Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Black Sea story

So, a while back I heard about the new theory that the Black Sea was once a freshwater lake, flooded in near-historic times in a catastrophic event that roughly doubled it size and that might, some thought, have provided the "inspiration" for the story of Noah's Flood.

Now I've just finished reading a book, NOAH'S FLOOD: THE NEW SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES ABOUT THE EVENT THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Wm Ryan & Walter Pitman [1998], which presents the case for this reconstruction of events by two of the men who evolved the theory and helped turn up the evidence to support it (usually you'd do it the other way around). It makes for a fascinating story, though I have to say it's not told here in a fascinating way; this account is more like a third-person novelization of a first person account, complete with sketches that are artistic re-creations picturing them at dramatic moments in their quest. Despite its lack of a gripping narrative, the book nonetheless is full of interesting nuggets. Here are some of the things I learned by reading it:


There was once a string of Great Lakes stretching across Asia, from what's now the Black Sea and Caspian Sea through all the way to Tunguska, created by glacial meltwater at the end of the last Ice Age.

How did elephants get to Cyprus and Crete? They walked, during the period when the Mediterranean became land-locked and dried up. Once the Gibraltar strait opened up again, the sea came rushing in, and they were trapped on islands that'd once been mountains in a blazing desert (kind of like today's Dead Sea, Great Salt Lake, and Death Valley).

The Nile actually flows through a canyon that is comparable to the Grand Canyon, cut when the Mediterranean was drying up and now silted up after the water levels rose again.

What's now The Black Sea was once a large freshwater lake. This was flooded when the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus straits about seven and a half thousand years ago (circa 5600 BC). Any Neolithic peoples living within a hundred miles of so of the shores would have been overwhelmed, their fields and villages drowned and the survivors forced to permanently re-locate, with all those archeological sites now buried deep beneath the surface.

There's a strong current flowing northward through the strait between Europe and Asia, so much so that a boat lowering a basket down deep enough can use its pull to sail upstream against the strong surface current going the other way. Pitman & Ryan, by the way, identify these straits as the "Clashing Rocks" faced by the Argonauts.

The last species to desert the Mesopotamian site of Abu Hereyra after the changing climate deprived its people first of fruit trees, then of grain, and then of game, were the mice and sparrows, who were dependent upon people for their gleaning.

A scene in the epic of Gilgamesh in which he has to take a dark road on which he cannot see the light of the sun is interpreted by Pitman & Ryan not as an underground passage but as a journey through a dense forest, as it would be seen by someone from Sumer, where there are no forests (think of Bilbo through Mirkwood).

Where Ryan & Pitman's theories seem to break down, I think, is in their wishing to exaggerate the historical importance of the fascinating pre-historical event they've re-constructed. It's not enough to have re-created this bit of lost history, it seems, without investing it in crucial significance. Thus they speculate that the lakeside people forced to relocate by this flood include the Indo-Europeans (who went north), the Tocharians (who went east, to China), the Sumerians (who went southeast), the Semetics (who went south), the Indo-Hittites (who went southwest), and the Pre-dynastic Egyptians (who went south, then west). All this is pretty unlikely -- what were the Egyptians doing on the wrong side of the Mediterranean AND Asia Minor? -- and relies upon another theory, that in times of drought folks from all cultures come together in sites where there's water, which become cultural melting pots and help jump-start great leaps forward in civilization. All in all I have to say this part of their theory is less coherent, or convincing, than Bernal's hypothetical reconstruction of early migrations.

That, and their claim that this event is v. likely to have inspired the legend of Noah's Flood. A story which leaves out the Forty Days and Forty Nights of rain, the Rainbow's promise at the end, the drowning of the entire world, and most importantly that leaves the flooded homeland forever buried under deep water seems to leave out so much of the story that it's not very convincing as the primary source. That a disaster of this magnitude could be remembered for thousands of years before it was first written down is a fascinating idea. I wish it were so, but reading this book doesn't convince me.

--John R.

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