The Great Flood

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Japan: A forest of Asian White Birch trees (Betula platyphylla) in Hokkaido flooded in 2013. (Image © Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures/Corbis)

Japan: A forest of Asian White Birch trees (Betula platyphylla) in Hokkaido flooded in 2013. (Image © Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures/Corbis)

Why the waters rose: legends and stories of waters rising high and deluging the lands are recorded and passed down through the generations by a number of cultures across Asia.

by Sophie Ibbotson & Max Lovell-Hoare

We all know the story of Noah and the flood, how the animals came in two-by-two, and how all those who did not find sanctuary on Noah’s ark were drowned. Although there are a handful of archaeologists who have spent their lives searching for the remains of the ark, very few of us take this Old Testament story literally.

That said, even if the details have been elaborated upon as they were passed down orally through the generations, that does not mean the story doesn’t contain a kernel of truth. It seems increasingly likely that there was indeed a great flood, and the impact of it on local populations would have been devastating.

Pakistan: A boy drinks directly from a faucet provided as aid to victims after disastrous floods in 2010 that killed more than a thousand people. (Image © Ton Keone/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

There are two sources of evidence to support this claim: literary and geological.  A significant number of ancient texts, including the Old Testament (Genesis 6:8), the Epic of Gilgamesh (from 18th-century BC Mesopotamia) and Shatapatha Brahmana (a Hindu sacred text describing the Vedic rituals from roughly 700 BC), describe a devastating flood in antiquity.

Given that they are roughly contemporaneous with one another and yet written by civilisations who had little, if any, direct contact, it is not unreasonable to hypothesise they were all describing the same event, albeit seen from different places. However, the exact nature, timing and extent of this event – whether it was a tsunami or the melting after the last ice age – are unexplained by these literary sources.

Jaipur, India: Girls enjoy the monsoon downpour. (Image © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis)
India: A Bengali mother carries her infant across muddy flood waters after a visit to the makeshift hospital, while a boy pumps drinking water. (Image © Bettmann/Corbis)

More convincing than this is the geological record, which scientists are now able to analyse. Geologists have rejected the idea that the whole world was underwater 6,000 years ago due to paleontological evidence and analysis of sedimentary rock layers and erosion patterns, but there is some acceptance of more localised flooding.

Columbia University geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman have hypothesised substantial flooding following the last ice age, 7,000 years ago. When glaciers in Europe melted, water levels in the Mediterranean rose, flooding the land between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea with so much salt water that the Black Sea – formerly a freshwater lake – turned salty.

This claim is supported by the findings of National Geographic explorer Robert Ballard, who found the remnants of a far older shoreline beneath the waters of the current-day Black Sea, as well as an extensive fossil record of freshwater species that could only have lived in the sea before the water turned saline.

An alternative theory, first put forward by Bruce Masse, an environmental archaeologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is that around 5,000 years ago a 4.8-kilometre-wide comet crashed into Earth off the coast of Madagascar. The impact would have caused a tsunami up to 183 metres high, as well as devastating hurricanes and a week of darkness, as dust matter obscured the sun. The tsunami would have hit the coasts of Africa, India and the Arabian Peninsula, the same areas the literary sources come from.

Since 2004, Masse has been working with scientists to establish if geological data supports his theory. The Holocene Impact Working Group has used satellite imagery to identify chevron-shaped sand formations caused by ancient tsunamis, and the fossils discovered inside them are currently being analysed to establish whether they fit with Masse’s third millennium BC time frame.

Myths and legends often have some root in historical fact, and so it seems with the Great Flood. The flood may not in actuality have covered the whole world, but it could have covered the known world, and the devastation it caused would have seemed to those who did survive to be a punishment sent by God.

Though we are only now in a position to understand the true causes of the flooding and, perhaps, its extent, it is nevertheless remarkable that the memory of the disaster has been passed down through the generations for so many thousands of years, and in geographically separate communities.

For more stunning stories and photographs from this issue, check out Asian Geographic Issue 109.

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