Washington Post: Did comet end an ancient North American culture?

UC researchers find evidence for cosmic cataclysm over Ohio more than 1,500 years ago

The Washington Post highlighted a University of Cincinnati archaeology discovery of evidence that a near-Earth comet devastated Native American settlements in the Midwest more than 1,500 years ago.

UC College of Arts and Sciences anthropology professor Kenneth Tankersley led a team of biologists, anthropologists and geologists who took sediment samples at 11 known ancient Hopewell sites in the Ohio River Valley stretching across three states.

A portrait of Kenneth Tankersley.

Kenneth Tankersley

UC researchers collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Georgia's Center for Applied Isotope Studies. The study was published this week in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

How many Hopewell people, if any, died in the blast is impossible to tell, Tankersley told the Washington Post.

“Without a time machine, we can’t say for certain,” he said. “But everywhere we excavated … we found burned earth, fire hardened.”

UC researchers found evidence of limestone being reduced to lime by the intense heat from the comet's fires, the Post said.

Besides physical evidence, researchers said the ancient Hopewell documented the disaster in their masterworks and oral histories. A comet-shaped mound was constructed near the epicenter of the airburst at a Hopewell site called the Milford Earthworks.

Various Algonquin and Iroquoian tribes, descendants of the Hopewell, spoke of a calamity that befell the Earth, said Tankersley, who is Native American.

“This is a great example of Native Americans documenting their own history,” Tankersley told the Post. “The Hopewell record of the disaster that may have ended its culture.”

Read the Washington Post story.

Featured image at top: Portions of a land survey created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1823 that documented an ancient Hopewell site today known as the Milford Earthworks. The surveyor found Hopewell mounds standing five to 10 feet tall, including one in the shape of a comet. The site had previously been surveyed in 1803. Photo/National Archives

UC's discovery in the news

Two people sit at a computer looking at an image from a scanning electron microscope.

University of Cincinnati anthropology student Louis Herzner, bottom, and anthropology professor Kenneth Tankersley use a scanning electron microscope in UC’s Advanced Materials Characterization Center to study iron and silicon-rich microspherules collected at ancient Hopewell sites. Photo/Larry Sandman