyed along with half the planetary surface?

  • And did this occur recently - perhaps only thousands of years ago?

It used to be thought that Mars was killed millions of years ago, but now scientists are not so sure.

We are living on borrowed time, indeed. So, while the sky may not be falling at present, the reader should listen with a grain of salt to those optimists who say not to worry, because nothing serious is going to happen for millions or billions of years.


And perhaps the ancients could have told us something about this danger.




The ancient Egyptians seem to have known an astounding amount about the universe, which modern Western science is only beginning to learn. But their knowledge is expressed in somewhat obscure, poetic language.


The Egyptians depicted the Sun, for example, as a voyager upon the waters of the abyss, which can be taken as representing the vast emptiness of outer space:

Men praise thee in thy name of Ra... Millions of years have gone over the world; I cannot tell the number of those through which thou hast passed... Thou dost pass over and dost travel through untold spaces requiring millions and hundreds of thousands of years to pass over... Thou steerest thy way across the watery abyss to the place that thou lovest... and then thou dost sink down and make an end of hours.

Although the text is from The Book of the Dead, the ideas it expresses are strikingly similar to those of modern astronomers.


Western scientists have learned that everything in the universe, including the Sun, is in motion.


As the Sun makes its way around the galactic nucleus, it is indeed a traveler through “untold spaces” that require literally millions of years to “pass over.”


(But one must wonder how the ancient Egyptians knew this. Did they preserve the knowledge of an even more ancient civilization, whose very name has been lost to us? There is a school of thought that there may have been a global civilization, possibly during the last ice age, which perished in a cataclysm but may have left some traces of its existence and accumulated wisdom.)

A number of different motions are involved in the movement of the Sun, some of which affect the risk of a disastrous impact involving the Earth and a large comet or asteroid. Drawing with it the entire solar system, including of course all the comets of the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt, the Sun is locked in a vast orbit around the galactic nucleus of the Milky Way, completing each revolution in a period of approximately 250 million years.


Traveling at the fantastic speed of about 140 miles per second, it has recently passed through the Orion spiral arm of our galaxy, on the inner edge of which it now stands. There is a lot more to the orbit of the Sun than this, but the interested reader may turn to some astronomy textbooks or web sites for detailed information.

As the Sun passes through spiral arms of the galaxy, and through giant molecular clouds, the comets are perturbed, and some are caused to head into the inner solar system, where the Earth and its neighbors reside. Over time, the comets break down into meteors, possibly asteroids and other fragments, which can then rain down on unwitting Earthlings.

Ancient Egypt preserved complex beliefs concerning the cyclic creation and destruction of worlds. The little-known Edfu Building Texts speak of a remote golden age, many thousands of years earlier, when the gods themselves lived on an island - the “Homeland of the Primeval Ones.”


The texts tell us this island was utterly destroyed in a terrible storm and flood caused by “a great serpent.” The majority of the “divine inhabitants” were drowned, but the survivors of the cataclysm settled in Egypt, where they became known as the “Builder Gods,” who fashioned in the primeval time, the “Lords of Light.”


According to the Edfu texts, it was these survivors who set out the foundations of all the future pyramids and temples of Egypt and who handed down the religion that would much later be practiced throughout the land under the semi-divine rule of the pharaohs.

The benben was a sacred black metallic stone at Heliopolis that symbolized the primeval mound. Related to it was the Egyptian phoenix, called the benbennet or bennu bird. The benben was probably an iron meteorite, and the benbennet may have also symbolized a comet (both “fly” across the sky).


The benben is believed to be the forerunner and model for the famous obelisks and pyramids of Egypt. The gilded capstone placed at the top of each pyramid or obelisk was known as a benbenet. The original stone at Heliopolis was believed to have been the point at which the rays of the rising sun first fell, and its cult appears to date back to the first dynasty, if not earlier.

Utterance 600 of The Pyramid Text says:

“O Atum-Khoprer, you became high on the height, you rose up as the bnbn-stone in the Mansion of the Phoenix at On.” 2

It has been suggested by Graham Hancock that the Egyptian phoenix may symbolize a comet, and the benben stone might be an asteroid or mega-meteorite spawned by that killer comet.

The Gnostic texts, written down in Egypt in the early centuries of the first millennium after Christ, tell us that the global cataclysm remembered as the Flood of Noah was not inflicted by God to punish evil but was worked by the forces of darkness to punish antediluvian humanity for having aspired to a high state of scientific and spiritual development and “to take the light” that was growing among men. This the darkness in very large part succeeded in doing.

It was not only the ancient Egyptians who were keen on observing and predicting collisions between the Earth and objects from outer space.

Duncan Steel, director of Spaceguard Australia and vice president of the Spaceguard Foundation, hypothesizes that Stonehenge I (the earliest known incarnation of Stonehenge, which was followed by Stonehenge II and Stonehenge III) may have been constructed by the Windmill Hill people (a British group that preceded the Beaker people, who in turn preceded the Kelts) as a specialized observatory that enabled the ancient Britons to predict Earth’s collisions with trails of cometary debris, which may have been accompanied with multiple Tunguska-type events.


He further suggests that upon the prediction of such events, the people hid in the shelters we now call long and round barrows, and that the later developments at Stonehenge (phases II and II) by the Beaker people were a result of a misinterpretation of the original purpose of the site in terms of lunar and solar observations.

Cometary impact is gaining ground as an explanation of the collapse of civilizations, writes Benny Peiser, a historian and anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University.

At around 1200 B.C., many civilizations collapsed at about the same time.


Disaster overtook,

  • the Mykenaens of Greece

  • the Hittites of Anatolia

  • the Egyptian New Kingdom

  • Late Bronze Age Palestine

  • the Shang Dynasty of China

The reasons for these widespread and apparently simultaneous disasters - which coincided also with changes of cultures and societies elsewhere, such as in Britain - have long been a mystery.


Traditional explanations include warfare, famine, and more recently “system collapse,” but the apparent absence of direct archeological or written evidence for causes, as opposed to the effects, has led many archeologists and historians into a resigned assumption that no definite explanation can be found.

Some decades ago, the hunt for clues passed largely into the hands of natural scientists. Researchers began to find a range of evidence that suggested that natural causes, rather than human actions, might have been initially responsible. There began to be talk of climate change, volcanic activity and earthquakes - and some of this material has now found its way into standard historical accounts of the period.

Some researchers favored one type of natural cause, others favored another, and the problem remained that no single explanation appeared to account for all the evidence.

Over the past 15 years or so, however, a “new” type of natural disaster has been much discussed and is beginning to be regarded, by many scholars, as the most probable single explanation for widespread and simultaneous cultural collapse, but not only in the Bronze Age but at another times as well.


The new theory - which is that these cultural disasters were caused by the impact of comets or other types of cosmic debris on the Earth - has been advanced largely by astronomers and remains almost unknown among archeologists (notable exceptions include dendrochronologist Prof. Mike Baillie of Queen’s University, Belfast, and Dr. Euan MacKie at Glasgow University).

The hunt for natural causes for these disasters began when the eminent archeologist Claude Schaeffer of France published Stratigraphie Comparée et chronologie de l’Asie occidentale (1948).


Schaeffer analyzed and compared the destruction layers of more than 40 sites in the Near and Middle East, from Troy to Tepe Hissar on the Caspian Sea. He was the first scholar to detect that all had been totally destroyed several times - apparently in simultaneous waves of destruction. (The fact is still little recognized.)

Because the damage was excessive and did not show signs of military or other human involvement, he argued that earthquakes might have been the factor responsible for these cataclysms. Schaeffer, however, for some reason, was not taken seriously at the time by the world of science.


But since then, scientists have found widespread and unambiguous evidence for abrupt climate change, sudden sea level changes, catastrophic inundations, widespread seismic activity and evidence for massive volcanic activity at several periods since the last ice age.

Scholars who, following Schaeffer, favor earthquakes as the principal cause of civilization collapse argue that the world can expect vast earthquakes every 1,000-2,000 years, leading to widespread abandonment of cities. Scholars who prefer climate change as the principal cause argue that severe droughts caused agriculture to fail.

But what was the underlying cause of these earthquakes, eruptions, tidal waves, fires and climate changes? In a pioneering book, Bombarded Earth, René Gallant of Belgium suggested an extraterrestrial cause.


By the late 1970s, British astronomers Victor Clube and Bill Napier of Oxford University had begun to investigate cometary impact as the ultimate cause. In 1980, physicist Luis Alvarez and his colleagues published their famous paper in Science that argued a cosmic impact had led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.


They showed that large amounts of the element iridium present in geological layers dating from about 65 million B.C. had a cosmic origin.





Alvarez’s paper had immense influence and stimulated further research by such British astronomers as Clube and Napier, Prof. Mark Bailey of the Armagh Observatory, Duncan Steel of Spaceguard Australia and Britain’s best-known astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle.


All now envisage trains of cometary debris, which repeatedly encounter the Earth.

Tiny particles of cosmic material penetrate the atmosphere every day. But occasionally, cosmic objects measuring between 100 and several hundred yards in diameter or more strike the Earth, and these can have catastrophic effects on our ecological system, through multimegaton explosions that destroy natural and cultural features on the surface of the Earth by means of tidal-wave “floods,” fire blasts and seismic damage.

Asteroids or comets that puncture the upper atmosphere can either strike the Earth’s surface and leave an impact crater, such as the well-known Barringer Crater (which used to be called “Meteor Crater”) in Arizona, caused by an iron asteroid some 50,000 years ago. At least 10 impact craters around the world date from after the last ice age.

Alternatively, bolides can explode in the air. A recent example - the Tunguska Event (explained earlier) - occurred in 1908 over Siberia, when a bolide exploded about three miles above ground. The cosmic body, although thought to have measured only 60 yards across, had an impact energy of about 20 to 40 megatons, up to three times as great as the Arizona example (about 15 megatons), and was equivalent to the explosion of about 2,000 Hiroshima-size nuclear bombs - even though there was no actual physical impact on the Earth’s surface.


(The object that destroyed the dinosaurs, by comparison, is thought to have had a diameter of about six miles.)


A smaller cometary blast, with some puzzling aspects, occurred over the upper Amazonian Brazilian rainforest in 1930, and evidently involved three separate bolides. Another space object struck British Guiana in 1935, and Brazil was hit again in 1995 in the northeastern state of Piaui.

Until recently, the astronomical mainstream was highly critical of Clube and Napier’s giant comet hypothesis. However, the crash of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in 1994 has led to a change in attitudes. The comet, watched by the world’s observatories, was seen split into 20 pieces and slammed into different parts of the planet over a period of several days. A similar impact on Earth would have been devastating.

According to current knowledge, Tunguska-like impacts occur every 100 years or so. It is, therefore, not farfetched to hypothesize that a super-Tunguska may occur every 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 years and would be capable of triggering ecological crises on a continental or even global scale. In the past, skeptics have demanded the evidence of a crater before they would accept an argument of cosmic impact, but it is now understood that no crater is necessary for disastrous consequences to ensue.

What does the future hold?


No one can say. But for a certainty, the government should be pouring a larger portion of its space money into monitoring near-Earth objects and preparing methods to avert danger by deflecting the objects or by some other means. (NASA spends less than one-thousandth of its budget on this problem, even though it could spell the end of civilization.)


Astronomers tell us that an asteroid designated as 2001PM9 might hit the Earth in 2005, not giving us much time to prepare. They also warn that another object, 2002NT7, is due to impact the Earth in 2019. In the more distant future, asteroid 1950DA is expected to hit Earth in 2880.


Let us hope we have a few centuries or at least a few decades to prepare for what increasingly seems to be an inevitability.




  • Alvarez, Walter, T. Rex and the Crater of Doom, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997.

  • Budge, E.A. Wallis, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, London & New York, Arkana, 1986.

  • Hancock, Graham, The Mars Mystery: The Secret Connection Between Earth and the Red Planet, Crown Publishers, New York, 1998.

  • James, Peter, and Thorpe, Nick, Ancient Mysteries, Ballantine Books, New York, 1999.

  • Robinson, James M., The Nag Hammadi Library, New York, Brill, 1988, 165.

  • Steel, Duncan, Target Earth, Readers Digest, Pleasantville, New York, 2000.





1.  Here the term “bolide” (which comes, after all, from the Greek word for “missile” or something thrown) is used as a generic label for impacting objects of whatever nature.

2.  Vowels are sometimes not shown in Egyptian transcriptions. Thus we have “bnbn” here for what we would pronounce “benben.”