An ancient civilization in the Dead Sea area was wiped out by an apparent “airburst” meteor explosion with the force of a nuclear weapon that destroyed cities and salted the earth some 3,600 years ago, leaving it uninhabitable for centuries, scientists said in a study published this week, and postulated it could have inspired the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom.
The findings from the years-long study by a multi-disciplinary team of scientists at Jordan’s Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project were published on Monday in Nature Scientific Reports, an online peer-reviewed journal.
The evidence of widespread sudden death and destruction that collapsed buildings, melted pottery, and left behind a barren, charred landscape, led to the conclusion that the cities and surrounding settlements were destroyed by an airburst larger than the 1908 explosion over Tunguska, Russia, where a meteor detonated with 1,000 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
The findings help solve the mystery of why one of the most productive agricultural regions that supported tens of thousands of people for more than 3,000 years, suddenly died and remained barren for several hundred years.
It also possibly offers a source to the biblical account of the destruction of the city of Sodom that was described in Genesis 19:24–25: “Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah — from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus He overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities — and also the vegetation in the land.”
According to the bible, God decided to destroy Sodom due the wickedness of its inhabitants.
The study notes that there is ongoing debate as to whether Tall el-Hammam could be the biblical city of Sodom, saying that question is “beyond the scope of this investigation.”
“Nevertheless, we consider whether oral traditions about the destruction of this urban city by a cosmic object might be the source of the written version of Sodom in Genesis. We also consider whether the details recounted in Genesis are a reasonable match for the known details of a cosmic impact event,” the study says, concluding it was likely.
“The description in Genesis of the destruction of an urban center in the Dead Sea area is consistent with having been an eyewitness account of a cosmic airburst,” the study says noting it matched their findings of “stones fell from the sky; fire came down from the sky; thick smoke rose from the fires; a major city was devastated; city inhabitants were killed; and area crops were destroyed.”
The study also notes that the description of the Destruction of Sodom is unique. “There are no known ancient writings or books of the Bible, other than Genesis, that describe what could be construed as the destruction of a city by an airburst/impact event.”
In reaching their conclusions on the cause of the Tall el-Hammam destruction, the scientist said they investigated 14 major lines of evidence, including the discovery of pottery and bricks that melted at extremely high temperatures, diamond-like carbon formed at high pressure and temperature, and evidence of minerals that melted at temperatures of over 2500°C (4500 degrees Fahrenheit.)
The study examined other possible causes like war, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but concluded that while they could have accounted for some of the finds, only a meteor airburst could account for all of them.
They also discovered human remains they said were so badly destroyed and dispersed it could only have been caused by a massive nuclear-like explosion.
“The circumstances and condition of the human bones and fragments suggest that at the moment of death, these individuals were going about normal activities inside the palace, on the upper ring road, and/or on the rampart above the road, where they were struck by a high-temperature thermal pulse, followed by a hyper-velocity blast wave from a catastrophic cosmic airburst,” the study found, noting that the most similar event recorded in modern times was the airburst at Tunguska.
In 1908, a massive blast near Siberia’s Stony Tunguska River flattened some 2,000 square kilometers of uninhabited taiga forestry. Curiously, no crater was discovered and scientists explain the strange phenomena through a meteor explosion some 5-10 km above land.
The scientist also discovered that the reason the region remained abandoned for so long after the cataclysmic event was due to a sudden increase in salinity in the land, which made it unsuitable for agriculture for several hundred years.
“This multi-century abandonment is particularly puzzling, given that this area contains the most fertile agricultural land within a radius of hundreds of kilometers across Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The destruction was so remarkable and so pervasive that the ensuing name of the area became Abel, the ‘mourning grounds,”‘ the paper notes, saying it could not have been caused by a regular event, but by “a regional civilization-ending catastrophe that depopulated more than 500 km² of the southern Jordan Valley for between three and seven centuries.”
The study speculated that an airburst above the highly salty Dead Sea may have distributed “hypersaline water” across the area.
“Any survivors of the blast would have been unable to grow crops and therefore likely to have been forced to abandon the area,” the study said, noting that land may only have become arable again after some 600 years.
The spike in salinity in the area provides a further link to the biblical account of Sodom. When Lot and his family fled the city, his wife disobeyed God and turned back to view the destruction, where she was punished and turned into a pillar of salt.
According to a 2013 Biblical Archaeology Review article by Tall el-Hammam co-director Dr. Steven Collins, the Tall el-Hammam site is a strong candidate for the biblical city of Sodom due to a multitude of factors. The discovered disaster, and its precise location, which he ties to biblical references of “ha-kikkar” (or idiomatically, the plain).
Collins writes that the massive disaster was seared into collective cultural memory and preserved in the biblical tradition.
“The memory of the destruction of ha-kikkar, with its large population and extensive agricultural lands, was preserved in the Book of Genesis and ultimately incorporated into a traditional tale that, drawing on the layer of ash that covered the destruction of one of its major cities, remembered a place consumed by a fiery catastrophe from ‘out of the heavens’ (Genesis 19:24),” he writes. “The Bible gives the city’s name: Sodom.”
However, other scholars — particularly Christian bible authorities — have disputed identifying Tall el-Hammam and its destruction as the site and inspiration for the story of Sodom, citing both its location and dating as problematic in fitting into the biblical narrative.
“In my opinion, this is an example of evidence being marshaled to support the identification of the site as Sodom, as opposed to letting the site speak for itself,” archaeologist Robert Mullins, Chair of the Department of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University, told Christianity Today after the study was published.
The conclusions on the meteor airburst were reached by a team of 21 scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, New Mexico Tech, Northern Arizona University, NC State University, Elizabeth City (NC) State University, University of South Carolina, East Carolina University, DePaul University, Trinity Southwest University, University of Oregon, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Charles University in Prague, the Comet Research Group, the US Navy, and Los Alamos National Laboratories, who examined samples from 15 seasons of Tall el-Hammam excavations.
They concluded that “this airburst/impact hypothesis would make Tall el-Hammam the second oldest known city/town to have been destroyed by an airburst/impact event that produced extensive human casualties, after Abu Hureyra, Syria” some 12,800 years ago.
Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report
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