Wofford Researcher Finds Evidence of Extraterrestrial Impact 12,800 Years Ago

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Dr. Terry A. Ferguson, a member of the environmental studies faculty at Wofford College and senior researcher at the college’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center, is a principal member of a multidisciplinary research team that recently discovered anomalously high levels of platinum in sediments at a Midlands South Carolina location.

The finding supports a growing body of evidence that an extraterrestrial impact event occurred nearly 13,000 years ago that resulted in major environmental and possibly cultural changes.

The results have been published in an article titled “Sediment Cores from White Pond, South Carolina, contain a Platinum Anomaly, Pyrogenic Carbon Peak, and Coprophilous Spore Decline at 12.8 ka” in Nature Scientific Reports.

The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis, controversial from the time it was presented in 2007, proposes that an asteroid or comet hit the Earth about 12,800 years ago, causing a period of extreme cooling that contributed to extinctions of more than 35 species of megafauna including giant sloths, sabre-tooth cats, mastodons and mammoths. It also coincides with a serious decline in early human populations, such as the Clovis culture, and is believed to have caused massive wildfires that could have blocked sunlight, causing an “impact winter” near the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.

The newly published study presents further evidence of a cosmic impact based on research done at White Pond near Elgin, South Carolina. The study builds on similar findings of platinum spikes – an element associated with cosmic objects like asteroids or comets – in North America, Europe, western Asia and recently in South America and Africa.

“Since it was intensively studied more than 40 years ago, White Pond has been one of the most significant pollen localities in eastern North America,” Ferguson says. “It contains a several-yard-deep record of past environments going back thousands of years. Most lakes and ponds in South Carolina are man-made. White Pond is one of a small number of natural ponds in the state. There are no known natural ponds with organic-rich sediments from the end of the last ice age in the Spartanburg area or elsewhere in the Piedmont of the Carolinas.”

Research on Greenland ice cores, published in 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicated the presence of high levels of platinum at the onset of the Younger Dryas and hypothesized that indicated the likelihood that an extraterrestrial impact event might have been involved in the abrupt beginning of Younger Dryas, says Ferguson, who at the time had been collaborating with some members of the current research team – some for almost 20 years – on understanding how environmental processes create and modify archaeological sites over time.

“The research team hypothesized that if this event had broad geographic impact, high levels of platinum ought to be present in sediments of well-studied archaeological sites dating to this time period,” Ferguson says. “In 2017, the research team published an earlier article in Nature Scientific Reports documenting the presence of high levels of platinum – all dating to 12,800 years ago – at 11 archaeological sites across North America.”

Four years ago, the current research team had the opportunity to acquire sediment cores in collaboration with another research team to study an interesting, unexpected cold period that began around 12,800 years ago and lasted for 1,000 years at the end of the last ice age known has the Younger Dryas. “The initial analyses were so promising that the research team went back to recover additional cores,” Ferguson says. “Over the past four years these sediment cores were subjected to multiple analyses involving specialized techniques to coax out additional aspects of the story of what occurred almost 13,000 years ago and its implication for then and today.”

Ferguson has been involved in environmental research and learning at Wofford College for the past 40 years. “Being exposed to this type of research provides students not only an opportunity to engage in hands-on scientific inquiry into real-world problems and issues, but it also can provide them a rare opportunity to experience revolutions in science close-up while they are occurring,” he says.

“The findings and implications of the current research are considered by some to be controversial and difficult to believe,” Ferguson says. “What many people today do not fully comprehend is that advances in scientific knowledge and our understanding of the world are not based on ‘belief,’ but on evidence-based scientific research. Four decades ago researchers came up with the idea that the age of the dinosaurs came to end due in large part due to an extraterrestrial impact. This impact hypothesis, like the current impact hypothesis, was considered ‘controversial’ and poorly supported, but one of the key pieces of scientific evidence was the occurrence of iridium in thin bands of rock dating to 65 million years ago. Initially found in only a few places it was eventually discovered worldwide.

“Additional support came in the form of other evidence for an impact event, including a large crater of the right size and age off the coast of Northern Mexico,” he continues. “As the body of evidence grew, skepticism was replaced by what is today almost universal acceptance of this hypothesis. The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis is currently undergoing the same scientific vetting process. Today there are over 50 locations across the Northern Hemisphere in North America, Europe and Asia containing high levels of platinum or other evidence supporting a Younger Dryas impact.”

Two localities containing high levels of platinum were recently found in the Southern Hemisphere in southern South America and southern Africa indicating this event had a global impact, Ferguson says. “A likely candidate for a crater also has been discovered recently in western Greenland. Research is still ongoing to determine whether it is as compelling as the crater was for the 65-million-year-old impact-event. Thus, the body of scientific evidence continues to grow.”

Ferguson and the research team will continue to conduct investigations at White Pond and other locations. “No compelling body of evidence has yet been found to fully reject this bold new idea,” he says. “If such evidence is discovered this hypothesis will be rejected. Such is the nature of science. Only further research and time will tell the outcome of this amazing ongoing story of scientific discovery.”

In addition to Ferguson, the scientists participating in the research and recently published paper were:
  • Christopher R. Moore, Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina.
  • Mark J. Brooks, Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina.
  • Albert C. Goodyear, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Columbia, South Carolina.
  • Angelina G. Perrotti, University of Wisconsin, Geography Department, Madison, Wisconsin.
  • Siddhartha Mitra, Department of Geological Sciences East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina.
  • Ashlyn M. Listecki, Department of Biology and Department of Chemistry, East Carolina University Greenville, North Carolina.
  • Bailey C. King, Department of Biology and Department of Chemistry, East Carolina University Greenville, North Carolina.
  • David J. Mallinson, Department of Geological Sciences East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina.
  • Chad S. Lane, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of North Carolina Wilmington.
  • Joshua D. Kapp, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz, California.
  • Allen West, Comet Research Group, Prescott, Arizona.
  • David L. Carlson, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.
  • Wendy S. Wolbach, Department of Chemistry, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois.
  • Theodore R. Them II, Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Scott Harris, Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Sean Pyne-O’Donnell, Earth Observatory of Singapore and Asian School of the Environment, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Prepared by Wofford College.