In an instant, those living in the ancient cities and agricultural settlements north of the Dead Sea were annihilated by a super-heated, cosmic blast from the skies that left destruction across nearly 200 square miles, according to new archaeological evidence.

During last month's annual American Schools of Oriental Research meeting, Phillip J. Silvia presented a paper showcasing soil evidence and analysis that suggests a meteor was responsible for the destruction of both the land and all human settlements in the region nearly 3,700 years ago.

According to the paper, the archaeological data collected demonstrates a pattern for a high-heat, explosive event.

NASA

This astronaut photograph, taken from the International Space Station while over China (approximately 400 kilometers to the northwest of Beijing), provides the unusual perspective of looking down on a meteor as it passes through the atmosphere. The image was taken on August 13, 2011, during the Perseid Meteor Shower that occurs every August.

According to the researchers, a cosmic airburst due to a meteor at low altitude is the only natural force known that could have caused the unique, destructive characteristics found in both the region's soil, melted rock and many of the pottery samples collected at the site.

The event in the Middle East was so powerful that it, "not only [wiped] out 100 percent of the [cities] and towns," but also stripped the land of fertile agricultural soils and littered the landscape with super-heated brine from the Dead Sea in the subsequent shockwave, according to the paper's abstract.

Silvia is the director of scientific analysis at Jordan's Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project.

"The physical evidence from Tall el-Hammam, and neighboring sites, exhibit signs of a highly destructive concussive and thermal event," according to the paper's authors.

"The soil [and] ash samples gathered from Tall el-Hammam contain evidence of top-soil destruction and sub-soil contamination with Dead Sea salts that would have prevented the cultivation of crops for many centuries following the event."

Settlements did not return to the area for agriculture for nearly 600 to 700 years following the destructive event, the paper reported.

In addition to soil evidence, there were other archaeological indicators of a destructive, thermal event including zirconium crystals found within pottery shards that had been turned to glass.

The scientists "found bubbles inside melted zirconium crystals in the glass that indicate boiling of the crystal" at over 4,000 degrees Centigrade, or 7,232 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the paper, adding that the intense heat lasted for only a short time, leaving pottery pieces below unaffected by the heat.

However, no craters have been found near the site, but the chance of a meteor exploding above ground is possible. According to the paper, evidence suggests that the airburst occurred above the ground at around 1 kilometer in altitude.

Incidents like the Siberian Tunguska Event of 1908, the cause of which remains mysterious to this day, also have been attributed to a meteoric airburst. The event in Siberia, which flattened a large area of forest in an explosive, thermal and concussive event, has stirred speculation for an entire century.

"The explosion near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River on June 30, 1908, flattened some 500,000 acres (2,000 square kilometers) of Siberian forest," according to Space.com.

"Scientists calculated the Tunguska explosion could have been roughly as strong as 10 megatons to 20 megatons of TNT - 1,000 times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima," Space.com reported.

"Signature markers of an air burst event include high levels of platinum, typically 600 percent above normal background levels, and a high platinum-palladium ratio," Silvia and the research team reported, adding that similar evidence is being found at Tall el-Hammam.