Five-thousand-year-old stone carvings found in the Kashmir Valley may represent the earliest known recording of a supernova, according to a group of Indian scientists. Their study, published in the Indian Journal of History of Science, reinterprets a curious scene: since archaeologists unearthed the irregular stone slab in 1969, experts have believed that its markings depict a hunting scene, with armed men chasing fauna beneath two radiating, sun-like objects.
“Our first argument was, there cannot be two suns,” astrophysicist Mayank Vahia told the Guardian. “We thought it must have been an object that appeared and attracted the attention of the artists.”
Vahia and his team also ruled out the possibility that the carvers were depicting the sun together with the moon, since the full moon does not appear that close to the sun. The scientists then theorized that the object could be a supernova — the super explosion of a star that creates an extremely brilliant flash as it unfolds.
Astronomers have been able to determine the locations and timings of past supernovas by studying the x-rays they radiate for centuries after they explode. Vahia and his team searched records of past supernovas, for those that would have exploded during the right period and were bright enough to see from the stone’s original site. They found one strong candidate: Supernova HB9, a star that exploded around 4,600 BCE.
Upon further research, the team also realized that the stone — which measures about 18 by 10 inches — could potentially depict a map of the sky observed one night, rather than a simple hunting scene. The scientists transposed the carvings onto a chart of known constellations that surrounded HB9, and realized that the figures could represent celestial clusters. Seen from Kashmir, the supernova would have exploded near Orion, which fittingly coincides with the carved image of the hunter; as well as Taurus, which would be represented by the central bull.
“The hunter on the right may have been formed from stars of Cetus and the other animal on the right may be Andromeda and Pegasus,” the researchers write. “The long, curved line in the carving, traditionally interpreted as spear, may well be an arc of bright stars. These sky patterns account for all the bright stars in the region and look consistent with then prevalent culture.”
Although the study was published in 2013, it did not receive widespread attention until recently, when Vahia spoke about it on the podcast The Intersection. As Quartz points out, especially since this is the only piece of rock art from the region that suggests a sky chart, the similarities between the carvings and constellations may well just be a coincidence. Still, it’s compelling to imagine ancient astronomers being struck by some distant, awesome phenomenon, and trying to translate the monumental into a tangible record.