Noah's Ark myth has evidence of great flood
Under the Microscope: Christians are familiar with the Bible story of Noah when God cleaned wickedness from the world by destroying all of creation in a great flood. The righteous Noah and his family and two of every kind of animal survived by floating in a great ark, writes Professor William Reville
Many other cultures also have stories of an ancient flood that left only a few survivors - the Babylonians, ancient Greeks and Romans, and Native Americans. These stories are generally taken as myths or morality tales, but scientists have now found evidence that a great flood did occur in the region of the Black Sea about 7,000 years ago.
The Bible is not a reliable record of the physical history of the earth. Nevertheless, creationists use the literal Noah story to explain every sedimentary rock on earth and the fossil record in the rocks.
However, geology has won the argument on these matters and we know the flood could not have covered the whole earth and that Noah could not have rescued all living species. But, recent scientific work has shown that the biblical story of the Flood may recall a real event even if many of the details are fictitious.
Marine biologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman have written a book - Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000) - describing a flood that occurred several thousand years before the ancient Hebrews wrote the Biblical story.
According to Ryan and Pitman, about 12,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age waned, the Black Sea was a partly dried-out freshwater lake separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a land strip called the Bosporus Strait. The Black Sea shore was a fertile area in which people began the earliest large farming societies. When the ice sheets covering the Northern Hemisphere melted, sea levels rose and some 7,600 years ago the Mediterranean breached the Bosporus Strait.
Seawater rushed through with a force 200 times that of Niagara Falls and the Black Sea level rose by 15 cm per day. In less than one year, 60,000 square miles of land were engulfed, and the settlers moved to high ground, never to return. Ryan and Pitman speculate that the story of this trauma was passed down for 3,000 years and recorded in song and myth. One version was preserved as the biblical story of Noah when writing was developed.
Ryan's and Pitman's hypothesis is based on Black Sea sediment cores and seismic profiles. They found a single mud layer, typically left after a flood, lying over sediments that appeared to have been a land surface. This surface contained freshwater molluscs, mud cracks and plant root fossils, just like a dried-out lake-shore. The ancient shoreline is submerged at least 460 feet under the Black Sea.
In 1999 Robert Ballard, famous for locating and exploring the Titanic, located an ancient coastline 550 feet under water and 20 miles out from the current Black Sea shore. Ballard took samples from this ancient beach, including freshwater and saltwater mollusc species.
Radiocarbon dating showed the freshwater molluscs were older than the saltwater ones. The freshwater molluscs were all of the same age which would be expected if they all died in a sudden flood. If they died in slowly-rising water they would be of different ages. The molluscs died around 5,600 BC, approximately when Noah's flood is reputed to have occurred. Ballard also found stone tools and ceramic storage vessels and the remains of what appears to be an ancient house 310 feet deep in the Black Sea.
This is not an open and shut case. For some time, geologists have agreed that the Black Sea was gradually flooded when rising sea levels caused the Mediterranean to overflow about 9,000 years ago. The new evidence is of a sudden flood about 7,000 years ago.
Many geologists are wary of the revised theory and feel conflict about trying to prove an event from an ancient text. It is also noted that the Bible records Noah as living in a Mesopotamian desert, whereas the Black Sea coastline was then lush and forested.
Nevertheless, continuing geological expeditions to the Black Sea attract widespread public interest because of the Noah connection. And widespread interest is an essential lubricant to facilitate the flow of money to support expensive geological expeditions.
Let me finish with a truncated quotation of the Noah story from the Book of Genesis.
Noah was 600 years old when the flood came on the earth on the 17th day of the second month. He and his wife and his sons and their wives went into the boat to escape the flood. A male and a female of every kind of animal and bird went into the boat as God had commanded. All the outlets of the vast body of water beneath the earth burst open, all the floodgates of the sky were opened and rain fell on the earth for 40 days and nights.
The water became so deep it covered the highest mountains. Every living being on the earth died except Noah and the others on the boat. The rain stopped and the water gradually went down for 150 days and the boat came to rest on a mountain on the Ararat range. When Noah was 601 years old, on the 1st day of the 1st month the water was gone.
William Reville, is associate professor of biochemistry and director of microscopy at University College, Cork