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Vol. 24., No. 12 January 21, 1999

NOAH'S FLOOD: Evidence of Ancient Disaster Is Linked to Biblical Legend


With growing evidence to support their theory that an ancient violent flood in the Black Sea destroyed a fresh water desert oasis, forced the diaspora of an advanced civilization and inspired the story of Noah's Ark, two Columbia oceanographers have ignited archaeological interest in the previously overlooked Black Sea region.

Research by William Ryan and Walter Pitman, senior scientists at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is already generating new discussions on the role climate has played in human history.

The story behind their discovery is recounted in Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History. The book, which arrived in bookstores last week, retraces their search to uncover evidence of a 7,500-year-old flood in the Black Sea, and tells how ancient flood myths might be tied to that evidence.

Ryan and Pitman believe that the sealed Bosporus strait, which acted as a dam between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, broke open when climatic warming at the close of the last glacial period caused icecaps to melt, raising the global sea level.

With more than 200 times the force of Niagara Falls, the thundering water flooded the Black Sea, which was no more than a large lake, raising its surface up to six inches per day and swallowing 60,000 square miles in less than a year. As the Mediterranean salt water replaced fresh water, it expelled a wave of human migration from what had been an oasis of fresh water within very arid lands-an exodus traumatic enough to be recorded in human memory as the epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical story of Noah's Ark, the scientists said.

"Our research is producing a re-look at the role climate plays in human history," said Ryan. "Before our work, archaeologists concentrated more on studying ancient peoples' behavior based on the tools found in digs, and not necessarily in conjunction with the bigger picture of climate change. Right now we have a working hypothesis that addresses all the evidence, and we have set the stage for a good dialogue."

Locating the Ancient Lake

The scientists base much of their findings on their 1993 expedition to the Black Sea with the Russian Academy of Sciences. Though sediment cores had previously been taken from the middle of the Black Sea, the 1993 trip was the first post-Iron Curtain cruise, and the first time shoreline research was open to the West.

Using cutting-edge sonar equipment to map the ancient shoreline, Ryan and Pitman learned that the shores had been at least 140 meters lower than the present shoreline. They also found a single, uniform layer of mud that strongly indicated a flood. When the sediment core samples were brought to the surface, Candace Major, a student intern for the cruise who is now a graduate student at Lamont, uncovered sunbleached freshwater mollusks, fossilized plant roots and cracks in the buried mud indicating that it had once been a dried out and windswept land surface.

"We came back with the goods," said Pitman, whose honors include being a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, a National Academy of Science Award and, like Ryan, a Shephard Medal for exemplary research in marine geology.

While the scientists waited for the mollusk shell carbon-14 dates from an accelerated mass spectrometer-a machine with the highest accuracy available-they knew that those dates would be the ultimate test. If the sea had grown slowly for more than a thousand years, so would the population of the mollusks. But if a flood had occurred, all the mollusks would be approximately the same age.

In February 1994, the results came in. There was only a 40 year difference between the mollusks in the deepest layers and the ones in the shallowest. The date was 5,600 B.C.-within the era of modern human history.

"Statistically, the dates were the same. It was pretty persuasive," said Pitman.

Hypothesis: Oasis Civilization

So with the scientific story in place, Ryan and Pitman began looking at other aspects of the story. They consulted with archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and seed geneticists. From this research, their hypothesis took shape: the Black Sea was an oasis where people from surrounding areas migrated during a cold, arid period beginning in 6,200 B.C. and exchanged languages and ideas, and may have developed advanced farming technologies.

When the Bosporus dam broke and the valley was deluged, the scientists believe, the peoples migrated to higher lands, taking these technologies and cultural adaptations with them. The memory of the flood continued in an oral tradition for three thousand years until written languages emerged, and the tale remains in the epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical story of Noah.

"Whether or not it is true that the myths are based in the flood we discovered, the book is shaping an agenda in archaeological circles," said Ryan.

Expeditions Planned

Already, both Turkish and Bulgarian archaeologists have expeditions in the works to look for remains of civilizations on the bottom of the Black Sea planned for the summer.

Fredrik T. Hiebert of the University of Pennsylvania has discovered Stone Age artifacts on the northern coast of Turkey and with Robert D. Ballard, the oceanographer who found and explored the Titanic wreck with high-tech submersible equipment, has scheduled a survey to look for underwater Black Sea settlements and shipwrecks.

Previous to Ryan and Pitman's research, most archaeologists had not considered the Black Sea to hold much record of human history. Now, archaeologists are wondering if climate change might have been the piece of the puzzle missing from the working hypotheses of their research.

"This is just what we wanted to happen," said Ryan, who has been invited with Pitman to join both the Turkish and Bulgarian expeditions. "We wanted our research to drive the mission to have people explore the region and to look at global climate change as an important factor."