Scientists have discovered the first evidence that a devastating meteor impact in the Middle East might have triggered the mysterious collapse of civilizations there more than 4,000 years ago.

Studies of satellite images of southern Iraq have revealed a two-mile-wide circular depression which scientists say looks like an impact crater. The meteor impact would have been equivalent to hundreds of nuclear bombs, causing devastating fires and flooding.

The crater lies on what would have been a shallow sea 4,000 years ago. The catastrophic effect of the impact could explain why so many early cultures went into sudden decline around 2300 BC. They include the demise of the Akkad culture of central Iraq, the end of the fifth dynasty of Egypt?s Old Kingdom, and the sudden disappearance of hundreds of early settlements in the Holy Land.

Archaeologists have developed separate explanations for these events, from local wars to environmental changes. Recently, some astronomers decided to investigate whether meteor impacts could explain these kinds of historical mysteries.

The faint outline of the crater was found by Dr. Sharad Master, a geologist at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa. ?It was a purely accidental discovery,? he says. ?I was reading a magazine article about the canal-building projects of Saddam Hussein, and there was a photograph showing lots of formations – one of which was very, very circular.?

Analysis of other satellite images taken since the mid-1980s show that for many years the crater contained a small lake. Since then, Saddam has drained the region, as part of his campaign against the Marsh Arabs, causing the lake to recede. This revealed the ring-like ridge inside the larger bowl-like depression, which is a classic feature of meteor impact craters.

The crater also appears to be very recent, in geological terms. ?The sediments in this region are very young, so whatever caused the crater-like structure, it must have happened within the past 6,000 years,? says Master. A survey of the crater itself would reveal tell-tale melted rock. ?If we could find fragments of impact glass, we could date them using radioactive dating techniques,? he says.

A date of around 2300 BC for the impact may shed new light on the legend of Gilgamesh, dating from that period. The legend tells about ?the Seven Judges of Hell? who raised their torches, lighting the land with flame, and a storm that turned day into night, ?smashed the land like a cup,? and flooded the area.

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