A celestial event mentioned in an ancient Chinese text turns out to be the oldest known reference to a candidate Northern Lights, which precedes the next oldest by about three centuries, according to a recent study by Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs, an independent researcher based in Canada, and Hisashi Hayakawa of Nagoya University. This finding was recently published in the journal Advances in space research.
The bamboo annals, or Zhushu Jinian in Mandarin, tell of China’s history from the earliest legendary time to the time of their probable composition, in the 4th century BCE. Apart from historical events, unusual observations in the sky occasionally appear in the text. Although this chronicle has been known by scholars for a long time, a fresh look at such ancient texts sometimes provides surprisingly new insights.
In this case, the authors examined the mention of a “five-colored light” seen in the northern sky one night towards the end of King Zhao’s reign of the Zhou dynasty. While the exact year is uncertain, they used updated reconstructions of Chinese chronology to settle at 977 and 957 BCE as the two most likely years, depending on how Zhao’s reign is dated.
They found that the registration of the “five-colored light” was consistent with a large geomagnetic storm. When the northern lights on the middle bank are bright enough, it can present a spectacle of several colors. Researchers cite several examples of this from historical records much closer to our time. The Earth’s magnetic north pole is known to have been inclined to the Eurasian side in the middle of the 10th century BCE, about 15 ° closer to central China than today. Therefore, the Northern Lights Oval could have been visible to observers in central China at times of significant magnetic disturbance. The study estimates that the equatorial boundary of the Northern Lights Oval would have been located at a magnetic latitude of 40 ° or less at the apartment.
This would be the earliest dateable record of a Northern Lights known from anywhere in the world. The find comes almost two years after what the previous holder of this award did – several records of graduate aurorae inscribed on cuneiform tablets by Assyrian astronomers in the period 679-655 BCE Some scientists have also linked Ezekiel’s vision, which is now dated to 594 or 593 BCE, with northern lights visibility in the Middle East, but reservations should be noted for its reliability. Otherwise, another dateable record of an early candidate northern lights for 567 BCE has been found in the astronomical diary of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II.
Why did it take so long for scientists to recognize the Northern Lights in the five-colored light of this chronicle? One reason is that the bamboo annals had a motley history. The original manuscript was lost, rediscovered in the 3rd century AD. and was lost again during the Song Dynasty. In the 16th century, a variant text was printed in which the object in the sky was not a five-colored light, but a comet. Now, the new study shows that this may not have been the original reading.
It is in itself interesting that popular descriptions of the Northern Lights can be pushed so far back in time. However, such historical information is also valuable for other reasons. It helps scientists model long-term patterns in space weather variability and solar activity on time scales from decades to millennia. Understanding these fluctuations, in turn, can help communities prepare for future large-scale solar flares and the disruption of technological infrastructure that they can cause. This record is now the only known historical reference to a space weather event before the Homeric Grand (Solar) Minimum (810–740 BCE), which should preferably be called the neo-Assyrian Grand Minimum because of Homer’s controversial historicity and dates.
Solar storm studies conducted by ancient Assyrian astronomers
Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs et al., A candidate Northern Lights report in the bamboo annals, indicating a possible extreme space event in the early 10th century BCE. Advances in space research (2022). DOI: 10.1016 / j.asr.2022.01.010
Provided by Nagoya University
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