The story of Noah’s Ark is probably one of the best known from the Hebrew Bible, and it isn’t just because it’s so popular with children. The flood narrative is a recurring theme in human mythology, appearing in the folklore of over 140 societies. Many of the myths, especially those from the Middle East, seem to have details and themes that coincide with the story of Noah. Could this be more than just a coincidence? Evidence increasingly points to many of these flood stories referring to the same event or handful of events, and though we’ll probably never be able to place them precisely in time, they give us fascinating insights into how humans make sense of natural disasters.
As part of Scientists in Synagogues, Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, VA hosted a multidisciplinary program looking at the flood from both a geological-historical and a comparative-literature perspective. The first presenter, Dr. Helmut Brückner, is Professor Emeritus of Physical Geography at the University of Cologne, Germany. His research fields are coastal geomorphology, geoarchaeology, and geochronology. He has also investigated the morphogenesis of marine terraces in Italy, and the evolution of coasts in India. He’s published two books and more than 300 articles, and taught at many universities in Dusseldorf, Passau, Marburg and Cologne, as well as in Tulsa, OK and in Chile. He is a member of the German National Academy of Sciences.Read Transcript
So, “Noah’s Flood: Probing an Ancient Narrative Using Geoscience.” We also published a paper about it, which I will introduce later, but this is now the topic, and I can start with the first slide.
Every one of you is more or less familiar with this story, and many artists have brought it to pictures – these dramatic pictures where all mankind drowns except for Noah, and the Ark is always nicely pictured, and of course with all the animals. And this is also a nice story for the children, of course.
And this whole story, of course, is rooted in what we know from the Biblical record. As you can see the wickedness of men, and Noah is chosen by God, and then he is saved, and then there is the announcement of the Flood, and then the course of the Flood. This is all registered in this narrative we read in Genesis 6, 7, and then later also in Genesis 8. But there were also other flood stories, and I think we will hear about this in the second talk. We know about a Sumerian flood, a local flood about 3,150 BC Before Christ or Before Common Era, as you would like to put it. And we know about an Accadian flood, the Accadian Atrachasis epic talks about it, and this epic is from the 14th century BC.
Then we have the flood of the Gilgamesh epic, which is very, very interesting, and I will come to it in a minute. It’s on the 11th tablet of the Gilgamesh epic, which dates from the 12th century BC. And then of course, the Biblical flood, the transcript is about 7th century BC. So the Gilgamesh epic is especially interesting, because it is a very similar flood story to what we know from Noah’s flood. There is also someone chosen and he is saved – interestingly, not only him and his family, but also the hand-workers, those who helped him build the ark, they were saved. That’s a very, very similar story, and it is, for me, rather a confirmation that there has been a major catastrophe and people got really impacted by that.
So there are different hypotheses about it. How can we talk about this from the natural-science perspective? And as you know, I’m a geographer, so I come from geoscience. And one explanation for this big flood is the postglacial flooding of the Persian Arabian Gulf. What do we mean by that? The Last Glacial Maximum, which is about 20,000 years ago, has a different – there is distribution of the ice masses on the Earth. You see the big Laurentide Ice Sheet here in Northern America – I hope you see the pointer – and then in Northern Europe, there is a lot of ice all over, up to 3.5 kilometers-thick ice, you know, that’s really massive.
And connected with it, the sea level is deeper. The sea level is about 120 meters deeper than today. So more than half of the shelf areas – which, the shelf goes up to -200 meters – half of the shelf areas are dry land. So this is dry, people can walk there. And as we see, especially in the Gulf Region – so you see Africa, part of Africa, you see the Arabian Peninsula, and here the gulf, the Persian Gulf, is dry land. People can walk there. And then one explanation is – so this is now the Ice Age, and for my students I have to bring up this picture also of the ice age. “Oh no,” they realize, “Oh yeah, this is with the saber-toothed tiger and with the mammoth and so on.” Yeah, that’s the ice age. And at that time, sea level is 120 meters deeper than today. And then, so the gulf is dry, as you see, there is only a little river in it and maybe some lakes. And then, sea level rises dramatically, because the ice masses are melting. And it rises from -120 [meters], up to about our present situation. So this is between 15,000 and 7,000 [years] before today.
So this rapid sea level rise is flooding the gulf, and there is water all over, and some people say this is the basis of Noah’s Flood. I don’t think so. I think this is the basis of the Atlantis saga of the collective memory of humankind, because at that time, this was the time of the Paleolithic people and Mesolithic people, so of course they knew, “Last year I could walk there, and now there is the sea.” All over in the world, where they were at the time, they saw, “Ah, the sea is massively invading us.” But this is the Atlantis saga, it’s not Noah’s flood, I think. But for some people – because I think people could run away, this was fast geologically, very fast, yes, but on the other hand you could still make your way and run away, so to speak. But this is one hypothesis.
The second hypothesis is a cosmic impact about 10,000 years ago. So this was introduced by Tollman and Tollman, Professor Tollman was Professor of Geology at Vienna University, and he collected all information in the flood stories of the peoples of the earth. His book here in German, I don’t know whether it was translated into English, but I presume it was because it made a major impact. “And the Flood did happen after all.” “Yes the Bible is true.” “From myth to historical truth,” this is what he is saying. And he says yes, it was a massive comet which hit the earth, and the comet, before coming to earth, was split in seven parts, and six parts fell in the water, and we had tsunamis all over, and this is why the peoples of the earth have flood stories in their narrations.
The, so to speak, the analog which he had as a geologist, was the geological boundary between Cretaceous and Tertiary. This is 66 million years ago, and indeed there was this impact at Yucatan in Mexico – you see Yucatan – there was the impact of this Chicxulub comet or asteroid hitting the earth. And indeed, the dinosaurs died. And a lot of species got extinct, 70 to 75% of all the species got extinct. And after that, life had to recover again. So this is the geological analog for him, so to speak.
And we have tsunami evidence in Texas and all over in the United States. You find it here. And we have evidence that this really happened 66 million years ago. So coming from this background as a geologist, he says “Okay, we have other impacts, smaller ones, but we have the meteor shower of 1872 and the decay of the comet Biela, and many parts hit the earth – not so strong as the other, of course, but there was an impact. And we know of the Barrington Crater in Arizona. So we know of many cosmic impacts, so why not this flood impact?” And we know, in what we call the last book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelations, in John it says “And the stars in the sky fell to earth,” this is the apocalypse, you know, the stars fell to the earth, and the people tried to find shelter, and of course [there was] a big catastrophe.
The flood comet in his scenario is about 10,000 years ago, worldwide tsunamis, and since the world is rotating and the comet comes to earth, and it is split into seven parts, and six parts fell into the sea, we have tsunami waves all over. And this is why many peoples of the earth have the flood story. And indeed, our friend Dieter Kelletat collected the stories, and all of these dots are peoples of the earth who have in their narration, in their history, or in their mind, they have flood stories. And this is interesting, because also some people who live in the mountains who know that once the world was drowned in a big flood. And Tollman, both Tollmans here, both he and his wife collected these myths and they came up that [it] was about 10,000 years ago. As a geologist, we would say this is the end of the Ice Age and the beginning of what we call the Holocene, 10,000 years ago.
The problem is you cannot prove it geologically. There at this boundary, which is Pleistocene-Holocene, we don’t have the iridium anomaly which we have from this big catastrophe at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. We don’t have it here. This is the problem about it, and nobody has found the evidence as a real proof. It’s a nice theory, it has some charm, but it is not proven scientifically.
The third hypothesis is the postglacial flooding of the Black Sea. There was a big impact from the book by Ryan and Pitman, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History. And it was then in National Geographic, and it triggered a lot of research projects, scientific research projects. And their theory was that there was a mega flood from the Mediterranean via the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. The sea level is low in the Ice Age, then sea level rises, and then there is a mega- flood into the Black Sea region. And peoples who were around this lake at that time, they drowned.
I will explain a little bit more. We have again this scenario: sea level is low, 20,000 years ago, and a lot of land bridges exist. You see here the Black Sea, and you see the Aegean Sea, and they were discoupled. So the Black Sea had its own history at that time. And then you have the melting of the ice caps like in the Eurasian Ice Cap, and a lot of these meltwater lakes flow into the Black Sea. And the Black Sea at that time is a freshwater lake, and peoples of the earth are around this freshwater lake because they need, of course, water to live. And then, 8,500 years ago, sea level rises, and we have the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean, coming into this basin, because at that time the Black Sea was -150 meters. So we have the rise of the general sea level worldwide and at 8,400 [years] before today, we have the connection. And then the waters catastrophically go into the Black Sea, and the people who are around, they drown. And this is the background of Noah’s Flood, the big flood history.
And there are some arguments from geological – indeed, when you look at the fauna, it becomes fresh, fresh, fresh, fresh, so we have freshwater fauna, and then all of a sudden the saltwater fauna starts again, with mytilus, which is definitely fully marine. So this is why Pitman and Ryan say it’s catastrophic. They’re both geologists, so it’s not just fantasy, this is the core evidence from geology.
And of course, the lower picture here, this is how, then, the painter thinks it could have been. But there is some evidence like that and you have to explain it. Well, it was making such an impact that Ballard, this is the man who found with his submersible –– who found the Titanic, you know. So he was searching for this shoreline, the -150 meter shoreline. Do we find people there who drowned? Or what do we find? They found some wood, indeed. “Oh,” they said, “This is maybe a construction or so,” but later they dated the wood and it came out 200 years. So that was nothing. So again, the real evidence – there is this geological evidence that, obviously, it was a sudden connection, but that this is the background is another very questionable explanation.
The fourth one is that we had a mega-flood catastrophe in Mesopotamia, so we are now going to Ur. You see the Gulf, the rest of the Gulf, and here is Ur, of course, as you know, the birthplace of Abraham. And Sir Leonard Woolley, in the 20’s, he was excavating Ur and he wrote this nice book, Ur of the Chaldees, and in German it’s translated “Ur and die Sintflut,” “Ur and the Genesis Flood,” because in German, this is, so to speak, more direct. It is the Genesis Flood. So what did Sir Leonard Woolley excavate when he excavated Ur? This is Ur as we would see it today, with a ziggurat and so on – Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. Indeed he found something very special, a so-called flood layer. You see it here, it’s called in this picture to the left “B.” “B,” there is a flood layer. And in his excavation, there is a layer below – #4 in this lighter part – and then there is in the middle #3, which is sterile. There is not much in it – a little bit of pottery, but not much. And it’s all of a sudden – it must have been deposited. And then come the strata where we say, “Yeah, this is the historical strata of a till, a settlement till.” So Ur is a till.
And we have it also in our publication, I come to this – and this is the flood layer. This red is the flood deposit. The flood layer is water laid-silt of fluvial origin so we know it is from a river coming, it’s deposited at one time, and it’s about average thickness, 3.5 meters. So that’s really massive, 3.5 meters of deposit. So that means, of course, much more water is coming. I worked in Uruk, this is north of Ur, this is the Biblical Erech, and it’s a little bit north, as you see. And what do we see there? Uruk Warka, it’s interesting – it’s a 16 meter high till in lower Mesopotamia ,and you have early finds from the late Chalcolithic, so it starts at the fifth millennium before Christ. It’s founded as a twin city, it’s the birthplace of writing – the first cuneiform lettering comes from there, 3,200 years before Christ. It’s [where] the invention of brewing [was], of beer, also not unimportant, beer. And it is the legendary city of King Gilgamesh. And the city wall, which you see here in red – this is the city wall. It’s still preserved, it’s 11 kilometers still preserved from the Gilgamesh [era] . Interestingly, when you look in Genesis 10, which talks about Ham’s son is Cush, Cush fathers Nimrod. “Nimrod, whom the Lord saw as a great hunter” – you know this passage, I think. And the most important cities in his kingdom were Babel, Babylon, Iraq, Uruk – this is what we are talking about – Accad, and Calneh. So a city – he is a city builder, and that means he builds a fortified settlement. And I think the Nimrod of the Bible, this could be the Gilgamesh. That’s a very interesting topic I would like to discuss with the Rabbi, and we would have to go into the details for that. So maybe Gilgamesh is the Nimrod of the Bible.
Anyhow, I drilled on this city wall, I wanted to see how deep is it. And it’s still preserved for five meters. So the reddish, and this (on this drill car to the left), this is all Gilgamesh city wall. And when we look in some of the drills, we have, what is kind of a flood layer, again one, two, three meters, you know, similar as what we had heard just from this Sir Leonard Woolley. And when you collect the data, this is where we put it together. And again, you have a flood layer here. And when we put together the information, we find that there are several flood layers. We talked about the flood layer, the mega-flood layer in Ur. We are now talking about Uruk. There is a similar layer in Babylon. So there are layers of sediment, layers of a mega-flood in Mesopotamia and a little bit south of it. This is proven in many settlements and tills of Mesopotamia. So my research approach now, if we could work there, but still, you know, there’s a civil war and so on – this would be to study the flood layers, to look sedimentologically. Nobody had done this, nobody had compared them all, you know, to look at the faunal and floral inventory of what is there in this flood layer. And chronostratigraphy to date them. Is it the same, at the same time?
So I would like to excavate the Genesis Flood, as I call it. And the question is: “When was it?” I’ll come to that in a minute. So I put together a summary, I make my summary. We had the hypothesis about Noah’s flood. First the post-glacial flooding of the Persian and Arabian Gulf, you remember that, then the cosmic impact 10,000 years ago, a third post-glacial flooding of the Black Sea, and fourth, which I think it was the mega-flood catastrophe in Mesopotamia. “When was it?” – the big question. And we had once a seminar at the University of Marburg, when I was still lecturing there ,with an ancient historian who knows the stories, someone who knew the cuneiform lettering, someone who was in theology, and myself as a geographer. So our synthesis, when we put all the stories together, we think it was a mega-flood 2,900 years before Christ. This is a strong hypothesis, but this is, so to speak, our working hypothesis with which we would analyze these floods, the flood layers. I put all of that together in an article which has the same title as my lecture today. Thank you for listening.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This is the first half of an adult education program on Parshat Noach at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, VA).