Researchers discover the date of the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded and use it to date Egyptian pharaoh’s reigns

Researchers interested in relating scientific knowledge to the Bible believe they may have pinpointed the date of the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded.

By using a combination of biblical text and ancient Egyptian text, the researchers from the University of Cambridge have dated the event, which is mentioned in the Old Testament book of Joshua, to 30 October 1207 BC.

In the Bible passage, Joshua, having led the people of Israel into Canaan – a region of the ancient Near East that covered modern-day Israel and Palestine – prays: “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.”

“If these words are describing a real observation, then a major astronomical event was taking place – the question for us to figure out is what the text actually means,” said paper co-author professor Sir Colin Humphreys from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy.

Image courtesy of Dwight Stone

“Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the sun and moon stopped moving,” said Humphreys. “But going back to the original Hebrew text, we determined that an alternative meaning could be that the sun and moon just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining.

“In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated ‘stand still’ has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses.”

The researchers believe their findings could also be used to date events in the ancient world, in particular the rules of Egypt’s Pharaohs.

As well as the Bible, the researchers analysed the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian text dating from the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah, son of the well-known Ramesses the Great.

The text, was carved in the fifth year of Merneptah’s reign, contains evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC during the date of the solar eclipse.

Image courtesy of University of Cambridge

From their calculations, the researchers determined that the only annular eclipse visible from Canaan between 1,500 and 1,050 BC was on 30 October 1,207 BC.

If this is correct, it would not only be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded, it would also allow researchers to date the reigns of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah to within a year.

“Solar eclipses are often used as a fixed point to date events in the ancient world,” said Humphreys.

Using these new calculations, the reign of Merneptah began in 1210 or 1209 BC. As it is known from Egyptian texts how long he and his father reigned for, it would mean that Ramesses the Great reigned from 1276-1210 BC, with a precision of plus or minus one year, the most accurate dates available.

The precise dates of the pharaohs have been subject to some uncertainty among Egyptologists, but this new calculation, if accepted, could lead to an adjustment in the dates of several of their reigns.

Scientists are baffled by a 374-million-year-old tree that is more complex than those we see today

Scientists have been left mystified by fossils from a 374-million-year-old tree found in north-west China, which shows that early trees were more complex structures than those we have today.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists from Cardiff University, Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and State University of New York said the fossils revealed an interconnected web of strands that is much more intricate than that of the trees we see around us today.

“By studying these extremely rare fossils, we’ve gained an unprecedented insight into the anatomy of our earliest trees and the complex growth mechanisms that they employed,” said Dr Chris Berry, co-author of the study and senior lecturer in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Cardiff University.

“This raises a provoking question: why are the very oldest trees the most complicated?”

In trees, strands, known as xylem, are responsible for conducting water from a tree’s roots to its branches and leaves.

In most trees, the xylem forms a single cylinder to which new growth is added in rings year by year just under the bark. Xylem can also be formed in strands, like in palms, which is embedded in softer tissues throughout the trunk.

But in the earliest trees, xylem was dispersed in strands in the outer 5 cm of the tree trunk only, while the middle of the trunk was completely hollow.

The narrow strands were arranged in an organised fashion and were interconnected to each other like a finely tuned network of water pipes.

Image and video courtesy of Cardiff University

The development of these strands allowed the tree’s overall growth.

But rather than the tree laying down one growth ring under the bark every year, each of the hundreds of individual strands were growing their own rings, like a large collection of mini trees.

As the strands got bigger, and the volume of soft tissues between the strands increased, the diameter of the tree trunk expanded.

The new discovery shows conclusively that the connections between each of the strands would split apart in a curiously controlled and self-repairing way to accommodate the growth.

“There is no other tree that I know of in the history of the Earth that has ever done anything as complicated as this,” said Berry.

“The tree simultaneously ripped its skeleton apart and collapsed under its own weight while staying alive and growing upwards and outwards to become the dominant plant of its day.”