Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization

Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization

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by Ian Wilson

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In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.

The great Biblical flood so described in Genesis has long been a subject of fascination and


In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.

The great Biblical flood so described in Genesis has long been a subject of fascination and speculation. In the 19th century the English archbishop James Ussher established it as having happened in the year 2348 B.C., calculating what was then taken as the age of the earth and working backward through the entire series of Biblical "begats." Proof of the flood, which is an element of so many creation myths, began in earnest when archaeology started connecting physical evidence with Biblical story. The dream of proving the Bible as literal truth has proven irresistible, producing both spurious claims and serious scholarship.

As best-selling historian Ian Wilson reveals in this fascinating new book, evidence of a catastrophic event has been building steadily, culminating in the work of William Ryan and Walter Pitman. Several years ago Ryan and Pitman had posited that around 5600 BC there had an inundation in the Black Sea of such proportions that it turned the freshwater lake into a saltwater lake by connecting it to the Mediterranean. Were that true, they estimated that there would be signs of civilization 300 feet below the surface of the Black Sea. In September 2000, using his famous underwater equipment, Robert Ballard (of SS Titanic fame) explored parts of the Black Sea near the Turkish shore and found the remains of wood houses. There had been a flood, and whether God's wrath or not it had destroyed everything around it for hundreds of miles, killing tens of thousands of people.

Exploring all the archeological evidence, Wilson explains how the Black Sea flood and the Biblical flood have to be connected. In particular, Wilson argues, learnedly and persuasively, that the center of the civilized world was further to the West than previously thought-not in Egypt or Mesopotamia but in what is today Northern Turkey.

The earliest, antediluvian civilizations may have migrated east into those places we have come to call the cradles of civilization, forced by the Black Sea flood to create new settlements.

Scrupulous in its details and compelling in its sweep, Before the Flood is narrative detective history at its most provocative, contributing a vital new chapter to the debate about the Bible and origins of the modern world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Historian Wilson (The Blood and the Shroud), who has made a career of proving the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, now turns his attention to supporting the historical reality of the biblical flood in this sweeping narrative of history, mythology and philology. Building upon the work of William Ryan and Walter Pitman (Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History), Wilson shows that around 5600 B.C. a huge wave from the Mediterranean, caused by the melting glaciers of the last Ice Age, broke over the land mass that connected Turkey to Europe, creating the Bosporus Strait. Wilson draws on recent archeological evidence to argue that this wave inundated agricultural societies around the Black Sea, creating a worldwide diaspora and driving some of the survivors south into Egypt, Mesopotamia and other parts of the Middle East. This Black Sea flood and the southern migration, Wilson argues, are the basis for the Genesis tale of Noah. He synthesizes the last 40 years' worth of archeological findings into a lively detective story, showing how various cultures in Europe, Asia and the Middle East still bear the vestigial traces of their Black Sea roots. He confirms his theory by citing the numerous myths of a great devastating flood and its aftermath among the Sumerians, Babylonians, Greeks and others. Wilson does not aim to prove the literal truth of the Bible story-only that Noah had real-life counterparts who escaped the flood by ship. Nonetheless, the book is sure to spur some lively debates. B&w illus. and photos. (Dec. 12) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The noted historian and author of Turin Shroud and The Blood and the Shroud turns his trained, professional eye to a specific event from the Bible: the narrative of the Flood (cf. Genesis 6:5-9:17). Despite the headline-grabbing style of the book's subtitle, the author's scholarly methodology examines serious archaeological, historical, meteorological, religious, and literary artifacts and issues. Building upon the groundbreaking hypothesis of William Ryan and Walter Pittman in Noah's Flood, Wilson posits the historical nucleus of the biblical Flood narrative on the flooding of the Black Sea by the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the last Ice Age, around 5600 B.C.E. Faithful to the evidence, the author points out where gaps in the archaeological record do not currently allow us to establish definitively a direct causal link between the later literary accounts of the Flood in Genesis or The Epic of Gilgamesh and events at the Black Sea. The author's style treats serious issues in a scholarly manner but is easily understandable and highly readable. Recommended for large public libraries.-Charlie Murray, C.S.S., Fordham Univ., New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A blend of archaeological fact and anthropological speculation by Australian historian Wilson. The flood as described in Genesis would have brought the world sea level up 6,000 feet, and establishing it as a real event would entail, as Wilson concedes, a "complete revision of all the basic understandings underpinning modern-day geology." Wilson is not proposing anything so drastic. Rather, he wants to connect a set of flood myths that occurred among ancient peoples in the swathe of land between Greece and India with the recent discovery that the present composition and size of the Black Sea can be dated to 5600 b.c., when the land barrier between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea crumbled. If it fell in one blow, the resulting flood would have caused the fresh-water Black Sea to rise for two years, flooding about 60,000 square miles. Both the extent and speed of the flood would have been catastrophic for humans living around the water. Wilson describes the fascinating underwater explorations of submarine archaeologist Robert Ballard, who has found signs of human habitation seventy kilometers out from the present Black Sea shoreline. Who were they? Wilson believes they are congruent with the goddess-worshipping inhabitants of an Anatolian site, Çatal Hüyük. That site dates from before 6000 b.c. and shows its people to have been sophisticated agriculturalists and weavers. Wilson speculates that when the site was abandoned around, probably because of a climate change, the inhabitants emigrated to the shores of the Black Sea, then a fresh-water lake. Escaping the flood, these people seeded civilization around the Mediterranean, spreading flood myths. Wilson backs up his idea with somedubious sources, such as Robert Graves's The White Goddess (1948). More troubling, though, is Wilson's construing of myth solely in terms of "collective memory," an anthropologically naïve move. A bold revision of ancient history that is well worth reading, even if its conclusions sometimes overshoot the evidence.

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Read an Excerpt

Before The Flood

The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How it Changed the Course of Civilization

By Ian Wilson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 Ian Wilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6738-3


When the Ice Melted

The ... rise in sea level, of the order of decimetres a year, must have caused widespread flooding of low-lying areas, many of which were inhabited by man.

Professor Cesare Emiliani, 1975

Scientifically it is quite certain that throughout humankind's existence there has never been any biblical-type Flood that destroyed everyone in the world except for a chosen few. Yet the great paradox is that all around the world there are quite an extraordinary number of peoples who remember some such event in their folk memories.

World Flood myths, some of them very similar to the Biblical one, have been recorded by the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Zoroastrians, Hebrews, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Hindus, Maya, Toltecs, Zapotecs and Incas. Likewise on every continent there are peoples who have preserved world Flood myths of some description in their folklore. These include, in Europe the Scandinavians, Welsh, Lithuanians and Germans; in Africa the Yoruba, Ekoi and Efik-Ibibio of Nigeria, the Mandingo of the Ivory Coast, also the so-called Pygmies; in north America several Eskimo tribes of Alaska and British Columbia, also the Yakima, Algonquin, Navajo, Mandans, Cherokee, Choctaw, Hopi and numerous other 'Indian' tribes; in South America the Arawak and Arekuna of Guyana, the Muysca of Colombia, the Yanomamo and Yaruro of southern Venezuela, the Yamana of Tierra del Fuego; in the Far East India the Andaman islanders in the Bay of Bengal, the Loto of Southwestern China, the Chingpaw of Upper Burma, the Kelantan of the Malay Peninsula, the Batak of Sumatra, the Dyaks of Borneo, the Toraja of the Celebes; and in Australasia and the Pacific islands the Kabadi of New Guinea; the Gumaidj, Maung and Gunwinggu aboriginals of Arnhem Land, the Andingari and Wiranggu of south Australia, the Maori of New Zealand and the peoples of Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tahiti and Hawaii.

It is important to recognise that the territories where some of these peoples are living now are not necessarily where they believe their ancestors to have experienced their particular Flood. Also, many of their stories are very different from the biblical story – indeed some are so patently 'mythological' that it would be absurd to try to claim any sort of historical sense for them. And even where there are striking similarities to the biblical story – as, for instance, amongst the Flood tales of certain of the Pacific islanders – the indications are that these derived from Flood stories that were told to them by Christian missionaries and which were then assimilated into their own folklore.

But this said, the idea of a world Flood is undeniably so deeply ingrained in the folk-memories of so many different peoples that it raises the fundamental question of just how and why should this be so.

In fact there is no real mystery, as the answer to this question can be summed up in six words: the end of the Ice Age. For as has been scientifically established for over a century, the world has repeatedly suffered from Ice Ages, at the last count no less than 36 of these occurring during the last three million years. And although exactly why these happen is still not yet fully understood, the last Ice Age, and the melting that stemmed from it, was quite definitely well within the time that humankind walked the earth.

Now anyone who has flown over Greenland on a clear day will have some picture of what North America and northern Europe would have looked like during this relatively recent but extremely inhospitable period. In North America, from Portland, Oregon in the west to New York in the east there were ice sheets up to a kilometre (half a mile) thick that covered the entire landmass northwards, extending all the way to the North Pole. Northern Europe presented much the same desolate picture, its ice-cap extending as far south as Dublin, Birmingham and Berlin, with snow covering much of the terrain immediately south of this.

What is rarely appreciated is that there was so much water locked up in the ice sheets covering the land that the world's sea-level was significantly lower than it is today. Thus, if a cartographer had been around at the time, the map of the world's coastlines as they then existed, though broadly familiar [fig 1], would have had some significant differences to our present-day world maps.

For instance, in the United States the major east coast cities such as New York, Baltimore and Boston, had these existed at the time, would have been 120 to 240 kilometres (75 to 150 miles) inland, since the coastline of that time extended further east by those distances. On the west coast, Alaska was still joined to Siberia by a land-bridge, while Vancouver and its island lay some distance inland. Likewise in South America both the western and eastern coastlines extended substantially further out into the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in comparison to their present-day limits.

In Europe the English Channel, North Sea and Baltic did not exist, neither did Ireland as a separate landmass to England, Wales and Scotland. Although in the Mediterranean the straits of Gibraltar were open, Corsica and Sardinia were joined to each other, likewise Sicily to the Italian peninsula. There was a large extra landmass off what is today Tunisia. Much of what is today the Adriatic Sea was dry land. To the south of Greece there were fewer, but larger islands than those of the present day, while what is now the Black Sea was an inland freshwater lake, a land barrier preventing any joining of it with the Mediterranean and thereby with world sea-levels.

Across the other side of the world, Japan, although it had its own internal sea, was linked to the Asian mainland, with Russia to its north and Korea to its south. In South-East Asia what are today the islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo were joined to Malaysia and Thailand by a landmass that geographers call the Sunda Shelf. To the south another landmass, the Sahul Shelf, joined New Guinea to the north Australian mainland, so that the present Timor and Arafura Seas, also the vast Gulf of Carpentaria which on maps appears as the bite out of Australia's top end, did not exist. Tasmania was joined to the Australian mainland and in my own state of Queensland you would have been able to stroll out to well beyond the farthest limits of what is today the Great Barrier Reef without getting your feet wet. The North and South islands of New Zealand were still joined to each other.

This is but the broadest sketch of the world as it is understood to have looked up to around 14,000 BC, but then the ice began to melt, and all began to change. And as is the way with climatic changes, these happened in stages that were far from regular or tidy. Thus after some gradual warming over several thousand of years there was suddenly a reversion to a short sharp mini Ice Age that scientists call the Younger Dryas. This event is dated, not always as consistently as historians might expect from scientists, to sometime around the 10th and 9th millennia BC. Only after this final part of the last Ice Age did the earth gradually become as predominantly free of ice as we continue to be at present. And even then there was the occasional minor fluctuation, as occurred as recently as the 17th century, when it was relatively common for London's Thames to freeze over.

When the ice was at its full height, it has been estimated that the total volume of its coverage of the earth's surface comprised some 70 million cubic kilometres. That is, nearly three times the 25 million cubic kilometre volume that exists at the present day, mostly in the Arctic and Antarctica. And obvious though it may sound, when ice melts it turns to water. So glaciers became rivers which fed into the oceans. And since all the world's oceans are linked to each other, the huge influx of extra water increased the overall volume of the seas relative to the land. All around the world the sea-levels must have risen significantly, bringing with them a drowning of huge areas of what had formerly been dry land.

To put this in perspective, it has been calculated that if some uncontrolled global warming were to happen in our own time and as a result of this the last 25 million cubic kilometres of remaining ice were all to melt, the present-day world sea-level would be raised by about 65 metres (210 feet). The inevitable result of this would be that most of the world's major cities, such as London, Paris, New York, Washington, Tokyo and Sydney, would be almost entirely inundated, together with the great bulk of the low-lying areas of the continents, where most of their populations live. Only a few rare exceptions such as Mexico City, at an elevation of 2,260 metres(7,415 feet) would stand clear of the flood-waters. The scale of such a catastrophe is so unimaginable that not the least of its effects would be the instant ruin of every insurance company world-wide.

Spare a thought, therefore, for our ancestors. Living only three or four hundred generations removed from us, they were around at the time when, as already estimated, nearly twice the amount of ice that is in our world at the present time was in the process of melting. The picture of sea-level rise that we have so far painted is but the broadest one, based on scientists' best calculations of recent decades. So it is important that we have at least some understanding of how scientists can have such confidence in its actuality, and how they are able to gauge roughly when the main surges would have occurred.

One of the great pioneers in this field was oceanographer the late Professor Cesare Emiliani, founder of the University of Miami's Marine and Atmospheric Science Faculty. Helping him obtain the necessary backing for this venture was the fact that the state of Florida, as the second most low-lying on the US mainland, has a particularly vested interest in promoting research into sea-level rise. For Emiliani a key principle to be pursued was that melted ice added to the ocean must mean the addition of fresh water to salt water. The effects of this, in unusually large volumes, are then bound to show up in marine micro-organisms.

Accordingly in 1971 Emiliani and his colleagues made a series of 11 core drillings deep into the seabed off Florida's West Coast. They arranged for radio-carbon dating to be carried out on the organic content of different levels of the cores obtained, thereby enabling them to be put into chronological sequence. They then selected certain micro- organisms amongst the cores which they knew to have special sensitivity to salinity, or the lack of it, and subjected these to isotopic analysis, a field in which Emiliani was specialist. This revealed that those microorganisms that had lived (according to the current carbon-dating calculations), around the 9600 BC period had been in sea-water that had been significantly less saline than the previous sea-water salinity levels. The clear implications were that a particularly large surge of fresh meltwater had cascaded into the oceans around this time.

Researchers in more recent years have developed further from Emiliani's findings. Thanks to improved radio-carbon dating accuracy, they have somewhat lowered the date he estimated for the sharp surge, without in any way undermining the fact that overall a huge melt occurred in the wake of the Ice Age. One of these researchers has been Rick Fairbanks of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in the environs of New York. In 1988 he obtained temporary usage of the US Naval Under Sea Command survey ship Ranger to drill for cores of young coral (that is, less than 20,000 years old), in the seabed of shallow waters just off the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.

The coral that Fairbanks concentrated on, the common Elk Horn variety Acropara palmatta, is one that lives in water only a metre or so deep. Drilling into the seabed, he found ancient samples of the same coral, which he then dated, and from this was able to gauge the level of the sea at that particular date when the coral was being formed. To carry out the datings Fairbanks used both radio-carbon dating and a new technique, Thermal Ionization Mass Spectrometry, for which he had the assistance of a young French specialist Edouard Bard. From their researches and similar ones by other scientists, the current prevailing consensus is that between 14,000 and 5000 BC the world's sea-levels rose by no less than 120 to 130 metres (around 400 feet). That would be more than enough to drown two Nelson's columns set one atop the other, St Paul's Cathedral, London, St Peter's, Rome, to the top of its dome, and the entire Statue of Liberty.

Another way of expressing this spectacular historical sea-level rise is via a graph, as shown overleaf [fig 2]. As can be seen, French scientist Jacques Labeyrie, who formulated this particular graph envisaged the rise as a steep but steady gradient between 15,000 and 5000 BC, then levelling off between 5000 BC and the present day. While this corresponds readily enough to the chronology broadly accepted among scientists, simple experience teaches us that nature's darker forces never conform to nice steady patterns. And as other scientific approaches have indicated, the true rise is likely to have been much less regular, most likely marked by major and potentially devastating surges at certain points, with by far the greatest proportion of these occurring during the 8000 BC–5000 BCperiod, a time when many human populations around the world were in the process of changing their lifestyles from nomadic wandering to creating more permanent settlements for crop-growing and cattle-raising.

Overall we can be sure that there were a whole series of major coastline changes during the immediate post Ice Age period, even though scientists remain vague about providing the detail of exactly how and when these occurred individually. Thus we know that sometime during the 8000–5000 BC period the sea must have burst through what had previously been a continuous landmass between Siberia and Alaska, thereby creating the Bering Strait. We know that sometime during these same millennia the sea must have flooded inland for several dozen kilometres all along North, Central and South America's western and eastern coastlines. We know that sometime before 5000 BC there was a major inrush of the sea, which caused the British Isles to break away from the main European continental landmass, in its turn fragmenting to form Ireland, the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and other offshore islands.

We can be sure that sometime within roughly this same period there occurred a sea-level rise in the Mediterranean. This split Corsica and Sardinia apart, tore Sicily from Italy, flooded what had been dry land to the east of northern Italy, reduced many Greek islands in size, and burst the former land-bridge in the Bosporus region, thereby joining the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. Sometime within this same time-frame the sea rose above Australasia's Sunda Shelf, creating the Indonesian islands. It flooded the Sahul Shelf, separating New Guinea from Australia, and also created what has become Australia's Gulf of Carpentaria. Again sometime within the same period, action by the sea split northern Japan from the Asian mainland, and then proceeded to split that country like the British Isles, into several islands.

It has long been natural for human populations to settle on flat, low-lying land and to cluster along seashores. In my own adoptive Australia, for example, over 90 per cent of the population lives within just a few kilometres of the sea. So it stands to reason that when the above-mentioned breakthroughs of the sea occurred, quite possibly suddenly and unexpectedly, they were accompanied by serious localised catastrophes as people were unable to escape the waters in time. Although by the very nature of these events, any remains of human occupation would have been swept away long ago, this is not to say that they never existed or that the floodings never happened. As the oceanographer Emiliani expressed it:

The concomitant, accelerated rise in sea level, of the order of decimetres a year, must have caused widespread flooding of low-lying areas, many of which were inhabited by man.

Equally it stands to reason that these events must have been responsible for at least some of the Flood stories that are commonplace in the folk memories of so many peoples around the world. Again Emiliani, for one, had absolutely no doubt of this, despite his words causing some eyebrow-raising among his scientific colleagues:

We submit that this event, in spite of its great antiquity in cultural terms, could be an explanation for the deluge stories common to many Eurasian, Australasian and American traditions.

In fact there can be little justification for scepticism on this point, as clusters of the stories occur precisely where, from completely independent geological evidence, we know there to have been large areas of land that were drowned due to the sea-level rise.


Excerpted from Before The Flood by Ian Wilson. Copyright © 2001 Ian Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ian Wilson studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, and is the author of many books, including the best-selling The Blood and the Shroud, Holy Faces, The Columbus Myth, and Shakespeare: The Evidence. He lives with his wife in Australia.

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