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Books: Neolithic Noah Volume 52 Number 1, January/February 1999
by Mark Rose

[image]The story of a great flood in the Bible and in the epic of Gilgamesh is based on a catastrophic flooding of the Black Sea ca. 5600 B.C., according to a new theory. (illustration by Ray Bartkus) [LARGER IMAGE]

In Noah's Flood, William Ryan and Walter Pitman claim that the biblical flood is based on a catastrophic flooding of the Black Sea, which was then a freshwater lake, by Mediterranean waters pouring through the Bosporus, during the early part of the Neolithic, about 5600 B.C. The flood, they say, was responsible for just about everything from the spread of agriculture into Europe to the presence of mummified Caucasians in western China. One might be tempted to dismiss the book as the work of cranks, but given the authors' credentials--both are senior scientists at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory--it deserves serious consideration.

The first third of the book is devoted to a survey of archaeological and geological research on the biblical flood from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. It is in the second section that we get Ryan and Pitman's own story, especially their account of discoveries during a voyage of the Russian reserach vessel Aquanaut in the Black Sea. Today, the Don empties into the Sea of Azov, an extension of the Black Sea north of the Kerch Strait, but sonar data from Aquanaut indicate that the Don once extended farther south, passing through the strait and crossing a broad floodplain before flowing directly into the Black Sea. An inescapable conclusion is that at one time the Sea of Azov was dry and the level of the Black Sea was much lower. Cores extracted by drilling equipment aboard Aquanaut may have answered when this occurred. Throughout the Black Sea the cores showed the same stratigraphy: a sediment with remains of freshwater mollusks overlain by a wet, dark, organic-rich layer known as a sapropel, above which are normal marine sediments with saltwater mollusk shells. When samples of the lowest, and therefore earliest, of the marine shells in five cores were submitted for radiocarbon dating, they all yielded virtually the same date: 7150 100 years before present, or about 5600 B.C. (Another expedition obtained similar dates for the base of the sapropel in nine other cores.) The mollusk remains indicate a change from a freshwater lake to a saltwater sea, and the similarity of the dates from one core to another suggests it took place in a relatively short time.

Map of region (Andrew L. Slayman) [LARGER IMAGE][image]

Here's how Ryan and Pitman believe it happened: Beginning about 12,500 B.C., at the end of the Ice Age, meltwater from the retreating glaciers flowed south into the Black Sea basin creating a giant freshwater lake that emptied into the Aegean Sea via the valley of the Sakarya River east of the Bosporus, which was then dry land. After a brief return to a colder climate, the discharge of glacial meltwater resumed at about 10,500 B.C., but most of it flowed not south, but west across Europe to the North Sea. Cut off, the Black Sea shrank, over time dropping 350 feet below the Bosporus. Meanwhile, the influx of glacial meltwater continued, raising the level of the world's oceans until around 5600 B.C., when the water crested the Bosporus. According to Ryan and Pitman the force of the water coursing through the narrow channel would have been tremendous: "Ten cubic miles of water poured through each day, two hundred times what flows over Niagara Falls, enough to cover Manhattan Island each day to a depth of over half a mile." The water, they claim, would have raised the Black Sea's surface by six inches per day, flooding some 60,000 square miles within a few years. Remains of freshwater creatures killed by the saltwater and of terrestrial plants inundated by it settled in an organic rich blanket over the bottom, the sapropel found throughout the Black Sea basin today. Ryan and Pitman may be right.

Where the authors go overboard is in the book's third section, in which they assess the consequences of a Neolithic flood. Their conclusion is predicated on a huge archaeological assumption, namely that after the beginnings of agriculture the ancient Near East suffered a drought forcing the first farmers to find refuge in a more friendly climate--on the pre-flood Black Sea coast. Ryan and Pitman claim that all farmers, from Egypt to Europe, and even early nomads of Central Asia, derive from this population, which the deluge displaced and sent scurrying to the earth's four corners, carrying with them not just agriculture but the memory of the flood as well. I wonder what Egyptologists will think when they read that the Nile's predynastic inhabitants came from the Black Sea. And do we really want to accept that mummies in western China's Taklamakan Desert dated to 2000 B.C. are connected to a flood in the Black Sea at about 5600 B.C. that was recorded in Babylonia in 1600 B.C.?

Ryan and Pitman attempt to bring in archaeological, genetic, and linguistic evidence but describe the various threads without integrating them. For example, they summarize the research of Italian geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and his theory that Near Eastern agriculturalists gradually expanded into Europe as the population increased, but they fail to connect it with their own findings. The spread of agriculture into Europe began at least half a millennium before Ryan and Pitman's proposed flood. Moreover, deliberate colonization of Cyprus and Crete a millennium or more earlier shows that the region's Neolithic peoples were competent sailors. Did such a flood sever Europe from the Near East? I doubt it. Cavalli-Sforza's model for the spread of agriculture fits the evidence we have, but Ryan and Pitman merely describe it; they neither integrate it with their own beliefs nor discard it.

If Ryan and Pitman are right about the inundation of the Black Sea, they have made a real advance in our understanding of the region's past. But making it Noah's flood and claiming it was the "event that changed history" was a mistake. The days are long gone when one, or even two scholars, could master as many diverse fields as this book covers. Matters like the possibility of a Neolithic inundation of the Black Sea and its consequences deserve long and careful study of the evidence by many.

Noah's Flood:
The New Scientific Discoveries About
the Event that Changed History

William Ryan and Walter Pitman
298 pages.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
ISBN 0-684-81052-2.

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Mark Rose is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America