Tall el-Hammam: an airburst of gullibility

Detail of photograph
Enlargement of detail from Elisabeth Bik’s blog, one of several illustrations showing apparently duplicated areas within the key figures of the paper A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam ….

Note added 14 October 2021, 6:40 p.m. MDT: Professor Braterman has published an expanded version of this article, Tall el-Hammam; an airburst of gullibility; it gets worse, in the blog Primate’s Progress.

I shared the excitement when I read here that “in ~ 1650 BCE (~ 3600 years ago), a cosmic airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle-Bronze-Age city in the southern Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea,” and that this event could have given rise to the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Somewhat to my surprise, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis did not. I now think that Ken’s conclusion [1] was right and I was wrong.

Like I suspect many of the journalists and interested readers who swooped on this story, I failed at first to notice that the paper was not, despite the link, an article in Nature but in Scientific Reports. This is one of the stable of second-line journals closely linked to Nature being published by Springer, now controlled by the publishing giant Hotlzbrinck, and profiting from Nature’s reputation for excellence. I was only vaguely aware of the authors’ long history of invoking airbursts, took the many kinds of evidence listed at face value, and did not even blink at the claim that “[a]n airburst-related influx of salt (~ 4 wt.%) produced hypersalinity,” a process for which I can envisage no credible mechanism.

The authors have since described this work to a much larger audience in The Conversation, where they repeat their claim, also published in Scientific Reports, of a similar catastrophe at Abu Hureyra in what is now Syria, around 10,800 BCE, assert that “it almost certainly won’t be the last time a human city meets this fate,” claim that such events “pose a severe modern-day hazard,” and advise that “unless orbiting or ground-based telescopes detect these rogue objects, the world may have no warning, just like the people of Tall el-Hammam.” The Abu Hureya paper also repeats a litany of earlier claims that the Younger Dryas, a period of severe cold in the northern hemisphere from around 12,900 to 11,700 years Before Present [Present is fixed at 1950 CE], was caused by a series of impacts with cometary debris, spread over at least four continents. These claims have been severely disputed; see papers listed below.

Prominent among the critics is my friend Mark Boslough, an expert on such cataclysmic events who even has an asteroid named after him. He tells me that he is tired of repeated rebuttal of what he considers to be obviously false claims, and of seeing his own theoretical analysis of the effect of airbursts invoked as an explanation of claims completely inconsistent with such a process, or perhaps any credible process. For this reason, rather than publishing yet another counterblast that will be ignored, he has taken to describing the controversy, extending over many years, on Twitter (see here, here, and subsequent threads).

There are numerous reasons for concern about the Tall el-Hammam paper in particular.

The paper tells us, “The project is under the aegis of the School of Archaeology, Veritas International University, Santa Ana, CA, and the College of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, NM, under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” Veritas International University believes in “the full historicity and comprehensibility of the biblical record.” It is accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which I have written about elsewhere. Trinity Southwest University, which now operates from an office in a strip mall in Albuquerque, was formerly in Tulsa, Oklahoma, under the name Southwest Biblical Seminary, and rejects any government accreditation whatsoever as intrusive violation of the separation of Church and State. While the traditional site of Sodom is in Israel (and within the pre-1967 boundaries), Tall el-Hammam is in Jordan.

The corresponding author is Allen West, who has been publishing prolifically in this area since 2005 (Evidence for the Extinction of Mammoths by an Extraterrestrial Impact Event) and in 2006 co-authored a book, The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes: How a Stone-Age Comet Changed the Course of World Culture, which claims that the debris of a shattered comet was responsible for “a cosmic chain of events [that] began 41,000 years ago and culminated in a major global catastrophe 28,000 years later.” These events include everything from the extinction of the mammoths to the landform of the Carolina Bays to the legend of Atlantis to a purported “mysterious layer of black sediment” found spanning North America to the Younger Dryas discussed in the Abu Hureya paper. West has no academic qualifications or affiliations and gives his address as Comet Research Group (CRG), Prescott, Arizona (several of the other authors are also members of this group, which is linked to the Rising Light Group, a 501(c)3, tax-exempt charitable organization with a clear Christian and biblical agenda, registered in Allen West’s name. As detailed by Pacific Standard Magazine, discussing how thing stood regarding CRG’s work in 2017, there have been calls for a formal inquiry, and

University of Wyoming archaeologist Todd Surovell and his colleagues couldn’t find increased magnetic spherules representing cosmic debris at seven Clovis sites. Nicholas Pinter and his colleagues at Southern Illinois University Carbondale argue the carbon spherules are organic residue of fungus or arthropod excrement. And Tyrone Daulton of Washington University in St. Louis and his colleagues reported that supposed nanodiamonds formed by the impact were misidentified.

Numerous other concerns specific to the present work have been presented at PubPeer, and very detailed concerns have been raised by Elisabeth Bik in her blog, Science Integrity Digest, where she presents evidence that images in the paper had been manipulated.

On the other hand, in an acrimonious exchange with me in the Comments section of The Conversation, Wells pointed out,

Our group included, among many others: Dr. James Kennett, emeritus professor at UCSB, specializing in stratigraphy, micropaleontology, paleobiology. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, which recognizes the contributions of just 0.1% of all scientists. Dr. Ted Bunch, former NASA section chief and a world-leading meteoriticist. Dr. Robert Hermes, retired from Los Alamos National Labs, world-recognized expert in trinitite or atomic glass. Dr. Wendy Wolbach, chemistry professor who discovered high-temperature soot at the K-Pg boundary.

I replied with a listing of some papers that I have examined criticising West’s own earlier work regarding airbursts, including sampling techniques and claimed evidence for very high temperatures:

See, however, in defence of the Younger Dryas impact theory, *Sweatman MB (2021). The Younger Dryas Impact hypothesis: Review of the impact evidence. Earth-Science Reviews. 218: 103677. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2021.103677. I thank Christopher R. Moore, one of the authors of the paper I am criticising, for drawing my attention to this review.

*Freely accessible via doi; for other papers, doi gives access to abstracts but not full text.

Retraction Watch has drawn attention to the criticisms that the paper has attracted, and Richard White, the chief editor of Scientific Reports, says that he is aware of the concerns that have been raised, and considering them carefully.

We await his decision with interest.

[1] Though not his reasoning, Ken’s argument is based on his Ussher-style biblical timeline, which places the call of Abraham at 1922 BCE, whereas the destruction of Tall el-Hammam is dated to ~ 1650 BCE. For what it’s worth (not much, I know), this disagreement would disappear if we use, instead, the traditional Jewish date of 3760 BCE for the Creation.

Paul Braterman is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of North Texas and honorary senior Research Fellow in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, as well as a science writer. He has written for PT before, most recently Is the NABT statement on teaching evolution flawed? and Answers in Genesis, climate change, and vaccination. Matt Young will be the primary moderator of this thread.