2. The Hadean cataclysm

Click here to view entire stratigraphic columnThe Hadean is the earliest segment of geological time. In the conventional timescale it begins around 4.6 billion years (Ga) ago, the age of the oldest meteorites, and ends around 3.9 billion years ago, the age of the Earth’s oldest rocks. By contrast, the Moon’s oldest rocks date to around 4.4 Ga, implying that something occurred towards the end of the Hadean to wipe out Earth’s earlier geological history. The pitted surface of the Moon tells us what that something was. The entire Moon is disfigured by impact craters, the work of asteroids, not volcanoes. Over 70 craters have diameters ranging from 300 to 1,200 km. The very biggest, similar in extent to western Europe, measures 2,500 km across.

ClaviusAtheistic cosmology pictures the solar system forming from a nebula of dust and gas. In the process of aggregation, some bodies reached planet size, others did not. Embryonic planets increased in mass as smaller bodies collided with them, while bodies failing to reach planet size ended up as asteroids. Impacts from these bodies intensified around the end of the Hadean in a puzzling episode called the “lunar cataclysm” or “late heavy bombardment” – late because, for some reason, it did not occur until more than 500 million years after the period of planet formation. To what degree there were impacts before 4.0 Ga is unknown – a few impact melts and breccias date to around 4.2 Ga, so there may have been some. The great majority date around 3.9 Ga, giving the impression of a brief interval of exceptionally heavy bombardment, after which large impacts abruptly stopped.

Earth’s experience must have been no less traumatic. The number of asteroids striking the planet is estimated at more than 20,000. The only reason we cannot trace impact craters on Earth is because its crust was destroyed and, in time, totally replaced.

While the severity of the bombardment is clear, the cause is not. Most of the solar system’s asteroids lie concentrated in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Meteorites indicate that they consist of minerals typical of rocky planets – predominantly iron, as in the core of a planet, and silicates, as in the enveloping crust and mantle. Many meteorites contain droplets that condensed from rock flash-heated to temperatures of 1800° C and vaporised. They appear to be debris from a planetary explosion rather than a proto-planetary nebula.

If we discount the radioisotope timescale, which elongates even brief events over millions of years, the meteorite evidence (further discussed here) suggests that there once existed more than the current eight planets, and at least one of them exploded, either in a collision (as cosmologists have been postulating) or as a result of thermonuclear heating within the core and mantle. Some of the material was vaporised and then re-compacted to form droplet-bearing asteroids; other material scattered through the solar system like so much shrapnel. Today’s asteroids, comets and rocky moons preserve what was left after most of the debris careered into the Sun and other planets.

There is no telling whether Earth’s former landmass was inhabited. In appearing to trace a progressive recovery from the cataclysm, the fossil record implies that it was. Life cannot just conjure itself into being. The sequence of fossils, the complexity of organisms, the instability which gave rise to successive igneous and sedimentary deposits all support the conclusion that the cataclysm at the end of the Hadean represents the key to understanding Earth’s troubled history.

Reviving a lost tradition

The terms ‘cataclysm’, describing the end-Hadean bombardment, and ‘Noachian’, describing the earliest period in Mars’s preserved history, were chosen by scientists without any idea that they might refer to the same event as Genesis describes. Providentially, it seems, in these last decades science and historical tradition have been converging upon one and the same event.

Genesis is not the only tradition that purports to remember such a crisis. Similar traditions have been documented from pre-literate tribes throughout the world. Most refer simply to a global flood, but one or two give hints that considerably more was involved. Take, for example, this excerpt from Mesopotamia’s Erra and Ishum, from the 9th century BC:

The very heavens I made to tremble, the positions of the stars of heaven changed, and I did not return them to their places.
Even Erkalla [Hades, the Underworld] quaked.
The control of heaven was undone, the springs diminished, the flood-water receded. I went back, and looked; it was very grievous.

(‘Stars’ were any celestial points of light, including planets.)

Genesis, which characterises the event as an undoing of the creation, does not use the term ‘flood’. Like the Mesopotamian texts, it chooses a word exclusively reserved for what happened in Noah’s day: in Hebrew, mabbul, in Greek, kataclusmos. The word was unique because the event was. In contrast to an inundation which submerged and then uncovered the same surface, this was an upheaval in which water surged up from beneath and shattered the land. Flooding was merely the consequence of that upheaval.

On that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened, and rain fell upon the earth 40 days and 40 nights.

The ‘deep’ had been a great body of subterranean water which kept the land moist by oozing up through springs. In the course of the cataclysm the primeval land was destroyed and the creatures that lived on it ‘blotted out’ – a fate precluding even fossilisation.

Drawing of the Ark by Lucile ButelWhat the opening of ‘the windows of the heavens’ refers to we are not told, but we get some clues from the occurrence of the same phrase in the book of Isaiah. In a vision of a future day of wrath the prophet saw the heavens trembling, the earth being broken and rocked to its foundations, the host of heaven falling like leaves from a fig tree. The Apocalypse is even more explicit, visualising asteroids falling to Earth like figs shaken from their branches in a gale. People hid in caves and among mountain rocks, terrified of the wrath of their Maker.

There was just one time in history when Earth experienced a cataclysm of this ferocity. That was at the end of the Hadean, at the very point where its geological record disappears. The beginning of the following period, the Archaean, was the only time when the planet was wholly under water. Fossils thereafter trace the process of ecological recovery.

No Hadean rocks exist on the Earth because the eruption of the deep, coupled with the onslaught from outer space, shattered its crust and consumed it. As the land foundered under their feet, plants, animals and men were obliterated. Eventually the land itself was subducted into the mantle. Like the words ‘cataclysm’ and ‘Noachian’, the term ‘Hadean’ (from the Greek Hades) is well chosen. The original world became a separate underworld beneath the land of the living.