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‘End of the World’ artistic representation.

Ancient Fears to Keep You Up at Night - The End Really, Really is Nigh


Historians often declare that at least 3500 end of world prophecies have appeared over the same number of years. And those are only the written ones! Eschatology is theology concerned with the final events of history and the ultimate destiny of humanity. Apocalypticism was the ancient religious belief that there will be a revelation of God's will, but now it usually refers to the general belief that the world is coming to an end very soon.

For thousands of years, floods, earthquakes, fires, and frosts ravaged ancient cultures - and it is little wonder they became paranoid seeing “their world” ending so regularly. Today, we have become all too familiar with the imminent threats of nuclear war and climate change, but we give little thought to the long list of other potentially catastrophic factors which might undermine our continued existence on planet Earth. Here are a handful of ancient terrors to keep you up at night.

Flood Basalt Volcano

One of the oldest and most brutal adversaries to continued life on Earth is the Flood Basalt Volcanic eruption. These rare beasts rise from the seas like Krakens, and they hold in their fiery hearts the potential energy to destroy the planet within hours. First, with almost no warning, a so-called mantle plume erupts, spewing thousands of cubic miles of rocks, ash, and lava into the atmosphere. A sub-tectonic chain reaction is ignited and volcanoes around the world begin to erupt - and as a result, ash and fumes suffocate the air, block out the sun, and drastically lower global temperatures. And if that doesn’t get you, the sulphuric gases will quickly incite acid rain and lava flows - eliminating harvests and causing mass starvation.

‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ (1851) by John Martin

‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ (1851) by John Martin. Source: Public Domain

Biological Warfare

Ancient Egypt was famously destroyed with plagues of frogs, locusts, and other nasties; and today, biological warfare (also germ warfare) is the equivalent. Entomological (insect) warfare is also considered a type of biological weapon. The use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals, or plants is a relatively modern act of war. But based on ancient biological organisms, or replicating viruses, that reproduce or replicate within their host victims, these weapons, are living.

Ancient Greeks used snakes as weapons of war.

Ancient Greeks used snakes as weapons of war. (Public Domain )

Megathrust Earth Quake

One of nature’s greatest population control mechanisms are earthquakes, and the king of this phenomena are Megathrust Earth Quakes. No other type of known terrestrial source of tectonic activity has produced earthquakes of this scale. They occur at subduction zones, at destructive plate boundaries, where one tectonic plate is subducted (forced underneath) by another. These inter-plate earthquakes are the planet's most powerful type - with moment magnitudes that can exceed 9.0, and since 1900 all earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 or greater have been Megathrust Earthquakes. On January 26, 1700, the Cascadia Megathrust Earthquake occurred along the Cascadia subduction zone with a magnitude of 8.7–9.2 and ripped the earth’s crust apart from mid-Vancouver Island south along the Pacific Northwest coast as far as northern California. The length of this rupture was about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and caused a massive tsunami that struck the coast of Japan.

Rise of Artificial Intelligence

The concepts of artificial servants dates back at least to the ancient legends of Cadmus, who sowed dragon’s teeth that turned into soldiers and the mechanical handmaidens built by the Greek god Hephaestus (Vulcan to the Romans) out of gold. The eschatological scientific term for this end of world scenario is Existential Risk of Artificial General Intelligence. This term defines the potential that unbridled progress in computer technology may lead to a technological ‘singularity’, that is, the development of synthetic intelligence as smart as humans, which may bring about an AI takeover culminating with the end of human civilization or even the extinction of the human race, as it ‘becomes’ robotic.

Chinese Automata.

Chinese Automata. (YouTube Screenshot)

Super Crops

Around 7000 BC, people all over the world began ancient genetic engineering projects and finally domesticated wheat and other grains. Now, scientists fear that genetically altered super-crops may develop a resistance to pesticides, allowing for the spawn of ultra-pests and super-bacteria. When a species becomes unbeatable it rises to the apex of the food web, throwing ecosystems out of balance on a global scale and threatening all other species on Earth - including humans. What is more, super-crops don’t always require bees for pollination and without bees, as we all know, we really are up that creek without that paddle.

A queen bee in a hive.

A queen bee in a hive. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Nanotechnology Nightmare

Gray Goo (also spelled grey goo) is a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all matter on Earth by building more of themselves. This scenario has also been called ecophagy ("eating the environment theory”) which assumes machines were designed to have this capability, while popularizations have assumed that machines might somehow gain this capability by accident.

Asteroid Impact

Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and Chinese myths, arts, and crafts depict comets and asteroids in the sky and there are numerous records of shamans and priests predicting impending doom from above. NASA and the National Nuclear Security Administration recently announced that they are teaming up to try to figure out a way to use nuclear weapons to either destroy threatening asteroids or to at least nudge them off course. This seems very odd considering the fact that at the end of 2012 NASA publicly announced that it knew of “no asteroid or comet currently on a collision course with Earth” and that “no large object is likely to strike the Earth any time in the next several hundred years.”

Artistic representation of a comet or meteor heading towards Earth.

Artistic representation of a comet or meteor heading towards Earth. ( Public Domain )

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I would be thinking if what NASA told us previously was true than it would seem a tremendous waste of time, money, and resources to work on a way to destroy asteroids using nuclear weapons. Why is NASA suddenly so interested in the threat of large asteroids, if one is not likely to hit us? But I am not a conspiracy theorist, so I assume such experiments will ultimately have military applications because since wars have been fought it has been accepted that he who holds the highest ground generally wins. And with air superiority, one always wins.

Top Image: ‘End of the World’ artistic representation. Source: CC0

By Ashley Cowie


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Miller, Judith (2001). Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. New York: Simon & Schuster. 

Reilly, Michael (11 March 2011). "1722 UTC, 11 March 2011: Japan's largest ever earthquake".  Short Sharp Science. New Scientist. Retrieved 11 March 2011.

Hill, Richard L. (2002-05-15). "Great Cascadia Earthquake Penrose Conference".  The Oregonian. Archived from the original on 2008-10-24.

Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind".  BBC News. Archived from the original on 30 October 2015. Retrieved 30 October 2015.

Deborah Levine Gera (2003). Ancient Greek Ideas on Speech, Language, and Civilization. ISBN 978-0-19-925616-7. Retrieved 31 December 2007.

Gray, Louise (2009). ‘The ‘super crops’ of the future.’

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Gault, D. E.; Sonnet, C. P.; Wedekind, J. A. (1979). "Tsunami Generation by Pelagic Planetoid Impact".  Lunar and Planetary Science Conference Abstract.



ecampbell's picture

The fact that Permafrost is thawing at an alarming rate this may happen sooner rather than later. 

Erin Campbell

Biological factors are the most fearful forms of nightmares or at least they should. Biological factors such as viruses coming to life after being dormant for thousands of years that the human immune system has written out of the DNA code through breeding would be devastating to humanity because they jump from one system to another system rapidly and often times disappear into the background of nature once they have done their damage.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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