So much attention has been paid to the possible correlation between the stars of Cygnus and the principal pyramids at Giza that maybe it is the right time to explain what exactly my new book The Cygnus Mystery is actually about, for its interest in Giza and ancient Egypt is peripheral to the main theme. This is the question of whether or not cosmic rays might have effected jumps in human evolution in Palaeolithic times, leading to changes not only in physique and behaviour, but also in creativity and consciousness. It is a wild idea at face value, yet it is one that is beginning to appeal to main-stream scientists and astronomers. Indeed, as long ago as 1973 American astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan wrote in The Cosmic Connection that human evolution was the result of incoming cosmic rays from some distant neutron star, demonstrating how we are right to think of ourselves as part of a greater whole at one with the cosmos.
Yet is this so? Is Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution caused merely through survival of the fittest and natural selection somehow flawed? The idea of cosmic radiation reaching the Earth from deep space has fascinated the scientific world since its discovery following a series of balloon ascents by Austrian physicist Victor F Hess (1883-1964) in 1912. Then when in the late 1920s American geneticist H J Muller (1890-1967) discovered that radiation (he used X-rays and later radium) was a mutagen through his work with Drosophila fruit flies, the subject of whether or not high energy cosmic rays might cause changes in human DNA was voiced for the first time. Muller himself twice wrote about the subject, concluding on each occasion that the normal background fluctuation in cosmic rays reaching the Earth was inadequate to explain spontaneous mutations in life forms, whatever their type. Muller was not wrong, but had he been privy to modern scientific data that now confirms that at certain times in the Earth’s history it has been bombarded with high levels of cosmic rays then he might have thought again.
Records from the Ice
Information of this order comes from the fact that when so-called ‘primary’ cosmic rays hit the upper atmosphere almost all of them break up when they collide with nuclei of oxygen and nitrogen, the process producing a plethora of charged secondary particles. Many disintegrate in milliseconds, but others form isotopes that are preserved in everything from lake sediments to stalagmites and, more crucially, the ice that forms to great depths in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. One such isotope known as Beryllium-10 (10Be) is clearly traceable in ice cores. Since individual layers of ice form each year the levels of Beryllium-10 can be counted to provide accurate indications of cosmic ray activity in the upper atmosphere.
In recent years, an analysis of ice cores extracted from polar stations in Greenland and Antarctica have clearly demonstrated that over the past 100,000 years, there have been three periods when the cosmic ray flux has increased dramatically. The first was around 60,000 years ago, the second occurred approximately 40,000-35,000 years, and the third and last peak began around 16,000-17,000 years ago. Each one lasted for a period of approximately 2,000 years. Similar results have been determined from a stalagmite removed from a submerged blue hole in the Bahamas. An examination of its Beryllium-10 content indicates that between 45,000 and 11,000 years ago the Earth was bombarded by twice the amount of cosmic radiation than today.
Where’s the Cosmic Source?
The first question one must ask is where this influx of cosmic radiation might have come from. Was it really a neutron star, as Carl Sagan suggested, or could it have been another astronomical source out there in deep space somewhere? Alternatively, was there some other, more prosaic solution to this enigma? The more of less regular gaps between the spikes of Beryllium-10 activity noted in the ice cores might well indicate some kind of cyclic force in action, most obviously that of the sun. Cosmic rays are known to be partially deflected by the solar magnetic field that stretches far out into the heart of the solar system, and it is believed that the rate of Beryllium-10 production in the upper atmosphere is dependent on the strength of the solar field, which is itself connected with sunspot activity.
Was it an Exploding Star?
In addition to this, the sun’s long term climate cycles of 100,000, 41,000 and 23,000 years, first noted by Serbian geophysicist Milutin Milanković (1879-1958), must also affect the production of Beryllium-10 for similar reasons, i.e. the influence of the solar field upon the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This said, there might easily have been other factors behind the sudden increase in cosmic rays hitting the earth, the most catastrophic being a supernova, the death of a star as it expels the last of its nuclear fuel and collapses to form a high-mass compact object, either a white dwarf, black hole or neutron star.
Supernovas produce enormous bursts of cosmic rays and gamma rays, which are sent careering across space at virtually the speed of light. If such an event occurred close enough to our own solar system then the Earth would be showered by deadly radiation. This would damage the ozone layer, causing not only many more rays to reach ground level, but also the onset of high levels of UV radiation from the sun. More conservatively, catastrophists suggest that cosmic rays from a close supernova would dramatically increase cloud formation, preventing the sun from penetrating through the atmosphere, and thus bringing about a sudden ice age.
Whatever the consequences of a close supernova, life on Earth would suffer mass extinctions. As terrifying a scenario as this might seem, it was the favoured theory for the sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago until the discovery in 1980 of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsular. This helped confirm the alternative theory that a super-sized asteroid or comet had been responsible for their extinction. Indeed, the supernova solution was the choice of Carl Sagan and his co-author Dr I S Shklovskii, the famous Soviet astrophysicist and radio astronomer, in a scholarly book entitled Intelligence in the Universe, published in 1966. In fact, one wonders whether Sagan’s unique view that cosmic rays have accelerated human evolution actually stemmed from his obvious fascination with the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Yet the powerful idea of a close supernova wreaking devastation on earth during some past geological age lingers, with some catastrophists believing that it could have brought about mass extinctions during other geological epochs, for instance at the close of the Jurassic age some 145 million years ago, as well as at the culmination of the Pleistocene age, which coincided with the end of the last Ice Age, some 11,000 years ago. And such scientific speculation is where it starts getting interesting, for when the high levels of Beryllium-10 were first noted in the ice cores at the beginning of the 1990s, scientists from the Cosmic Ray Council of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, working alongside a team from the University of Arizona, speculated that those around 35,000-40,000 years ago probably resulted from a supernova explosion.
To back up their dramatic claims the joint Soviet-American team cited the presence at around 150 light years away – that just 900 million, million miles from here – in the northern constellation of Cygnus of an immense formation of glowing clouds of gaseous debris – the remnants of an unimaginable supernova explosion – known to astronomers as the Cygnus Veil, or Veil nebula. Was this the remnants of the supernova explosion that had showered the Earth with cosmic rays for anything up to 2,000 years some 40,000-35,000 years ago? Did it bring about dramatic climatic changes and bursts of radiation that evolved humanity into what we are today?
The Emergence of Man
For whatever reason, the worldwide press coverage that resulted from this dramatic announcement of a close supernova some 35,000 years ago came to nothing. Yet, thankfully, there was one person who did take notice, and this was British anthropological writer Denis Montgomery. Having lived in Africa for many years, where anatomically modern humans emerged for the first time around 200,000 years ago, he became intrigued as to why sudden jumps of evolution occur. Was it purely spontaneous, through chemical changes in the body, or were there other exterior factors at play, such as environmental and climatic changes, nutritional variety or even simple competitiveness? Although there is ample evidence that our earliest ancestors migrated from Africa, most probably in search of new resources of food as early as 80,000-70,000 years ago, there exist only tiny glimpses of what we were capable of achieving at this time. For instance, around 80,000 years ago the peoples of the republic of Congo were making barbed bone hooks for fishing, while a community that inhabited a large cave called Blombos on the southern coast of South Africa would seem to have fashioned the earliest known examples of expressive art. These take the form of incised pieces of red ochre rock, showing cross-hatching designs, as well as perforated snail shell beads, once strung on a cord and worn either as a necklace or bracelet. All of these invaluable objects are thought to be around 75,000 years old. Then there is the newly discovered archaeological evidence from a remote mountain cave in Namibia sacred to the San bushmen which shows that ritual activity has been occurring here in a similar manner for anything up to 70,000 years.
Age of the Artist
Yet aside from this clear evidence of human creativity and imagination 70,000-80,000 years ago, it was not until the start of the Upper Palaeolithic age around 40,000 years ago that something quite dramatic began to occur. At a time coincident to when homo sapiens first entered a Europe dominated by his Neanderthal cousins, there is clear evidence for the sudden emergence of a complex life style, the earliest known to human kind. It involved religious expression and practices, including detailed funerary rites, as well as magnificent new forms of art, such as the carving of animals, birds and humans in bone and stone and, crucially, the manifestation of highly sophisticated cave art, such as the extraordinary painted galleries discovered as recently as 1994 at the Chauvet cave in France’s Ardèche region. Occupied as early as 32,000-30,000 years ago, it contains images and sculptures of whole menageries of wild animals, including horses, rhinos, lions, mammoths and bison. Alongside these are perhaps the oldest known painted representations of human forms anywhere in the world. These take the form of a painted torso and legs of a full-bodied woman, typical of later ‘Venuses’ found either in statue form or as high relief in other caves, and an accompanying bison-headed figure known as the Sorcerer, both of which are to be found in the very deepest part of the cave system.
Rapidly, hundreds of caves across Western Europe became full of accomplished art forms, a tradition which continued through until around 17,000 years ago, when suddenly there was a renewed interest in sacred painting deep underground. This trend ended finally around 11,000 years ago when the Upper Palaeolithic age climaxed coincident to the cessation of the last Ice Age.
What Denis Montgomery wondered was whether, in addition to other environmental, climatic and human factors, the increase in cosmic rays around 35,000 years ago, perhaps from the assumed supernova explosion which caused the creation of the Cygnus Veil, acted as a mutagen to effect sudden changes in the brain’s neurological processes. This in turn might have brought about the enlightened age of the cave artist in Western Europe. It could also explain why the Neanderthal peoples suddenly became extinct around this time, perhaps as a result of too much competition from their competitive new neighbours, the homo sapiens.
Montgomery’s unique ideas were privately published, and, inevitably, largely ignored by the scholarly community. Adding to his problems was the realization by astronomers during the mid 1990s that the Cygnus Veil, the nebula at the centre of what Montgomery came to refer to as ‘the Cygnus event’, was found to be not 150 light years away from the Earth, as had previously been thought, but much further away, probably about 1,800 light years from here. At this greater distance any supernova would have been little more than a bright light source in the northern sky, lasting for a period of several days before gradually dying away. Doubly damning were recalculations concerning the age of the supernova event, which now appears to have occurred as recently as 5,000-8000 years ago (even though some astronomical sources still reckon it took place much earlier, perhaps 10,000-15,000 years ago). Thus there was no way that the Cygnus Veil can have been responsible for the high levels of cosmic rays reaching Earth’s atmosphere prior to the emergence of the first European cave artists some 32,000 years ago.
Enter the Meinel Group
It would not be until 2005 that this same cosmological conundrum would be tackled again. At the conference of TAG (the Theoretical Archaeological Group) in Sheffield, England, held in December that year, Dr Aden Meinel – a retired veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who in the 1980s was responsible for the launch of space telescopes such as Hubble – told a packed audience of archaeologists and students that the high levels of Beryllium-10 in the Greenland and Antarctica ice cores were responsible for sudden changes in evolution in both animal and human life around 40,000-35,000 years ago. He also reported that he had been able to use the ice core evidence to determine the approximate coordinates for the source of the cosmic rays, and that these pinpointed a planetary nebula (a mass of glowing gas and cloud) known as the Cat’s Eye in the northern constellation of Draco, the celestial dragon. This Meinel and his colleagues saw as the remnants of what was once a galactic binary system consisting of a super giant and a once active black hole that had spewed out jets of plasma, superheated ionized gas, at velocities close to the speed of light. These, he proposed, had crossed thousands of light years of space to reach the earth around 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, causing the changes in evolution witnessed at this time.
The Oldest Constellation
It was a dramatic claim, and one that needed scientific evaluation, which is where I entered this gripping story. My own research into the emergence of primitive societies, with their own unique cosmologies and religion, had revealed an inordinate interest in one particular constellation – Cygnus, the celestial swan. Indeed, it features as the oldest known artistic representation of a constellation anywhere in the world, for it is seen on the walls of the famous Lascaux cave in southern France, which is known to have first been occupied around 17,000 years ago, and may be behind appearance of the Venus and Sorcerer fresco in France’s Chavet cave (more on this discovery soon).
Cygnus also appears as a bird in Church Hole cave in Derbyshire’s Creswell Crags alongside cave art dated to 12,800 years ago, while an 11,500-year-old stone temple – the oldest anywhere in the world – at Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey seems aligned to this same constellation. It is the same story with ancient stone and earthen structures worldwide, from the bird effigy mounds of North America to the Olmec centres of Mexico. From the Incan sacred city of Cuzco, to the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza, the Hindu temples of India to Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe – all seem to reflect an age-old interest in Cygnus, which features also in symbolism at the heart all world religions.
Putting aside more obvious astronomical reasons as to why our ancestors might have favoured this particular constellation, shown universally as a celestial bird, I searched for answers as to why it might have been depicted deep underground by the cave artists of the Upper Palaeolithic age. In the knowledge that the work of South African anthropologist and rock art specialist David Lewis-Williams had determined that much prehistoric cave art was inspired by shamans in mind-altered states, a finding explored further by Graham Hancock in his recent book Supernatural, I wondered whether the stars of Cygnus had come to be seen as the source of a primeval being, a kind of Cosmic Mother, thought to have been responsible for cosmic life and death. Moreover, I wondered whether the peoples of the Upper Palaeolithic had come to associate this primeval cause with religious experiences deep underground, where their most sacred cave art was executed? If so, then why did they come to associate a specific star constellation with the deepest part of caves?
Children of the Swan
I searched for answers and found that in the early to mid 1980s particle detectors deep underground around the world began detecting the decay of incoming cosmic rays from a stellar source known as Cygnus X-3. So inexplicable were these strange sub-atomic particles, resonating at some of the highest energy levels ever detected in the universe, that they were quickly dubbed ‘cygnets’, meaning ‘children of the swan’. This amazing data led to controversial claims that Cygnus X-3 was the first identified cosmic particle accelerator in the galaxy.
Then in 2000, NASA announced that Cygnus X-3 was the galaxy’s first blazar, a collapsed star producing twin particle jets of superheated ionized gas along its line of axis. These stretch out for tens, if not hundreds, of light years into space, and are held together by magnetic sheaths that combine to produce powerful particle acceleration in a variety of frequency ranges, including x-rays, infrared, radio and gamma rays. This is not uncommon in so-called compact stars, like black holes or neutron stars, but what defines it as a blazar is the angle of direction of its jets, for the label is only applied if one is pointing straight at the Earth, which is the unique case with Cygnus X-3. This means that we are looking straight down the barrel of the most dangerous cosmic cannon in the galaxy, and have been, according to astrophysicists, for anything up to 700,000 years. The significance of this is that such jets might well be responsible for increased levels of cosmic rays reached the Earth. More importantly, recent findings by Japanese and Chinese scientists using data from a facility in Tibet have shown that there is even today a huge excess of high energy cosmic rays coming from a point in the Cygnus constellation, close to the astronomical coordinates of Cygnus X-3.
We Are Star-stuff
This staggering scenario might well explain why our ancestors came to recognize the celestial swan as so important to their religious mindset, since there is every reason to conclude that ancient shamans who achieved altered states of consciousness in deep caves, most obviously using hallucinogens, somehow became aware of the effect Cygnus was having on their lives. Uniquely, they would have been able to see the disintegration underground of the cygnet particles, through a process known as Cherenkov radiation, which allows decaying cosmic rays to be seen as flashes of white or blue-white light as they pass through the viscous part of the eye.
Such ‘visions’ in total darkness would have increased and decreased in accordance with the presence overhead of Cygnus, enabling the Palaeolithic shamans eventually to synchronize their underworld activities with its cosmic ray cycle, and thus identify it as the source of origin of these profound experiences. Moreover, the appearance of these seemingly objective flashes in the eyes might additionally have been taken as manifestations of divine light, triggering more complex connections with the mysteries of Cygnus through contact with supernatural entities and the attainment of otherworldly knowledge and wisdom. This scenario might well have led our ancestors to learn what science is now confirming today – that life came from the stars. Indeed, the modern theory of panspermia, literally ‘life everywhere’, proposes that the most primitive forms of life probably arrived on this planet having hitched a ride either on a comet, meteor or asteroid.
In my opinion, this communion with the great unknown in deep cave settings led the ancients to celebrate the idea that we were star-stuff by teaching that the sun was periodically reborn from between the thighs of the Cosmic Mother, symbolised by the Milky Way’s Great Rift and the Cygnus constellation. Moreover, I suspect that at least a proportion of the cosmic rays that affected the Palaeolithic world came from the direction of Cygnus, explaining why it is at the heart of religious symbolism worldwide.
Yet Cygnus X-3 had a rival in the Cat’s Eye nebula, the chosen candidate for cosmic rays proposed by Aden Meinel and the Meinel Institute. Unfortunately, astrophysicists are unanimous in their opinion that the Cat’s Eye is a wimpy object unable to produce cosmic rays that might reach the Earth. What is more, the Meinels, by their own admission, looked first in Cygnus for a possible point source of cosmic rays, and found none – Cygnus X-3 being overlooked.
When in 1973 Carl Sagan wrote that cosmic rays might have been responsible for changes in human evolution he boldly asserted that their source was most probably a neutron star, which he saw as one of the most fascinating stellar bodies in the whole of the universe. Today there can be little doubt that Cygnus X-3, as a neutron star/black hole as well as the galaxy’s first confirmed blazar, is the best candidate by far for at least a proportion of the cosmic radiation responsible for the acceleration of human evolution at a time when we were just beginning to emerge as modern human beings. Yet more disturbing is the fact that Cygnus X-3 is still out there, its cosmic gun barrel trained on the Earth, ever ready to release a volley of cosmic particles in our direction. Astrophysicists studying Cygnus X-3 are waiting for what they see as the ‘next big bang’, showers of cosmic particles on a level never seen before, and when this happens, who knows, we might well be ready for the next stage in evolution.
THE CYGNUS MYSTERY by Andrew Collins is published by Watkins Books. For further information go to www.andrewcollins.com, or www.amazon.co.uk. For more information on Denis Montgomery’s forward-thinking anthropological ideas visit his website at www.sondela.co.uk