Defusing India's Ancient Atomic Blasts
The facts behind an urban legend claiming a nuclear war in India some 12,000 years ago.
Today we're going to spin the globe around to India, to the eastern edge of the great Thar desert, where sits the ancient city of Jodhpur. According to a popular story backed up by numerous articles online, indisputable evidence of an ancient nuclear war can be found throughout the region. Some of it sounds rock solid and indisputable. Could it possibly be true that the ancients figured out atomic weapons, 8-12,000 years ago? Today we're going to look at that evidence, and see just how plausible this story might be.
To summarize the most popular version of the tale: a short distance west of Jodhpur is a region where radioactivity is so great that residents have long had high rates of cancer and birth defects, and that has now been cordoned off by the government. In addition, an ancient city has been excavated that shows half a million people were killed by an atomic blast the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Archaeologist Francis Taylor is quoted as having said:
The ancient records she's referring to are from a great Sanskrit epic of ancient India titled the Mahabharata. It appears to describe a nuclear war:
This quote is discussed by an Indian historian, Kisari Mohan Ganguli, who says:
But the evidence doesn't stop there, according to the online articles. Near Bombay is said to be a giant crater, unexplainable except as the result of a huge thermonuclear detonation. It's called Lonar Crater, and it's actually there, and it's — for real — definitely not volcanic.
Another piece of evidence is a pair of excavated ancient cities at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, with skeletons that are:
With so much evidence, the story seems to be hard to dismiss. But, quite obviously, ancient atomic weapons are unimaginably inconsistent with human history. A huge number of skills are required to make them that did not exist, as well as a lot of physics knowledge known to be totally incompatible with the primitive knowledge the ancient Indians recorded. Clearly something must be amiss. I began by trying to learn more about these archaelogical discoveries at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa.
Sadly for the legend, there is nothing remotely like this story in any archaeological publications. Archaeological information about the excavations of Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, and other Indus Valley sites is widely available online and in print, and there is simply no such thing as radioactive skeletons or skeletons in large numbers or holding hands or sprawled in any way that the archaeologists saw reason to print.
The next easiest thing to check would be those quotes from the Mahabharata. At a minimum I wanted to see the context of those passages. I went to an online searchable Mahabharata to look for these quotes, and... couldn't find them. Couldn't find anything even vaguely like them. Could it be possible that whoever originated this tale made up its primary source? Let's set that possibility aside for a moment, and see what we can verify about the rest of the story. How about the residual radioactivity west of Jodhpur.
There is one little fact that casts some pretty grave doubt on the claim that Jodhpur is in a zone with dangerously high radiation. The story says we detect that radiation today, and suffer high birth defects and cancer, left over from this nuclear war 8-12,000 years ago. Radioactivity goes down over time, so if it's that lethal today, it would have been even more lethal 550 years ago when the city of Jodhpur was founded. It would seem a poor choice to locate a new city. However, Jodhpur was founded, and has flourished ever since.
Furthermore, the vast majority of radioactive isotopes produced in a nuclear blast have extremely short half lives measured in seconds, hours, or days, and are reduced to safe levels very quickly. Those that pose the greatest threat to human health are Cesium-137 and Strontium-90, which have half lives of 30 and 28 years, and so even these would have been reduced to well below the natural background levels thousands of years ago. Other long-lived isotopes are produced by nuclear explosions, but at much lower amounts.
Note that despite the atomic destructions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no harmful radiation persists today in either city. Put together all the radiation data, and we know for a fact, with no doubt, that any claims of modern radiation in India proving a prehistoric nuclear war are false. So we have good reason to regard the entire story with great skepticism.
For example, the idea of an ancient city with half a million people, west of Jodhpur. Not very likely. There are no ancient cities anywhere in the region west of Jodhpur, it's the Thar desert; and half a million people would be immense, and pretty hard for archaeology to miss. This part of the story has to be either dead wrong, or made up.
But that's not the only part of the geography that doesn't make sense. If this was a nuclear war, it was practically a nationwide theater. Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa are both about 500 km from Jodhpur, one to the north and one to the west. None of these places are anywhere near each other.
So how about this giant unexplained crater near Bombay? Lonar Crater — which is some 775 kilometers southeast of Jodhpur, even farther away — is indeed a real crater. Rim to rim it measures about 1.8 km. It is blasted out of thick layers of volcanic basalt, deposited over the plateau 66 million years ago. If the crater was indeed formed by a nuclear blast 8-12,000 years ago, dating techniques should make this easy to determine.
For a long time, the accepted age of Lonar Crater was 52,000 years; far too old to have been part of this alleged nuclear war. This had been determined by thermoluminescence dating, which tells us when the sample was last molten. But two newer measurements, using argon-argon radiometric dating instead, found older dates of 570,000 years and 656,000 years, with non-overlapping margins of error. These older dates are also more in line with the amount of erosion the Crater exhibits. Which one is right? We don't know for sure yet, as only a few samples have been dated. But we can say for sure that nothing at Lonar Crater can support a date as recent as 8-12,000 years ago. Wherever the authors of these "ancient nuclear war" articles got that number, it certainly didn't come from anyone studying the geology. The mineralogy and ejecta blanket evidence also proves a hypervelocity impact origin, not a bomb crater or volcano anything else. It was a hypervelocity strike of either a meteor or a comet. There are no mysteries at Lonar Crater, and nothing there that could be shoehorned into consistency with a nuclear bomb.
It looks like every part of this story is fabricated. So where did it come from? Of the many copy-and-paste plagiarizations of the same article found online, only a few give any source, and that source is given as the World Island Review, from January 1992. There is no record of such a publication. Nevertheless we can still find case zero, the original posting of this mysterious article, which was made to an alternative news web site called KeelyNet in September 2000, but has since been removed. Luckily, it's been archived to the conspiracy theory website Rense.com, where you can read the original article, without the later enhancements added by imaginative Internet denizens. One skeptical researcher tracked down the archaeologist mentioned in the article, Francis Taylor, and found that no such person has ever published anything in the archaeological literature. The other person mentioned in the article was the "historian" Kisari Mohan Ganguli. Turns out that the Mahabharata was translated into English in the late 1800s by a Babu Kisari Mohan Ganguli. Nowhere is it recorded that he made any of the comments attributed to him, and it seems highly unlikely that he would have compared the mythical events to an atomic blast, as he lived long before they were invented.
Addendum: Erich von Däniken, in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods (32 years before the KeelyNet posting), claimed things like flying machines and bright lights were mentioned in the Mahabharata, but his Mahabharata quotes were also fictitious and bore no resemblance to the actual text. I found nothing Von Däniken said that could have reasonably been interpreted as atomic blasts. —BD
The story of the ancient Indian atomic blasts was written by an anonymous author who gave a false attribution, and provably made up quotes and the people he quoted. This is consistent with only one kind of writing: fictional.
Consider this quote that the original article attributed to Ganguli:
Sound familiar? Think back to the 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgment Day:
I think someone was inspired to write some nuclear war fiction. Of course there's no way to know for a fact if this line of dialog was inspirational to our unknown author — it's probably not the only time someone has used the leaves metaphor in this way — but it also wouldn't be the first time a movie inspired an urban legend. We've talked about at least two other cases here on Skeptoid — episode 385 on the disappearance of Frederick Valentich, and episode 526 on sky trumpets. But regardless of the source, the story of ancient atomic blasts in India serves two purposes. On the upside, it makes Internet lore a bit more colorful; and on the downside, it spreads misinformation that innocent readers take for truth. To all future Internet hoaxers: Please, keep it classy. Write a good story, but please, don't create a land mine of bad information. The Internet is a dangerous enough place as it is.
Addendum: A listener tracked down the source of the claim of ancient skeletons 50 times more radioactive than normal. Read about it in this listener feedback episode. —BD
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