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Science of Mythology: Biblical-Scale Floods Throughout History

Noah and His Ark, oil on canvas painting by Charles Willson Peale, 1819, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Image credit: wmpearl, Wikimedia Commons)

The Biblical figure Noah might not have been the only one bobbing along on the waves of a world-destroying flood. Tales of massive floods at the dawn of human history are told by Tibetans, Native Americans and other cultures.

The book The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood by David Montgomery of the University of Washington took a scientific look at the facts behind the mythology. Discover Magazine recently reprinted an excerpt of the book.

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During the Ice Ages, advancing and retreating ice sheets altered sea levels and created lakes trapped behind glaciers or dams of rubble. Eventually, the glaciers melted or the lakes behind the dams overflowed and undercut the structures. In other locations, the sea was held back by natural dikes which collapsed as the rising water overpowered them.

When those natural barriers failed, millions of gallons of water stampeded across the land, scouring away all life including humans. The cultural memory of these cataclysms may have formed the seed of fact from which mythology grew.

Tibet: The Buddhist missionary Padmasambhava, known to the Tibetans as Guru Rinpoche, is said to have pacified the ancient demons of Tibet. One of those demons dwelled in a lake created by the Tsangpo River. After Guru Rinpoche defeated the demon, the lake drained away and left fertile farmland.

During an expedition in 2002, Montgomery found evidence that the gorge formed by the Tsannpo had been filled by a lake numerous times. Most recently, between 1,100 and 1,400 years ago at approximately the time of the Guru Rinpoche’s visit, a mud and ice dam had created a 780 foot deep lake in the gorge. When that dam gave way, 50 cubic miles of water swept down the mountain. The former lake became a fertile plain that now serves as Tibet’s breadbasket.

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United States: A deep lake formed numerous times behind glaciers and transformed the mountain valleys of eastern Washington into two giant lakes. Between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago the lakes broke through their barriers at least 25 times. The torrents carved the land into unusual canyons and moved house-sized boulders hundreds of miles.

The Yakima and Spokane tribes told early missionaries of these floods, according to Montgomery. The indigenous people were even able to point out the high points where their ancestors had taken refuge.

Persian Gulf: Other researchers have found evidence of enormous floods in just the right place to inspire the Biblical story of Noah and the flood.

The waters of the Persian Gulf may cover one of humanity's oldest and largest footholds outside Africa, according to archeologist Jeffery Rose in Current Anthropology. A verdant oasis provided a sanctuary the size of Great Britain for humans from approximately 74,000 years ago until 8,000 years ago. Then the rising sea may have burst through natural barriers and flooded the region.

“Certainly, I think there is compelling evidence to suggest that both the flood and Eden myths may be rooted in these events around the Gulf basin. When we trace the flood myth back in time from Genesis, it appears almost verbatim in Babylonian and Sumerian sources (living in southern Mesopotamia/ northern shoreline of the Gulf) at least back to 2,500 BC when writing was first used to tell stories.” Rose told Discovery News.

"Indeed, there has been quite a bit of speculation about the mythological implications of the Gulf basin as the genesis of both the Eden as well as the Deluge myth. As a scientist, these are perilous waters to tread since it touches upon some very sensitive subjects," said Rose.

This story was provided by Discovery News.