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The Cygnus Mystery: Did Cosmic Rays Affect Human Evolution? (cont.)
By Andrew Collins

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.

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