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Ancient rock drawing could be oldest image of a supernova

A basic stone carving from thousands of years back may show humans' wonder at a stellar explosion, scientists say.

skymapcropped

A copy of the stone carving superimposed on a sky map of HB9's region. A newly published paper on the drawing surmises the object on the left is the supernova and the one on the right the moon. 

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

A hunter spears an animal beneath two bright celestial objects.

At first glance, it looks like your average prehistoric stone drawing. But if a team of scientists is right, it could be one of the earliest known depictions of a supernova.

The carving was found in the Burzahama region in Kashmir, India, in the 1960s and is believed to date back to between 2100 and 4100 BC.

The drawing shows a stick figure underneath two light-emitting objects that have previously been interpreted as either the sun and the moon or two stars in close proximity. But a new paper published in the Indian Journal of the History of Science (PDF) makes a case that the carving depicts the moon next to a supernova. And not just any stellar explosion. A specific one.

A photograph of the stone carving found at Burzahom, along with a sketch of it.

Courtesy IGNCA/Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

Scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai and Astrophysikalisches Institut in Potsdam, Germany, carefully studied the objects etched into the rock and concluded they couldn't be two suns (since we only have one and, well, Tattooine hadn't hit screens yet). In addition, the objects "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," the paper says.

Going on the theory that the drawing showed a supernova, the team led by astrophysicist Mayank Vahia scoured astronomical records of ancient supernovae for one whose timing and galactic coordinates correspond with the location and estimated age of the drawing and should have been bright enough to attract the attention of early sky gazers at Burazahama.

They found one, Supernova HB9, which would have been visible on Earth in 3600 BC with a brightness comparable to that of the moon.

"We suggest that this is not a terrestrial hunting scene but is actually a sky-map giving location of prominent constellations and the moon on the day the supernova was first observed," write the researchers, who superimposed a sky map of the HB9's region on the ancient drawing and found notable astronomical clues.

Drawings dating back far beyond the one found on the 19x11-inch stone slab indicate that humans have long been fascinated by happenings in the skies. 

It's possible, of course, that the artist who etched this particular scene had zero interest in astronomy and was creating a piece for ancient KashmirMOMA. But Vahia is fairly confident that isn't the case.

"The image of one of the hunters coincides with the Orion; the central stag is same as the Taurus," he writes. "The hunter on the right may have been formed from stars of Cetus and other animal on the right may be Andromeda and Pegasus. The long, curved line in the carving, traditionally interpreted as spear, may well be an arc of bright stars."

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