[Book Review] The Science of Noah’s Flood (part 2 of 2)

Black Sea today (light blue) and in 5600 BC (d...
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The first part of this 2 part review can be found here. In this part, I conclude my review of Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History (Ryan and Pittman, 1998), and offer a list of references for those that seek further reading. This review is primarily about the book by Ryan and Pittman, but I review other literature on the topic as well. I hope someone finds the information useful or interesting and that it inspires others to read Noah’s Flood, a book that I found quite engaging and worth the read.

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In further attempt to test the catastrophic infill hypothesis, Mark Siddell of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, UK, developed a computer model that would test breaches of the Bosporus sill at various modeled depths of the Black sea, from 50 to 150 m. Siddell, Pratt, Helfrich, and Giosan’s conclusions (2004) were that their model was consistent with the previously mysterious sharp left-turn of a submerged channel. The model’s turbidity currents also provided a probable explanation for the large, 2000 m deep sea floor hills. Even Aksu conceded (Schiermeier, 2004) that Siddell’s work was “solid oceanography.”

Another of Ryan and Pittman’s hypotheses is that the flood displaced one or more cultures, becoming the progenitor for stories of catastrophic floods such as the Gilgamesh epic and the account of global flood as told in the book of Genesis in the Bible (1998:165-201). Because writing appears to have first developed at around 3200 BCE (Postgate, 1994:52,66), it seems counterintuitive that an oral tradition could have sustained the integrity of the story for more than a few generations, much less for an excess of 2000 years. Stories become conflated with other stories and historical data is lost, biases of the storytellers emerge, and names and places change (Vansina, 1985:121). Indeed, even by following the names of the pious man whom the gods favor in the many flood motifs (Pritchard, 1955:42-44, 90-93, 104-106; Genesis 8:6-12), this can be demonstrated as he is called Ziusudra, Atrahasis, Utnapishtum, and Noah, among others. From Gilgamesh to Genesis, which are written accounts rather than oral ones, “seven days of rain” becomes “forty” and a dove, swallow, raven sequence becomes a raven, dove, dove sequence when the protagonist is releasing birds to find land.

In support of the displaced peoples hypothesis, the journal Science reported (Kerr, 2000) that Robert Ballard and Fredrik Hiebert found an underwater settlement at a depth of 91 m within the Black Sea that included “wattle and daub” building material, stone tools in the form of chisels or hammers, and pottery fragments. The find was only photographed, however, and artifacts for testing, such as wood for carbon dating, were not retrieved, drawing more criticism, albeit constructive, to the hypothesis (Kerr, 2000:2022).

However, the idea that the displaced peoples were farmers and took their farming skills with them to other lands may be the farthest reaching hypothesis. Ryan and Pittman suggest that a “Diaspora” occurred (1998:Ch. 17) with the catastrophic infill of the Black Sea, forcing migration from the Black Sea by the Linearbandkeramic (LBK) north of the Carpathians and the Alps and onward to eastern France (190-191); the Vinčas up the Danube and into the Hungarian Basin (191); and the Proto Indo-Europeans up the Dnieper and north of the Caspian Sea to the Urals (211-213). They suggest that each of these cultures took with them farming techniques obtained along the Black Sea. Mudi et al (Marine Geology, 2002) find that the pollen evidence of the region demonstrates that the area was wooded and that farming was not likely for the Black Sea basin at the time of the flood. They contend that the people of a “Diaspora” would not have had the skills needed to spread farming to Europe, Asia and the Near East.

That a catastrophic or sudden infill of the Black Sea occurred, changing it from a freshwater lake to a saltwater body seems clear. The physical evidence and computer modeling seems weighted in favor of this hypothesis. That this flood is the progenitor for the regional mythologies that include flood motifs seems less likely than the idea that cultures dependent upon a proximity to water for survival might develop many stories that involved flooding irrespective of the Black Sea deluge, which occurred over 2000 years and many generations prior to the earliest writing and would have been sustained by oral tradition alone. That the Black Sea’s flood sparked a “Diaspora” or mass evacuation of the region that resulted in the spread of farming seems too simplistic to be a single explanation, and far too difficult to test in order to accept as a viable explanation for a development in human prehistory so significant as the spread of agriculture. It ignores Binford’s argument (1968:312-341) that food production strategies arise from demographic selective pressures created by increased populations that begin to encroach on each other’s territories. Instead, Ryan and Pittman rely on Childe’s “oasis theory” (165-170), which Binford is somewhat critical of, to explain the rise of agriculture and use this theory to justify mass migration from the Black Sea following the deluge.

Dwight Coleman included in personal correspondence (2004) after conceding that the subject sparks much controversy, that a new book is pending that will summarize proceedings from several conferences on the geology and anthropology of the Black Sea. Even critics of Ryan and Pittman agree (Kerr, 2000; Aksu, 2002; Schiermeier, 2004) that the controversy and debate is healthy for the subject, drawing interest and money as well as innovations in good science. That book is about to be released and is titled, The Black Sea Flood Question: Changes in Coastline, Climate and Human Settlement, by Valentina Yanko-Hombach, Allan S. Gilbert, Nicolae Panin, and Pavel M. Dolukhanov. It can be pre-ordered from the Amazon link provided for a mere $259.00 USD. I think I’ll wait and borrow it via my Inter-Library Loan!

References

Aksu, E. A., Hiscott, R. N., Yasar, D., Isler, F. I., & Marsh, D. (2002, 15/10). Seismic stratigraphy of Late Quaternary deposits from the southwestern Black Sea shelf: Evidence for non-catastrophic variations in sea-level during the last ~10000 yr. Marine Geology, 190(1-2), 61-94.

Ballard, R., Coleman, D., Rosenberg, G. (2000). Further evidence of abrupt Holocene drowning of the Black Sea shelf. Marine Geology. 170, 253-261.

Binford, Lewis (1968). “Post-Pleistocene Adaptations.” New Perspectives in Archeology, L. Binford and S. Binford, editors, Aldine Publishing, pp. 312-341.

Burkhard, M. (1998, 24 April). Letters. Science, 280(5363), 499.

Coleman, D. (Dcoleman@XXX.edu). (2004, 29/11). Email (Ancient Shoreline of the Black Sea).

Cognitive Science Laboratory (2005). Search Results for “sapropel” in WordNet 2.0
, found in 2005 at: http://www.cogsci.princeton.edu/cgi-bin/webwn?stage=1&word=sapropel

Deuser, W. G. (1974). Evolution of anoxic conditions in Black Sea during Holocene. In: The Black Sea-geology, chemistry, and biology, E. T. Degens and R. A. Ross, editors, American Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir Vol. 20, Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.A., pp. 133-136.

Jones, G. A. (1994). Radiocarbon chronology of Black Sea sediments. Deep-Sea Research, 42(3), 531-557.

Kerr, R. A. (1998, 20 Feb). Black Sea Deluge May Have Helped Spread Farming. Science, 279(5354), 1132.

Kerr, R. A. (2000, 22 Sep). A Victim of the Black Sea Flood Found. Science, 289(5487), 2021-2022.

Mudie, P. J., Rochon, A., & Aksu, A. E. (2002, 15/10). Pollen stratigraphy of Late Quaternary cores from Marmara Sea: Land-sea correlation and paleoclimatic history. Marine Geology, 190(1-2), 233-260.

Popescu, I., et al (2004). The Danube submarine canyon (Black Sea): morphology and sedimentary processes. Marine Geology. 206, 249-265.

Postgate, J. N. (1994). Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge.

Pritchard, J. B. (1955). Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Ryan, W. B. F., & Pittman, W. C. (1998, 24 April). Letters Response. Science, 280(5363), 499.

Ryan, W., Pittman, W. I., Major, C., Shimkus, K., Moskalenko, V., Jones, G., et al. (1997). An abrubt drowning of the Black Sea shelf. Marine Geology, 138, 119-126.

Ryan, W., & Pittman, W. (1998). Noah’s Flood: News Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schiermeier, Q. (2004, 12 Aug). Noah’s Flood. Nature, 430, 718-719.

Siddall, M., Pratt, L. J., Helfrich, K., & Giosan, L. (2004). Testing the physical oceanographic implications of the suggested sudden Black Sea infill 8400 years ago. Paleoceanography, 19(PA), 1024.

Vansina, J. (1985). Oral Tradition as History. University of Wisconsin Press.

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About Carl Feagans 315 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

2 Comments

  1. If anything, I don’t think Ryan and Pittman go far enough, and of course, you are even more skeptical of any cultural migration based on a Euxine flood.

    I think it is beyond argument that the Euxine Lakeshore represented one of the friendliest environments on earth. A well watered, fertile, level plain protected from bad weather would have attracted grazing animals and humans right behind them, if the rivers teeming with fish had not already brought a human presence.

    Near the river deltas, very simple irrigation systems would have distributed water over large areas. If farming didn’t start there, where conditions were ideal, then that would seem to require more of an explanation than any suggestion that it did.

    It also seems to be beyond argument that the basin was flooded some 8000 years ago, a date which is very close to the first evidence we have of villages and farming activities.

    Using only one, not very far-fetched assumption, i.e. that farming activity would be most likely to start in an area idea for the practice, what might have been the fate of those living by the shoreline?

    Far from the area of the breakthrough, news of it may have reached residents at the pace of a fleeing human, perhaps 50 miles a day. Even at a couple of feet a day, the water would have risen at a rate easy to stay ahead of by walking away from the water, but the cropland that sustained a population would have been destroyed.

    Many if not most of the Euxine flood’s victims would have died of starvation rather than drowning. Even the worst disaster does not kill everyone, and some would have survived, either by luck or pluck or both. These people would have founded clans who revered the heroic effort and the blessing from the gods that saved them from wholesale destruction when it consumed the rest of their world.

    After the Black Sea Flood, there were probably many “Noahs.” Any surviving patriarch would have been revered as a near-godlike figure. If indeed farming got its start on the Euxine shoreline, one would reasonably expect that anyone who survived would need to use the technology developed there, spreading it by necessity.

    Not only do I see the Flood legend arising from the Euxine event, I see the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden as arising from the same source. The most fertile place on earth, a hundred meters below sea level and well watered, was taken away from humanity forever, and this must have been seen as a divine intervention, explainable only by extreme sin.

    Adam and Eve may have been no more than a pair of Euxine flood survivors who founded their own clan, an explanation of Genesis that makes a lot more sense to me than any other I have seen.

  2. Thanks so much for commenting!

    My skepticism related to the Black Sea diaspora is truly based on the evidence. Its been a while since I wrote that review and read the related source materials I relied upon, but the gist of it is that there isn’t enough physical evidence to support the hypothesis that farming was introduced to other places because of the displaced peoples of the Black Sea shores. In looking at temporally and geographically relevant pollen samples, the evidence points to the Black Sea region being primarily wooded during the period of its inundation.

    I’m also skeptical of the title premise of the book, which implies that Noah was a resident of the Black Sea. But this is mainly because I see the Sumerian story of Dilmun and an inundation of the Persian Gulf as a more likely candidate as the origin of the Noah tale.

    But I certainly don’t discount Ryan and Pittman! I found their book to be wonderfully engaging and thought provoking! I loved it and I loved the sense of discovery and wonder I felt from reading it. And I think that they are spot on in the core premise, which is that some of our most sacred myths may not have occurred precisely as religious adherents might like us to accept willingly and without question -but they may very well be based in a kernel of truth.

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