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14 January 2018
A supernova drawn 6,000 years ago in Kashmir?

A team of astrophysicists and archaeologists from the Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in India have come across what they think is the earliest human depiction of a supernova. Their study was recently published in the Indian Journal of History of Science.
     The illustration was carved into an irregular stone slab, no wider than 48 cm (18.8 inches), in the Burzahom region of Kashmir, India. Previous radiocarbon dating showed that humans lived in this area between 5000 BCE and 1500 BCE, although researchers still aren't certain about the date of the carving.
     Archaeologists found the carvings nearly half a century ago and for decades, they were thought to depict a hunting scene. But the presence of two celestial objects in the drawings has piqued the interest the Indian team of researchers.
     Two beaming disks in the sky initially were identified as two suns. That explanation did not satisfy Mayank Vahia and a team of astrophysicists in India and Germany. "Our first argument was, there cannot be two suns," Vahia said. "We thought it must have been an object that appeared and attracted the attention of the artists."
     Vahia and his team searched their catalogue: "We needed one that would have been brighter than the moon in the night sky and visible in the daytime," he said. They settled on Supernova HB9, a star that exploded around 4,600 BCE. The supernova would have occurred somewhere near the Orion constellation. "Which is known as the scene of a hunter," said Vahia. "The supernova also went off just above the constellation of Taurus, the bull, which is also seen in the drawing," Vahia added.
     The publication of the study in 2013 went unnoticed outside the scientific community but was picked up by a podcast in December and has become national news in India. Vahia says the oldest previous records of a supernova were discovered in China and date back to 800 BCE, so if true, "it's significantly older".
     Some will undoubtedly argue this conclusion is a bit of leap. After all, it's impossible to ever truly get into the mind of the artist, whoever they might be. Indeed, other scientists have previously conducted similar studies, only to later be debunked. Nevertheless, it's undeniable that ancient civilizations were passionate about the night sky and equally enthusiastic about documenting the world around them with cave art.

Edited from The Guardian, IFL Science (10 January 2018)

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