The Cygnus Mystery - Have Cosmic Rays Affected Human Evolution?

Cygnus X-3 taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

A Report by Andrew Collins

Did cosmic rays have a hand in effecting shifts in human evolution, from Palaeolithic times through to the modern day? Has this helped determine not only our physique and behaviour, but also our creativity and consciousness? These are wild notions, yet suddenly they are beginning to appeal to main-stream scientists and astronomers. Indeed, as long ago as 1973 American astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan wrote in his book The Cosmic Connection that human evolution was the result of incoming cosmic rays from some distant neutron star, demonstrating how we are right to think of ourselves as part of a greater whole at one with the cosmos.

Yet is this correct? Is Charles Darwin's theory that evolution is caused merely through survival of the fittest, and the process of natural selection, somehow flawed? The idea of cosmic radiation reaching Earth from deep space has fascinated the scientific world since its discovery following a series of balloon ascents by Austrian physicist Victor F Hess (1883-1964) in 1912. Then when in the late 1920s American geneticist H J Muller (1890-1967) discovered that radiation (he used X-rays and later radium) was a mutagen through his work with Drosophila fruit flies, the subject of whether or not high energy cosmic rays might cause changes in human DNA was voiced for the first time. Muller himself twice wrote about the subject, concluding on each occasion that the normal background fluctuation in cosmic rays reaching Earth was inadequate to explain spontaneous mutations in life forms, whatever their type. Muller was not wrong. Yet had he been privy to modern scientific data which now confirms that at certain times in the Earth's history the solar system has been bombarded with high levels of cosmic rays then he might have thought again.

Records from the Ice

Trends in cosmic ray activity revealed by Beryllium-10 levels in ice cores going back 200 Ky BP. Prepared by the Meinel Institute. Credit: The Meinel Institute.

When so-called "primary" cosmic rays hit the upper atmosphere almost all of them break up when they collide with nuclei of oxygen and nitrogen, the process producing a plethora of charged secondary particles. Many disintegrate in milliseconds, but others form isotopes that are preserved in everything from lake sediments to stalagmites and, more crucially, the layers of ice that accumulate each year to great depth in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

One such isotope is Beryllium-10 (10Be), which can be extracted from ice cores and measured to provide an accurate indication of cosmic ray activity in the upper atmosphere. It shows that over the past 100,000 years, there have been three periods when the cosmic ray flux has increased dramatically. The first was around c. 60,000-70,000 years ago, the second occurred approximately c. 35,000-40,000 years ago, and the third and last peak began around c. 16,000-17,000 years ago, and continued until around 14,000 years ago. Each spike lasted for a period of approximately 2,000 years. Similar results have been determined from a stalagmite removed from a submerged blue hole in the Bahamas. An examination of its Beryllium-10 content indicates that at various points between 45,000 and 11,000 years ago the Earth was bombarded by twice the amount of cosmic radiation than we get today.

Where's the Cosmic Source?

The first question we must ask is where this influx of cosmic radiation might have come from. Was it really a neutron star, as Carl Sagan suggested, or could it have been another astronomical source out there in deep space? Alternatively, was there some other, more prosaic solution to this enigma? The more or less regular gaps between the spikes of Beryllium-10 activity noted in the ice cores might well indicate some kind of cyclic force in action, most obviously that of the sun. Cosmic rays are known to be partially deflected by the solar magnetic field that stretches far out into the heart of the solar system, making the rate of Beryllium-10 production in the upper atmosphere dependent on the strength of the solar field, which is itself connected with sunspot activity.

In addition to this, the sun's long term climate cycles of 100,000, 41,000 and 23,000 years, first noted by Serbian geophysicist Milutin Milankovic (1879-1958), must also affect the production of Beryllium-10 for similar reasons, i.e. the influence of the solar field upon the Earth's upper atmosphere. This said, there might easily have been other factors behind the sudden increase in cosmic rays hitting the earth, the most catastrophic being a supernova, the death of a star as it expels the last of its nuclear fuel and collapses to form a high-mass compact object, most usually a white dwarf, black hole or neutron star.

Supernovas are thought to produce enormous bursts of cosmic rays and gamma rays, which are sent careering across space at virtually the speed of light. If such an event occurred close enough to our own solar system then the Earth would be showered by deadly radiation. This would damage the ozone layer, causing not only many more rays to reach the surface of the planet, but also the onset of high levels of UV radiation from the sun. More conservatively, catastrophists suggest that cosmic rays from a close supernova would dramatically increase cloud formation, preventing the sun from penetrating through the atmosphere, thus bringing about a sudden ice age.

Whatever the consequences of a close supernova, life on Earth would suffer mass extinctions. As terrifying a scenario as this might seem, it was the favoured theory for the sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago until the discovery in 1980 of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico's Yucatan peninsular. This helped confirm the alternative theory that a super-sized asteroid or comet had been responsible for their extinction. Indeed, the supernova solution had been the choice of Carl Sagan and his co-author Dr I S Shklovskii, the famous Soviet astrophysicist and radio astronomer, in a book entitled Intelligence in the Universe, published in 1966. In fact, one wonders whether Sagan's unique view that cosmic rays have accelerated human evolution actually stemmed from his obvious fascination with the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Yet the powerful idea of a close supernova wreaking devastation on earth during some past geological age lingers, with some catastrophists believing that it could have brought about mass extinctions during other geological epochs, for instance at the close of the Jurassic age some 145 million years ago, as well as at the culmination of the Pleistocene age, which coincided with the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago. And such scientific speculation is where it starts getting interesting, for when the high levels of Beryllium-10 were first noted in the ice cores at the beginning of the 1990s, scientists from the Cosmic Ray Council of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, working alongside a team from the University of Arizona, speculated that those around 35,000-40,000 years ago probably resulted from a supernova explosion.

To back up their dramatic claims the joint Soviet-American team cited the presence of an immense formation of glowing clouds of gaseous debris - the remnants of an unimaginable supernova explosion at around 150 light years away (that's just 900 million, million miles from here) in the northern constellation of Cygnus. Had this remnant of a supernova explosion - known to astronomers as the Cygnus Veil, or Veil nebula - been responsible for showering the Earth with cosmic rays for anything up to 2,000 years some 40,000-35,000 years ago? Did it bring about dramatic climatic changes and bursts of radiation that evolved humanity into what we are today?

The Emergence of Man

For whatever reason, the worldwide press coverage that resulted from this dramatic announcement of a close supernova decimating the Earth some 35,000 years ago came to nothing. Yet, thankfully, there was one person who did take notice, and this was British anthropological writer Denis Montgomery. Having lived in Africa for many years, where anatomically modern humans emerged for the first time around 200,000 years ago, he became intrigued as to why sudden jumps in evolution occur. Was it purely spontaneous, through chemical changes in the body, or were there other exterior factors at play, such as environmental and climatic changes, nutritional variety, interbreeding or even simple competitiveness? Although there is ample evidence that our earliest ancestors migrated from Africa, most probably in search of new resources of food as early as 70,000-80,000 years ago, there exist only tiny glimpses of what we were capable of achieving at this time. For instance, around 80,000 years ago the peoples of the republic of Congo were making barbed bone hooks for fishing, while a community that inhabited a large cave at a place called Blombos on the southern coast of South Africa would seem to have fashioned the earliest known examples of expressive art. These take the form of incised pieces of red ochre, showing recurring cross-hatch designs, as well as perforated snail shell beads, once strung on a cord and worn either as a necklace or bracelet. All of these invaluable objects are thought to be around 75,000 years old. Then there is the recently discovered archaeological evidence from a remote mountain cave in Botswana sacred to the indigenous San bushmen. This shows that ritual activity has been occurring here in a similar manner for anything up to 70,000 years, around the time when the first migrations out of Africa are thought to have occurred. Strangely, this was also when the ice core samples tell us that there was a dramatic increase in cosmic radiation hitting the earth, the first of three major bursts in the past 100,000 years.

Age of the Artist

The well scene in the Lascaux caves of southern France, dating from 15,000 BC and showing Cygnus as a bird on a pole and a bird man falling into a trance. Credit: Yuri Leitch.

Yet aside from this clear evidence of human creativity and imagination 70,000-80,000 years ago, it was not until the start of the Upper Palaeolithic age around 40,000 years ago that something quite dramatic started to take place. At a time coincident to when homo sapiens first entered a Europe dominated by his Neanderthal cousins, there is clear evidence for the sudden emergence of a complex life style, the earliest known to human kind. It involved religious expression and practices, including detailed funerary rites, as well as magnificent new forms of art, such as the carving of animals, birds and humans in bone and stone and, crucially, the manifestation of highly sophisticated cave art, such as the extraordinary painted galleries discovered as recently as 1994 at Chauvet in France's Ardèche region. Occupied as early as 32,000-30,000 years ago, it contains images and sculptures of whole menageries of wild animals, including horses, rhinos, lions, mammoths and bison. Alongside these are perhaps the oldest known representations of the human form anywhere in the world. These take the form of a painted torso and legs of a large bodied woman, typical of later "Venuses" found either in statue form or as high relief in other caves, and an accompanying bison-headed figure labelled the Sorcerer, both of which are to be seen in the deepest part of the cave system.

Rapidly, hundreds of caves across Western Europe became full of accomplished art forms, a tradition which lingered through until around 17,000 years ago, when suddenly there was a renewed interest in sacred painting deep underground. This trend ended finally around 12,000 years ago when the Upper Palaeolithic age climaxed coincident to the cessation of the last Ice Age.

What Denis Montgomery wondered was whether, in addition to other environmental, climatic and human factors, the increase in cosmic rays around 35,000 years ago, perhaps from the assumed supernova explosion which caused the creation of the Cygnus Veil, acted as a mutagen to effect sudden changes in the brain's neurological processes. This in turn might have brought about the enlightened age of the cave artist in Western Europe. It could also explain why the Neanderthal peoples suddenly became extinct around this time, perhaps as a result of too much competition from their competitive new neighbours, the homo sapiens.

Montgomery's unique ideas were privately published, and, inevitably, largely ignored by the scholarly community. Adding to his problems was the realization by astronomers during the mid 1990s that the Cygnus Veil, the nebula at the centre of what Montgomery came to refer to as "the Cygnus event", was found to be not 150 light years away from Earth, as had previously been thought, but much further away, probably around 1,800 light years distance from here. At this greater distance any supernova would have been little more than a bright light source in the northern sky, lasting for a period of several days before gradually dying away. Doubly damning were recalculations concerning the age of the supernova event, which now appears to have occurred as recently as 5,000-8000 years ago (even though some astronomers still reckon it took place much earlier, perhaps 10,000-15,000 years ago). Thus there was no way that the Cygnus Veil can have been responsible for the high levels of cosmic rays reaching Earth's atmosphere prior to the emergence of the first European cave artists some 32,000 years ago. So where did they come from?

Enter the Meinel Group

It would not be until 2005 that this same cosmological conundrum would again be tackled, this time by an academic think tank from Nevada. At the conference of TAG (the Theoretical Archaeological Group) in Sheffield, England, held in December that year, Dr Aden Meinel - Emeritus Professor of the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona and distinguished veteran of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who in the 1980s was responsible for the launch of space telescopes such as Hubble - told a packed audience of archaeologists and students that the high levels of Beryllium-10 in the Greenland and Antarctica ice cores indicated that cosmic rays were responsible for germ-line mutations in both animals and human life around 35,000-40,000 years ago. This, he reported, had been the reason for the emergence of Cro-magnon man in Western Europe, and the sudden disappearance of the Neanderthals at the same time.

In addition to this, Meinel revealed that he and his colleagues had been able to use the ice core evidence to determine the approximate astronomical coordinates for the source of the cosmic rays. They had pinpointed an area of the sky in the northern hemisphere, coincident to the constellation of Draco. Here they searched for a possible source of cosmic rays and settled on a planetary nebula (a mass of glowing gas and cloud) known as the Cat's Eye. This Meinel group proposed was the remnants of a galactic binary system consisting of a super giant and a once active black hole that had spewed out jets of plasma, superheated ionized gas, along its line of axis at close to the speed of light. These, he said, had penetrated thousands of light years of space to reach the earth around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, causing the changes in evolution witnessed at this time.

It was a bold theory. Unfortunately, astrophysicists are unanimous in their opinion that the Cat's Eye nebula does not, and has never, contained a black hole able to produce cosmic rays that might reach the solar system. However, the Meinels are sticking to their guns and remain convinced that the Cat's Eye nebula is the source of the cosmic rays that they believe affected human evolution in Palaeolithic times. Yet tellingly, before being beguiled by the beauty of the Cat's Eye nebula, the Meinels had originally determined the direction of the cosmic ray activity detected in the ice core samples as coming not from Draco, but from neighbouring Cygnus, the constellation of the swan. So had they got it wrong? Were the cosmic rays coming, as Denis Montgomery had surmised, from somewhere in Cygnus after all?

The Oldest Constellation

The Cygnus constellation, showing at both a swan in flight and the Cross of Christ.

This is where I enter the frame. My own independent research into the emergence of primitive societies, with their unique cosmologies and religion, had revealed an inordinate interest in one particular constellation - Cygnus, the celestial bird or swan, better known today as the Northern Cross. Indeed, it features as one of the oldest known artistic representations of a constellation anywhere in the world, for it is seen on the walls of the famous Lascaux cave in southern France, which is known to have first been occupied around 17,000 years ago. Here it appears in a fresco found in the cave's deepest part, known as the well-shaft, as a bird man falling into a trance next to a charging bison and a bird on a pole. This is likely to represent the so-called sky-pole of the shaman used universally to enter the sky-world via a cosmic axis, located in the vicinity of the north celestial pole, or Pole Star. From around 16,000 to 13,000 BC this was located amid the stars of Cygnus, which even by this time would appear to have seen as a sky-bird of some sort.


Sky-poles created by the Tungus shamans of Siberia, topped with swans signifying the cosmic axis. Was this an indication of where the ancients believed the sky-world to be - in the vicinity of Cygnus, the constellation of the celstial swan?


Cygnus was also very likely the inspiration behind the appearance of the Venus and Sorcerer fresco in France's Chauvet cave, where the woman's legs and thighs might well signify an abstract representation of the region of the Milky Way known as the Dark Rift, which opens out in the Cygnus region. Throughout the ages this region of the sky, close to where the ecliptic, the path of the sun, crosses the Milky Way, has been viewed as the vulva and womb of a sky-goddess, or Cosmic Mother, who gives birth to the sun. Sometimes the Cygnus stars are even seen to be attached to the Earth via a kind of invisible umbilical cord, showing it as a nourisher of life.Cygnus also appears as a bird in Church Hole cave in Derbyshire's Creswell Crags alongside cave art dated to 12,800 years ago, while an 12,000-year-old stone temple - the oldest anywhere in the world - at Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey seems aligned to this same constellation. It is the same story with ancient stone and earthen structures worldwide, from the bird effigy mounds of North America to the Olmec centres of Mexico, the Incan sacred city of Cuzco, the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza, the Hindu temples of India, to the Irish and British megalithic stone complexes of Newgrange and Avebury, all seem to reflect an age-old interest in Cygnus.

Putting aside more obvious astronomical reasons why our ancestors might have favoured this particular constellation in their religious beliefs and practices, I searched for other reasons why it was depicted deep underground by the cave artists of the Upper Palaeolithic age. In the knowledge that the work of South African anthropologist and rock art specialist David Lewis-Williams had determined that much prehistoric cave art was inspired by shamans in mind-altered states, a finding explored by Graham Hancock in his ground-breaking book Supernatural (2005), I wondered whether the stars of Cygnus had come to be associated with religious experiences deep underground, where their most sacred cave art was executed.

Children of the Swan

A NASA reconstruction of what a black hole or neutron star in a tight orbit with a dying Wolf Rayet star might look like. Note the twin relativistic jets emerging from the compact object's line of axis. Credit: NASA.

I searched for answers and found that in the early to mid 1980s underground particle detectors in different parts of the world began detecting incoming cosmic rays from deep space. Since they came in cycles of exactly 4.79 hours, the source was easily determined, for this same cycle had already been recorded in connection with other forms of electromagnetic radiation inbound from an object called Cygnus X-3, located some 37,000 light years away in the heart of the Cygnus constellation. So inexplicable were these peculiar, neutrally-charged, strongly-interacting particles, resonating at some of the highest energies ever detected, that they were quickly dubbed "cygnons", later changed to "cygnets", meaning "children of the swan". This amazing data led to controversial claims that Cygnus X-3 was the first identified cosmic particle accelerator in the galaxy.

Cygnus X-3 is a binary system composed of a dying Wolf Rayet star that feeds a close proximity neutron star (or, some suggest, a black hole or strange quark star) producing streams of superheated plasma (ionized gas). This ejecta is shot out at relativistic speeds, i.e. very close to the speed of light, along its line of axis, causing jets of debris that reach out into the local stellar medium for tens of light years of distance. These unimaginable beams, like cosmic searchlights, are held together by magnetic sheaths that produce powerful particle acceleration in a variety of frequency ranges, including x-rays, infrared, radio waves and gamma rays. This is not uncommon in so-called compact stars, like black holes or neutron stars, but in 2000 astrophysicists announced that Cygnus X-3 might well be the galaxy's first blazar, a term used when one of a deep space object's twin plasma jets is aligned towards our solar system, i.e. it is pointing straight at us. Other blazars have been identified outside of the galaxy, but this is the first time that one has been suspected to exist in our own back yard, so to speak.

What this means is that we are looking straight down the barrel of the most dangerous cosmic cannon in the galaxy, and have been, according to astrophysicists, for anything up to 700,000 years. The significance of this is that the ejecta produced by such jets could easily be responsible for increased levels of cosmic rays reaching the Earth. This includes Cygnus X-3's unique cygnet particles which, being neutrally charged, reach the Earth directly from source, and are able to penetrate deep underground, which is something that cosmic rays are usually unable to do, since they are positively charged and break up before they reach the surface of the planet (neutrinos, which are negatively charged cosmic particles with almost no mass, pass through the earth all the time without affecting anything). More importantly, recent findings by Japanese and Chinese scientists using data from a facility in Tibet have shown that there is even today a huge excess of high energy cosmic rays coming from a point in the Cygnus constellation, close to the astronomical coordinates of Cygnus X-3.

The suspected black hole M87 as photographed by Hubble. Notice the long relativistic jet spewing out superheated plasma at close to the speed of light. Is one of these jets in the neutron star Cygnus X-3 aimed straight at us? Credit: Hubble Space TelescopeNASA/ESA.

Seeing the Light

This staggering scenario might well explain why our ancestors came to recognize the celestial swan as so important to their religious mindset, since there is every reason to conclude that ancient shamans who achieved altered states of consciousness in deep cave settings, most obviously using hallucinogens, somehow became aware of the effect Cygnus was having on their lives. This might seem impossible. However, there is every chance that they would have been able to see the disintegration underground of cygnet particles, through a process known as Cherenkov radiation, which allows decaying cosmic rays to be seen as ghostly flashes of white or blue-white light as they pass through the aqueous part of the eye.

Astronauts first discovered this phenomenon in 1968 when they were aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft. As they tried to get off to sleep they reported seeing "flashes and streaks" before their eyes (scientifically known as "phosphenes"). This occurred with their eyes open or closed, something that recurred during future space missions, prompting a series of onboard experiments that proved they were being caused by cosmic rays passing through the hull of the space vessel.

Like Looking into the Universe

A photomicrograph showing the track of a cosmic ray impact.

Hungarian-born Cornelius A. Tobias (1918-2000), a founding member of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Donner Laboratory and an expert on space biology, had earlier predicted the level of cosmic radiation that future astronauts would be exposed to, and even described its potential effects. More significantly, he predicted that they would also see flashes of light before their eyes. In order to test his hypothesis, he devised a unique, but very dangerous, experiment. He decided to expose himself to sub-atomic particles produced by Berkeley's Bevalac particle accelerator, which has been described as a veritable cosmic ray factory. Part of its function is to rip away electrons from heavy elements including iron, and then focus the nuclei into a beam of particles, which are then accelerated to virtually the speed of light, like the relativistic jets produced by compact objects such as black holes and neutron stars. Tobias quite literally stuck his head in the flow of the particles and observed something almost unique on Earth. "You see visual flashes," he recalled, shortly before his death in 2000. "It is an exhilarating sensation. It is as though you are looking into the universe itself." Tobias repeated the experiment, even introducing his colleagues to the experience, until finally the tests were discontinued on health grounds.

Although it is suspected that these sub-atomic particles pass through the aqueous part of the eye, more recent research by Livio Narici of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Rome has suggested that some cosmic rays might hit the brain directly, causing not only the sensation of light flashes but also other seemingly external effects such as odd smells. Narici believes that phosphenes can be created when the particles hit the visual cortex, along with the olfactory bulb (causing smells) and possibly even the central nervous system. If so, then they could pose a potential health hazard to astronauts on future space missions, especially if phosphenes, or indeed other forms of sensory phenomena, occur at crucial moments such as when manoeuvring vehicles to land. Narici has now been granted permission to conduct experiments with astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) under the project name of ALTEA. A helmet-shaped multi-sensor device will be worn by volunteers for an hour at a time to monitor the passage of incoming cosmic rays. At the same time the astronauts will log when they see light flashes or trails. Hopefully, the two will coincide, telling Narici and his team where exactly the particles are hitting.

Under normal circumstances, we do not see cosmic rays down here on Earth, since we rarely experience total darkness. Moreover, the vast majority of cosmic rays hitting the Earth are broken up in the upper atmosphere, and fall as showers of harmless secondary particles. Even if we were to experience total darkness at ground level, so many other forms of environmental radiation, whether natural or industrially produced, might additionally cause phosphenes, meaning that any produced specifically by incoming cosmic rays would be lost in the process.

Only if you travel deep underground are virtually all forms of environmental radiation shielded out, the reason why particle detectors and accelerators are located deep underground in mines, or off the side of tunnels inside mountains. Only here can they be sheltered from extraneous radiation, including stray cosmic rays penetrating the overhead rock. This then is what makes the cygnets from Cygnus X-3 so unique. Only strong, neutral particles of this kind are able to penetrate depths of hundreds of metres, before finally breaking up to cause secondary particles known as muons. It is for this reason alone that they were first detected by underground facilities, which at the time were attempting to witness the decay of a sub-atomic particle known as the proton. They included the Soudan underground mine facility in Minnesota and the NUSEX experiment in the Mont Blanc facility in southern France.

Thus a shaman in the total darkness of a deep cave setting would be troubled only by incoming cosmic rays from just a very few deep space sources, the most likely being Cygnus X-3 (although some facilities have detected a weaker cosmic particle inbound from a source designated Hercules X-1). Intriguingly, I have spoken to a woman whose father worked in the Soudan underground mine before the particle detection facility was built at the beginning of the 1980s. She claims that he would experience unaccountable flashes of light in the total darkness. I have heard similar stories from those who have spent long periods inside deep caves and mines in Britain, including the Cheddar caves in southern England and an abandoned slate mine beneath a mountain at Dinas, West Wales. All report unaccountable flashes of light in such environments. Even though geologically-produced radiation, such as radon gas, might account for the production of some phosphenes underground, there is every chance that some are the result of incoming cosmic rays.

Closer to God

Gregory of Palamos, the claimed founder of hesychasm on Mount Athos in the fourteenth century.

Is this then what our Palaeolithic ancestors also experienced deep underground - flashes of light caused by the passage of cosmic rays inbound from sources such as Cygnus X-3? Would they have interpreted such experiences in a religious context? I think the answer is going to be yes. On the isolated peninsular of Mount Athos in southern Greece, ascetic monks adhering to a form of religious devotion known as hesychasm, also called omphaloscopy, or "navel-gazing", have for centuries repaired to the darkness of caves on the mountain in order to witness the divine light and glory of God, which is compared with that experienced by the disciples on Mount Tabor at the time of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is a process that involves a period of deep meditation and contemplation that can last for several days, perhaps even longer. Yet eventually, I have been told first hand, they witness flashes of light, which are interpreted as the Light of God. When this occurs it is often accompanied by visions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Christian saints - the whole process is said to bring them closer to God.

Greek Orthodox vision of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor, which is seen as an expression of the belief in seeing the light in the practice of hesychasm.

No one knows the origins of hesychasm, although it is thought to have been introduced to Mount Athos, its principal centre, from Cappadocia in eastern Turkey, the home of the earliest Christian Fathers, and some of the most austere Christian ascetics. Such religious practices most probably came originally from shamanistic based notions that had their genesis among the earliest Neolithic communities of central and eastern Turkey, including the city of Çatal Hüyük near Konya and before that the Pre-pottery Neolithic cult centres of Göbekli Tepe, c. 10,000 BC, and Nevali Cori, c. 8400 BC. Although apparently unconnected to the term omphaloscopy (which is a derisory term), it should be pointed out that the navel (the Greek omphalos) is a primary symbol of the axis mundi, the axis of the earth, thought to be linked via an invisible sky-pole or umbilical cord to a cosmic axis located in the vicinity of the North Star. Curiously, the name Göbekli Tepe means in Turkish the "hill of the naval", suggesting that it was once thought to be an axis mundi in its own right.

Feels Like Heaven

Gobekli Tepe. The Pre-pottery Neolithic cult centre near Urfa in southeast Turkey. Did its shamanic elite inherit ideas relating to divine light consciousness caused by cosmic rays from Cygnus X-3 from the Palaeolithic cave artists of Western Europe?

I believe it highly probable that the mental discipline of "seeing the light", i.e. witnessing flashes of light in deep cave settings, is something that was first experienced by Palaeolithic shamans, in Europe especially, and was then inherited by the shamanic elite responsible for the construction of sub-surface cult centres built by the earliest Neolithic peoples. The idea of spending time in the darkness of cave-like environments was, I suspect, a key element in their beliefs and practices. Such ideas brought with them the vision of a communion with otherworldly influences which, as space biology expert Cornelius Tobias commented in connection with his own experiences of seeing the light, made you feel like "looking into the universe itself".

What we also know is that flashes of light produced in deep cave settings by cosmic rays coming from Cygnus X-3 will have increased and decreased in accordance with the presence overhead of the Cygnus stars, enabling the Palaeolithic shamans eventually to synchronize their chthonic beliefs and practices with its cosmic ray cycle, and thus identify this astronomical region as the source of origin of their visionary experiences. Moreover, the appearance of seemingly objective flashes in the eyes might additionally have been taken, as is the case of the hesychasts of Mount Athos, as manifestations of some kind of primal cause, triggering more complex connections with what might have been conceived of as a divine being. This scenario might well have led our ancestors to learn what science is confirming today - that life came from the stars. Indeed, the modern theory of panspermia, literally "life everywhere", proposes that the most primitive forms of life probably arrived on this planet having hitched a ride either on a comet, meteor or asteroid. In many ways it is the origins behind the belief that we come from heaven, and will return there in death.

In Europe, it was the swan that was said to carry the souls of the dead into the next world, which was located in the north, the direction in which swans migrated to their breeding grounds each spring. In the Baltic region it was the swan that took the place of the stork in bringing babies into the world. It is very likely for these reasons that the stars of Cygnus, an ever present northern constellation, became associated with migratory birds such as the swan. However, in regions where the swan was absent, other avians took its place. For instance, it is clear that in the Near East, the bird of Cygnus was originally the vulture, which in early Neolithic practices at places such Çatal Hüyük was involved in the excarnation process of denuding bodies and then, as a psycopomp (the Greek word for "soul carrier"), accompanied the soul of the deceased into the afterlife.

Cosmic Mother

In my opinion, this communion with the great unknown in deep cave settings led the ancients to celebrate the idea that we are star-stuff by teaching that the sun was periodically reborn from between the thighs of the Cosmic Mother, symbolised by the Milky Way's Great Rift which begins in the Cygnus constellation (something that might indeed be depicted in the Palaeolithic cave of Chauvet in southern France). Moreover, I feel sure that at least a proportion of the cosmic rays that arguably caused mutagenic changes in DNA during Palaeolithic times came from the direction of Cygnus, the location searched originally both by anthropological writer Denis Montgomery and ex-NASA scientist and astronomer Aden Meinel for a source of cosmic rays hitting the Earth.

Such an intrusion into human consciousness from a deep space object in the Cygnus region might well explain why the cosmic bird has been at the heart of religious beliefs and practices since Palaeolithic times. Worldwide, there is a tradition concerning a sky-bird that either lays a cosmic egg which then becomes the universe, or gives forth a honk, or call, that brings the universe into manifestation. It is present in India, Egypt and even in the Pacific South Seas, and in each instance the bird is said to be represented by the stars of Cygnus.

When in 1973 Carl Sagan wrote that cosmic rays were responsible for changes in human evolution he boldly asserted that their source was most probably a distant neutron star. Today there can be little doubt that the neutron star in question is Cygnus X-3 - the galaxy's first blazar as well as the best candidate by far for at least a proportion of the cosmic radiation responsible for the acceleration of human evolution at a time when we were just beginning to emerge as modern human beings. Yet more disturbing is the fact that Cygnus X-3 is out there now, its cosmic gun barrel trained towards the solar system, ever ready to release volleys of cosmic debris and other types of electromagnetic radiation in our direction. Astrophysicists studying Cygnus X-3 are waiting for what they describe as the "next big bang" - showers of cosmic particles on a level never seen before, and when this happens, who knows, it might well signal the commencement of the next upgrade in human evolution.

All references for this article are to be found in Andrew Collins's book The Cygnus Mystery (2006). For more information on Andrew Collins's work on cosmic rays and the Cygnus constellation, and for copies of his book The Cygnus Mystery (Watkins Books, 2006), click here. For more information on Denis Montgomery's forward-thinking anthropological ideas on human evolution go to

For further information on The Cygnus Mystery click here.