'Noah's Flood': off the edge of scientific speculation

January 03, 1999|By John R. Alden | John R. Alden,special to the sun

''Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History,'' by William Ryan and Walter Pitman. Simon & Schuster. 319 pages. $25

Scientists can tell us wonderful things. They have traced the collisions of continents, decoded the evolution of species, and reconstructed the history of the universe. But when scientists venture beyond their areas of expertise they can go woefully astray. William Ryan and Walter Pitman, senior scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Geological Laboratory, have an intriguing story to tell about a remarkable geophysical event - the flooding of the Black Sea - that occurred some 7,500 years ago. But their speculations about the archeological consequences of this event, and the claim that it may have been the basis of the story of Noah's flood, are errant nonsense.

Sea floor mapping and coring programs directed by the book's authors and others show that before 5,500 B.C. the Black Sea was not a sea at all: it was a huge freshwater lake with a surface 450 feet below modern sea level. It didn't turn salt until the ocean broke through the Bosporus Strait, today a narrow channel some 20 miles long, and flooded the Black Sea basin.

Had the authors confined themselves to this spectacular event, they might have written a fascinating book. But ``Noah's Flood'' only spends a hundred pages on the science behind this story, and it never explains that science very clearly. Readers who aren't familiar with geological concepts like isostatic depression or fossil shorelines, and who don't already know how scientists use pollen analysis and microfaunal studies to analyze ancient climate, will often find themselves puzzled by this book's account.

Still, Ryan and Pitman don't go badly wrong until they make two grandiose claims. First, they suggest that memories of the Black Sea flood are preserved in the Sumerian and biblical stories of Noah's flood. Second, they argue that the Black Sea flood caused a great diaspora, spreading diverse populations across the Middle Eastern and European landscapes.

The clay tablets recording the Sumerian version of the flood story are fragmentary and hard to analyze in detail. But the story in the Bible is clear - it rained for weeks before Noah's flood, and after it stopped raining the floodwaters receeded. The Black Sea flood wasn't caused by rain, and after the water rose it never went away. And neither story mentions the most dramatic consequence of the Black Sea flood, which turned fresh water into salt. Noah's flood, in short, doesn't sound anything like the innundation of the Black Sea.

The diaspora hypothesis is equally suspect. In two maps of ``inferred human migrations'' following the Black Sea flood, Ryan and Pitman show arrows leading from the Black Sea to Egypt, Mesopotamia, western Europe, the Balkans, and the east European plains - almost everywhere in the ancient world. Yet there is no convincing archeological evidence for such migrations.

Ryan and Pitman also ignore a more fundamental problem. In most areas, a 450-foot rise in the Black Sea would have flooded a strip of land no more than a few miles wide, and the water never rose more than six inches a day. To people living in the area, retreating to higher ground, the flood was certainly an annoyance. But the claim that it was a catastrophe of biblical proportions just doesn't hold water.

John R. Alden, an archeological anthropologist, has worked and traveled throughout the Middle East. He is particularly interested in the emergence of civilization in Mesopotamia and in using survey data to reconstruct the development of complex societies. He also is the author of a bimonthly column on new science fiction and fantasy.

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