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A supernova remnant

Petroglyph in India May Be Oldest Known Sky Chart and Supernova Depiction


Archaeological investigators from India claim their in-depth research of historical night sky charts backs a theory that ancient rock art that depicts an astronomical event. Experts suggest the find may be the oldest star chart ever discovered, as well as the very first portrayal of a supernova.

Mysterious Rock Art Puzzles Scientists

AsInternational Business Times reports, the peculiar rock art dates back to between 2100 and 4100 BC and was found at the Burzahom Neolithic site in the Kashmir region of Asia in Northern India. According to the archaeologists, it portrays a sky with two glaring objects in it and figures of humans and animals below. At first sight, both the animals and humans appeared to be part of a hunting scene, but after detailed examination, scientists have concluded that the figures depict star patterns and the two bright objects are a sun or moon and a supernova.

Left, photograph of the petroglyphs. Right, a sketch of it. (Image: IGNCA)

Left, photograph of the petroglyphs. Right, a sketch of it. (Image: IGNCA)

“We reinterpret the picture with emphasis on the two extremely bright celestial bodies shown in the picture. There is clear indication that the two celestial objects drawn are very bright. One of the objects is either the Sun or bright Moon and second object is relatively close to the first. They cannot be Sun and Moon since, with such proximity to the Sun, the Moon would be in a partial phase around the new and hence not very bright. We investigate the possibility that the observed object is not a star pair as even in other prehistoric drawings from European caves, stars are never shown as large disks,” scientists theorize in a paper that was published in the December issue of theIndian Journal of History of Science.

Photograph of the petroglyphs. (Image: IGNCA)

Photograph of the petroglyphs. (Image: IGNCA)

The Importance of a Supernova for Science

According to NASA, by supernova scientists define the explosion of a star and it is considered to be the largest explosion that takes place in space. A supernova happens where there is a change in the core, or center, of a star. A change can occur in two different ways, with both resulting in a supernova.

A supernova burns for only a short period of time, but it can tell scientists a lot about the universe. One kind of supernova has shown scientists that we live in an expanding universe, one that is growing at an ever-increasing rate. Scientists also have determined that supernovas play a key role in distributing elements throughout the universe. When the star explodes, it shoots elements and debris into space. Many of the elements we find here on Earth are made in the core of stars. These elements travel on to form new stars, planets and everything else in the universe.

This artist’s impression shows dust forming in the environment around a supernova explosion.

This artist’s impression shows dust forming in the environment around a supernova explosion. (CC BY 4.0)

Part of the Puzzle Explained

Astrophysicist Mayank Vahia and his colleagues at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, took a look deep into the past in order to discover if there were any supernovas bright enough to be witnessed on Earth in that period of time. His team discovered that a supernova, HB9, exploded around 3600 BC, placing it around the time the drawing was created.

“Astronomical data are known to predate formal dated settlements in several areas (Baity, 1973) and rock art is known to be the earliest form of human expression and it seems possible that the stone carving was made much earlier than the end period of the civilization. This suggests that HB9 is the most promising candidate supernova for the pictograph. We therefore investigate the possibility that the rock drawing is the record of the supernova HB9. We suggest that the partially drawn object is HB9 since it would be irregular and that the second bright object is Moon since the apparent magnitude of HB9 is closer to that of the Moon,” Dr. Vahia and his colleagues report in theirstudy.

Skymap of the region HB9 in the skychart for 5700 BC.

Skymap of the region HB9 in the skychart for 5700 BC. (Image:Vahia et al)

Dr. Vahia also suggests that the drawings of humans and animals are in reality representations of constellations and not a hunting scene as they initially believed. According to the scientist, a man with a bow represents Orion, while a man holding a spear is part of Pisces. As for the animals, Dr. Vahia has a theory as well: the deer the two men are attacking is Taurus and the dog is the Andromeda galaxy.

Could this be the Earliest Example of a Sky Chart?

A more superficial analysis proposed for the scene is that it is of a hunt and that the two suns indicate that it lasted two days. However, Dr. Vahia proposes that the placement in the scene is not coincidental as it closely equals where these constellations are on a sky chart. If his theory is proven to be accurate, that would make the specific drawing possibly the earliest example of a sky chart and first depiction of a supernova. AsInternational Business Times reports, he and his team’s next move is to try to discover a second example of a sky chart from the region in order to reinforce his theory as the lack of other sky charts from that period of time could mean that Dr. Vahia’s theory is just a coincidence. However, the Indian scientist and his team are very optimistic that they will discover more similar artwork from the region that will confirm the recent discovery’s authenticity.

Top image: A supernova remnant (IC 443) by NASA. (Public Domain)

ByTheodoros Karasavvas

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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