The Spread of Human Civilization

The Mediterranean Region

Almost every culture on Earth includes an ancient flood story. Details vary, but the basic plot is the same: Deluge kills all but a lucky few.

· The story most familiar to many people is the biblical account of Noah and his ark. Genesis tells how "God saw that the wickedness of man was great" and decided to destroy all of creation. Only Noah, "who found grace in the eyes of the Lord," his family, and the animals aboard the ark survived to repopulate the planet.

· Older than Genesis is the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, a king who embarked on a journey to find the secret of immortality. Along the way, he met Utnapishtim, survivor of a great flood sent by the gods. Warned by Enki, the water god, Utnapishtim built a boat and saved his family and friends, along with artisans, animals, and precious metals.

· Ancient Greeks and Romans grew up with the story of Deucalion and Pyhrra, who saved their children and a collection of animals by boarding a vessel shaped like a giant box.

· Irish legends talk about Queen Cesair and her court, who sailed for seven years to avoid drowning when the oceans overwhelmed Ireland.

· European explorers in the Americas were startled by Indian legends that sounded similar to the story of Noah. Some Spanish priests feared the devil had planted such stories in the Indians' minds to confuse them.

Next: The Theory

German Engraving of Noah's Ark, 1658
© 1999 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.


Columbia University geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman wondered what could explain the preponderance of flood legends. Their theory: As the Ice Age ended and glaciers melted, a wall of seawater surged from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea.

· During the Ice Age, Ryan and Pitman argue, the Black Sea was an isolated freshwater lake surrounded by farmland.

· About 12,000 years ago, toward the end of the Ice Age, Earth began growing warmer. Vast sheets of ice that sprawled over the Northern Hemisphere began to melt. Oceans and seas grew deeper as a result.

· About 7,000 years ago the Mediterranean Sea swelled. Seawater pushed northward, slicing through what is now Turkey.

· Funneled through the narrow Bosporus, the water hit the Black Sea with 200 times the force of Niagara Falls. Each day the Black Sea rose about six inches (15 centimeters), and coastal farms were flooded.

· Seared into the memories of terrified survivors, the tale of the flood was passed down through the generations and eventually became the Noah story.

Next: The Search

Black Sea map courtesy of William Haxby.
© 1999 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.




Figures below are from

(Pitman and Ryan, 1999. Noah's Flood)

Bob Ballard and Current Research

Maritime explorer Bob Ballard is combing the floor of the Black Sea in search of the remains of ancient dwellings, which would buttress a new theory that a cataclysmic flood struck the region some 7,000 years ago-swelling the sea and eventually becoming the basis of the Noah story.


· If the thesis is correct, signs of human habitation should lie beneath the Black Sea. A 1998 expedition, says Ballard, reported "a series of features that appear to be man-made structures."

· Ballard's 1999 expedition revealed an ancient shoreline. Also found were shells from freshwater and saltwater mollusk species. Their radiocarbon dates support the theory of a freshwater lake inundated by the Black Sea some 7,000 years ago.

· "Now we've got to take it to the next level," says Ballard. Ballard and his team will use sonar and remotely operated vehicles to search for evidence of human inhabitation, including buildings, pottery, and ships.

· producer Sean Markey is searching along with Ballard. Join him on the Black Sea via dispatches on the expedition's progress.


Sonar image courtesy of David Mindell.
© 1999 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.