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