One of my grandfathers was into the fin de si├Ęcle creation vs. evolution debate before he died. I am not terribly crazy about the debate, personally, and while most of his books centered around that topic, I noticed this one that piqued my interest. I have always been interested in the Great Flood, and skimming through this book suggested an interesting historic event that led to the story: the filling of the Black Sea.

In the nineteenth century, archaeologists excavating Nineveh (present-day Mosul) discovered a library of cuneiform tablets. Some of these tablets contained a flood story very similar to the biblical account; excavations of other Mesopotamian sites led to a few different variants of the story. In these versions of the story the gods flooded the earth because mankind was too noisy, but secretly warned Utnapishtim (or Atrahesis), which took livestock and seeds on a boat. After the flood, the gods were hungry, swarmed around his sacrifice “like flies” and granted him immortality. No flood layer was ever found, except for a few localized floods probably due to breaching of the dikes.

In the mid-twentieth century, Ryan and few other scientists were drilling cores from the Mediterranean, and discovered that the Mediterranean had dried up 3 - 5 million years ago, and subsequently re-flooded. This was evidenced by cores that showed a desert environment followed by a sharp transition to a marine environment (indicating rapid flooding); cores with nearly pure salt immediately under the marine environment, including cracks due to drying; and deep chasms below current water level in river channels like the Nile indicating that the river had to fall farther to the sea than before. While interesting and unexpected, the re-flooding of the Mediterranean was far too early to have been preserved in human memory.

The Ice Age lowered the oceans several hundred feet, and ended some 10,000 years ago, well within human memory. There was a long pause in melting of the ice at the end of the last Ice Age in which the climate of middle latitudes became much drying. The level of the Mediterranean would have dropped below the Bosporus Straight, and the Black Sea could have dried up. In 1993, Ryan and Pitman partnered with a Bulgarian research group to take sonar readings of the Black Sea. They found a distinct river channel far under the sea, current rivers in channels that cut far more deeply than the current water level would create, and an ocean ooze layer that covered well-defined dunes (indicating a quick flooding). Core samples indicated a date of about 7500 years ago, which is Lower Dryad glacial melt pause.

Ryan and Pitman hypothesize a dam developing at the top of the Bosporus, preventing the Mediterranean from pouring back into the Black Sea, which would have evaporated into a large lake, several hundred feet below the dam. The rivers in the Black Sea area poured fresh water into the lake; even today freshwater flows south through the Bosporus on top of a salty current flowing north. When the dam broke, the Mediterranean would have a large and unrelenting head pressure which would pour over enough water to fill the Black Sea basin in about 300 days.

During the Lower Dryad period, Mesopotamian and Palestinian sites became abandoned because the climate became hot and dry. Settlements moved to higher, cooler ground, such as Anatolia in Turkey. Discussions with archaeologists indicated that near the flood date (within the tolerane of the dating), a completely new people spread into the areas surrounding the Black Sea. This people was an agricultural society, and artistically advanced. The same type of pottery, agriculture, and building method were fairly uniform among all these people. Linguists also track Western languages back to a common Indo-European language, which is the root of the languages where these people spread.

Ryan and Pitman theorize that people came to the freshwater lake due to the nice climate around it, in contrast to the dry surrounding areas. There the cultural exchange led to the discovery of agriculture, the domestication of grains, a flourishing of art, and a common Indo-European language. When the flood came at the rate of about a mile a day, people fled outward depending on the side of the lake they were on. They displaced or intermarried with the existing people, expanding throughout Europe, the Caucuses, and Mesopotamia. (The only remnants of the original people are the Basques in remote Spain.)

The reconstruction of Noah’s flood, based on Ryan and Pitman, with a few additions of my own, would look something similar to this. On the eve of the flood, someone at the top of the Bosporus could see the Mediterranean lapping at the dam, which sat 350 feet above a basin with a lake in the distance. The stories all talk about a warning of the impending flood. Either God warns Noah in time for him to build a boat and fill it with domesticated plants and animals. In one story the ark is a simple boat, in which case a quick-thinking sailor-farmer realized what the thunderous noise in the distance and the earth’s trembling meant, and hastily loaded his necessities into his boat and fled. At any rate, Noah enters the ark, during a rainstorm, which breaks the dam, and the water rises, as if the fountains of the deep were opened. Once the water reached a settlement, staying ahead of the flood required walking a mile a day. While not difficult in itself, an agrarian society would be less skilled in hunting, especially as it reached dryer arias beyond the original lake. Many may have perished not from the immediate flood, but from hunger on the way. Noah (and others like him) floating on the middle of the Black Sea would have seen only water, as if the whole earth were flooded. Eventually his ark reached northern Turkey, where he finds dry land and begins farming. The presence of fossils on mountain tops validated the flood of the whole earth to his descendents, who progressively moved south. Because they were farmers, they could irrigate the dry areas between the Tigris and Euphrates, starting a new, great civilization in the fertile (but hot and dry) ground. Oral history preserved memory of the event, altered by culture, but not in the main story elements. The author of Genesis incorporated this story, but corrected the nature of God (or if God warned the original Noah, reverted the nature of God).

This book is well-written, giving a narration of how Ryan and Pitman arrived at this theory over the course of several decades. The writing covers the human-interest side of science, in particular the actual process of discovery/interpretation. At the same time, the science is clearly and thoroughly explained. The only deficiency in the book is if you just want to know the answer, in which case you must read through stories of background discoveries.  Even if you only are looking for the answer, you will likely get a lot better understanding of history, oceanography, and archaeology in the process. Well written, and engaging; definitely a good read.


Review: 9
The scientific explanations are done by the actual scientists, and are very clearly explained. I have a science background, so it is hard for me to say, but I think non-scientists can understand the explanations with no problem. I am also impressed at the quality of the writing, which is very engaging. Very accessible, and quite thorough. It would be nice to see some opposing viewpoints, but the authors are clearly trying to simply explain their theory, which at the time was the only one.