An innovative method co-developed by a Waikato University researcher has been used to verify what is the world's oldest known map and will have significant uses in better understanding New Zealand's volcanic history.
University senior research fellow Dr Martin Danišik, originally from Slovakia, is a geologist who undertook his PhD in Germany before moving to Perth and then to New Zealand in 2010.
However, it was research undertaken in an isolated region of Turkey in 2009, which has shone a spotlight on Waikato University and a special machine used to accurately date recent volcanic eruptions.
A project, supported by the German Scientific Foundation and undertaken by group including scientists from the US, Germany and Turkey, began with the aim of dating volcanos in a region of Turkey known for its fantastic landscapes.
But on the way the group discovered an interesting focus for its efforts in an attempt to verify what had been suggested as the world's oldest known map by accurately dating an eruption of a nearby volcano, Dr Danišik said.
"Originally, this project was not our prime target. We came to this place and looked it up on a tourist guide which said it had been the location of the world's oldest map. We were passing by and though we would stop and have a look as it might be interesting.
"It was the site of an about 9000-year-old village which represented an important era in the transition of human beings from hunter-gatherer groups to settled communities. It is a very important archeological site recognised as World heritage by Unesco."
A wall painting from the village, discovered in early 1960s and now kept in the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara (Turkey), was guessed to represent a plan-view of the ancient settlement with a representation of the erupting volcano in the background.
However, the mural was the subject of conflicting interpretations among the experts. Key to the argument either way was accurately determining the date of the volcano's most recent eruption.
This would help to compare the known age of the settlement with the eruption and add weight to the argument that the wall-mural indeed depicts an erupting volcano and also possibly an ancient map of a settlement beneath it.
Dr Danišik and University of California geologist Dr Axel Schmitt developed a method accurately dating the eruption.
"We were interested to see if the youngest of the volcanic deposits were the same age as the settlement. The method involved using special types of equipment, on of which is the so called Ultra High Vacuum Helium Extraction Line. Thanks to Professor Peter Kamp, Waikato University has one of these machines, the only one in New Zealand."
The machine extracts and measures tiny amounts of helium gas trapped inside crystals from volcanic rocks.
The team gathered and tested samples from the summit of the mountain and the results confirmed that the most recent eruption happened at a time when the settlement was inhabited.
"This shows that with a plan of the settlement and a representation of the geological event, human beings could communicate by using maps and record catastrophic events thousands of years before the invention of writing.
"For me this has been a very interesting outcome and we now have a method that works when it comes to dating young volcanos."
Dr Danišik said there is huge potential for the technique when it came to more accurately dating eruptions in New Zealand.
"We have developed a cutting-edge technique for dating young volcanic rocks that finally allows us to measure numerous globally important eruptions, which could not have been dated before due to lack of suitable dating methods.
"This has enormous potential for New Zealand and whole Pacific, an example being the huge Taupo volcanic zone which had been active for the past 1.6 million years. Radio carbon dating had been successful in dating many of the 68 eruptions that occurred over the past 50,000 years. "However, the new method is able to go far beyond this boundary.
"Previously, using traditional methods, we could confidently date fewer than 10 per cent of eruptions from the Taupo zone so we are missing a huge part of the big picture. Now we finally have a tool to fill the empty space of Earth's recent history."
The results of the research undertaken by Dr Danišik and Dr Schmitt have been published in a high-profile international scientific journal and was the subject of a presentation of the Geological Society of America in Denver, Colorado.
- Waikato Times
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