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“Noah’s flood” spread farming, researchers say

Nov. 19, 2007
World Science staff

A giant pre­his­tor­ic flood—which a con­tro­ver­sial the­o­ry has linked to the Bib­li­cal sto­ry of Noah’s Ark—kick-started Eu­ro­pe­an ag­ri­cul­ture, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

A decade-old the­o­ry holds that about 7,500 years ago, a del­uge filled the Black Sea in the Mid­dle East, in­spir­ing the Noah’s Ark flood tale and pos­sibly some of the oth­er flood sto­ries that mys­te­ri­ously re­cur in many myth­o­lo­gies.

A sa­tellite map of Eu­rope; the Black Sea is the bo­dy of wa­ter at the right, near the bot­tom of the im­age. (Cour­te­sy NOAA)


Al­though some re­search­ers dis­pute the the­o­ry, the new stu­dy’s au­thors take it fur­ther and say the dis­as­ter al­so trig­gered a boom in ag­ri­cul­ture. “A cat­a­stroph­ic rise in glob­al sea lev­el led to the flood­ing of the Black Sea and drove dra­mat­ic so­cial change across Eu­rope,” the sci­en­t­ists said in an an­nounce­ment of their find­ings.

The del­uge “could have led to the dis­place­ment of 145,000 peo­ple,” they ex­p­lained. 

“Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence shows that com­mun­i­ties in south­east Eu­rope were al­ready prac­tis­ing early farm­ing tech­niques and pot­tery pro­duc­tion be­fore the Flood. With the cat­a­stroph­ic rise in wa­ter lev­els it ap­pears they moved west, tak­ing their cul­ture in­to ar­eas in­hab­it­ed by hunter-gatherer com­mun­i­ties” across Eu­rope.

The re­search, by the Un­ivers­i­ties of Ex­e­ter, U.K. and Wol­lon­gong, Aus­tral­ia, ap­pears in the Sep­tem­ber is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Qua­ter­nary Sci­ence Re­views.

The trig­ger for the hy­poth­e­sized flood would have been the col­lapse of the North Am­er­i­can Ice Sheet some 8,000 years ago, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists. This would have raised sea lev­els—causing wa­ter to vi­o­lently breach the Bos­po­rus Strait, which pre­vi­ously dammed the Med­i­ter­ra­nean and kept the Black Sea as a freshwa­ter lake.

The Aus­tral­ian and U.K. re­search­ers cre­at­ed re­con­struc­tions of the Med­i­ter­ra­nean and Black Sea shore­line be­fore and af­ter the hy­poth­e­sized sea lev­el rise. They es­ti­mat­ed that nearly 73,000 square km of land, an ar­ea about the size of Ire­land, was lost to the sea in one 34-year pe­ri­od.

Con­tro­ver­sy has dog­ged the flood hy­poth­e­sis from the start, al­though it has sup­port from ev­i­dence in­clud­ing signs of hu­man hab­ita­t­ion found well be­neath the sea. 

One team has pro­posed that al­though there was a flood, it hap­pened too grad­u­ally to threat­en an­y­one, and thus can­not ex­plain the del­uge myths. Anoth­er sci­ent­ist has claimed that the true source of these ta­les is the pre­s­ence of ma­rine fos­sils in moun­tains: the fos­sils get there by ge­o­log­ic pro­cess­es, but an­cient peo­ple might have seen them as proof of past floods.

The au­thors of the Qua­ter­nary Sci­ence Re­views pa­per are stick­ing close to the ori­gi­nal del­uge hy­poth­e­sis, pro­posed by ma­rine ge­ol­o­gists Wil­liam Ryan and Wal­ter Pit­man in 1996. 

“Peo­ple liv­ing in what is now south­east Eu­rope must have felt as though the whole world had flood­ed. This could well have been the or­i­gin of the Noah’s Ark sto­ry,” said the Un­ivers­ity of Ex­e­ter’s Chris Tur­ney, lead au­thor of the new pa­per. “En­tire coast­al com­mun­i­ties must have been dis­placed, forc­ing peo­ple to mi­grate in their thou­sands. As these ag­ri­cul­tur­al com­mun­i­ties moved west, they would have tak­en farm­ing with them across Eu­rope. It was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary time.”


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A great prehistoric flood—which a controversial theory has linked to the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark—kick-started European agriculture, according to a new study. A decade-old theory holds that about 7,500 years ago, a deluge filled the Black Sea in the Middle East, inspiring the Noah’s Ark flood tale and possibly some of the other similar stories that mysteriously recur in mythologies. Although some researchers dispute the theory, the new study’s authors take it further and say the catastrophe also triggered a boom in agriculture. “A catastrophic rise in global sea level led to the flooding of the Black Sea and drove dramatic social change across Europe,” the scientists said in an announcement of their findings. The deluge “could have led to the displacement of 145,000 people,” they argued. “Archaeological evidence shows that communities in southeast Europe were already practising early farming techniques and pottery production before the Flood. With the catastrophic rise in water levels it appears they moved west, taking their culture into areas inhabited by hunter-gatherer communities” across Europe. The research, by the Universities of Exeter, U.K. and Wollongong, Australia, appears in the September issue of the research journal Quaternary Science Reviews. The trigger for the hypothesized flood would have been the collapse of the North American Ice Sheet some 8,000 years ago, according to the scientists. This would have raised sea levels—causing water to violently breach the Bosporus Strait, which previously dammed the Mediterranean and kept the Black Sea as a freshwater lake. The Australian and U.K. researchers created reconstructions of the Mediterranean and Black Sea shoreline before and after the hypothesized sea level rise. They estimated that nearly 73,000 square km of land, an area about the size of Ireland, was lost to the sea in one 34-year period. Controversy has dogged the flood hypothesis from the start, although it has support from evidence including signs of human habitation found well beneath the sea. One team has proposed that although there was a flood, it happened too gradually to threaten anyone, and so cannot explain the flood myths. Another scientist has claimed that the true source of these tales is the presence of marine fossils in mountains: the fossils get there by geologic process, but ancient people might have seen them as proof of past floods. The authors of the Quaternary Science Reviews paper are sticking close to the deluge hypothesis, proposed by marine geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman in 1996. “People living in what is now southeast Europe must have felt as though the whole world had flooded. This could well have been the origin of the Noah’s Ark story,” said the University of Exeter’s Chris Turney, lead author of the new paper. “Entire coastal communities must have been displaced, forcing people to migrate in their thousands. As these agricultural communities moved west, they would have taken farming with them across Europe. It was a revolutionary time.”