Ancient Americans Weren’t Wiped Out by a Comet?

Like the undead monsters in a Hollywood movie, some science theories just keep coming back to life. That’s been the case with solving the mystery surrounding the sudden disappearance 13,000 years ago of the Clovis – a Paleo-Indian North American culture.  A popular theory keeps getting resurrected which fingers a comet impact in the Great Lakes region as the culprit .

The resulting air-burst from the collision would have plunged North American continent into a snap deep freeze and glacial period- which would have spelled doom for the Clovis, says the theory.

But now, researchers from over a dozen institutions across Europe and the U.S. hope they have finally shot this theory down for good.

“The theory has reached zombie status,” said co-author of the study, Andrew Scott from Royal Holloway,University of London in a press release. “Whenever we are able to show flaws and think it is dead, it reappears with new, equally unsatisfactory, arguments.”

The Clovis was a culture known for advanced stone tools, and  evidence has long suggested that they appeared to suddenly vanish off the face of the Earth . This led to the hypothesis that the entire society may have met their demise due to some sort of a major catastrophic event. But according to the new study, it looks like it wasn’t any cosmic collision.

“There’s no plausible mechanism to get air-bursts over an entire continent,” said lead author Mark Boslough, a physicist at the Sandia National Laboratories in NewMexico in a statement. “For this and other reasons, we conclude that the impact hypothesis is, unfortunately, bogus.”

The researchers rebuttal is based on the lack of both an appropriately sized impact crater and shocked material in sediments. Also they contend that samples presented in support of the impact hypothesis were contaminated with modern material.

“Hopefully new versions of the theory will be more carefully examined before they are published”,  added Scott.

Instead of disappearing the researchers believe the Clovis simply made a natural shift towards becoming another culture known as the Folsoms. Further research will need to be done however to pin down the exact reasons for the disappearance of the Clovis.

“Just because a culture changed from Clovis to Folsom spear points didn’t mean their civilization collapsed,” added Boslough. “They probably just used another technology. It’s like saying the phonograph culture collapsed and was replaced by the iPod culture.”

The comet study was published in the December 2012 American Geophysical Union monograph.

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Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.