January 07, 2012

Diving Into Noah's Flood

A new National Geographic documentary featuring Jeffrey Rose and the Gulf Oasis hypothesis. I wish that Noah would be left out of it -he was also featured in a recent talk about the flooding of the Black Sea- but I understand how invoking a well-known biblical figure is not bad for publicity, and if it's the hook that will get people to watch a program about cutting-edge archaeology, why should we complain?

I wasn't able to find a full page on the documentary, but here's a description from NatGeo:
Diving into Noah's Flood
Archaeologist Jeff Rose embarks on a journey to understand how the destructive forces of water might have inspired the biblical story of Noahs Ark and the great flood. Dr. Rose believes that a massive flood once swallowed a landmass as big as Great Britain, created the Persian Gulf and sent tribes of Neolithic people into constant retreat from the ever-rising waters.
You can probably find the program online if you missed its broadcast, or you can check National Geographic channel for airdates. I'll update this entry with any noteworthy information from the documentary.


UPDATE: In a sense, this is the antithesis of the Black Sea Flood theory as inspiration of the Gilgamesh Flood and later Biblical Flood story, in that it has people moving south-to-north, staying close to freshwater sources created by the river that once flowed in the Gulf, as the Indian Ocean rose and saltwater claimed land after land of the Gulf Oasis.

Another interesting lesson from the documentary is just how hard underwater archaeology actually is. In the earlier Black Sea talk (linked above), it was shown that thousands of years of sediments have covered most traces of any human habitation that may have existed along the pre-Flood coastline, dead organisms dropping to the sea floor like snow.

In the new NatGeo documentary it was shown how many false positives archaeologists have to contend with: things that look anomalous on the bottom of the sea often tend to be man-made, but not necessarily from the period in question; people have been dumping stuff on the sea for quite a long time.

The documentary also shows the precarious manner in which archaeologists have to work in Iraq, as the documentary host and his local contact visit various Ubaid and Sumerian sites, as well as pay a visit to the Marsh Arabs.

So, what's my opinion of the overall theory? The ideas of the Gulf Oasis theory seem plausible, and the idea that the earliest flood myth in Mesopotamia may have been related to the flooding of the Gulf seems much more plausible than the idea that it may have been related to the inundation of the Black Sea.

I am not so willing to believe, however, that people from the north played no role in the formation of the Ubaid and then the early Sumerian civilization. As I explain in the Womb of Nations, there are good arguments why most West Eurasians share relatively recent common ancestry from the northern tip of the Fertile Crescent. That does not preclude the absorption of Gulf Oasis denizens, indeed of a great number of them, depending on how close genetically they were with the proto-agriculturalists to begin with, but some substantial role must be maintained for the latter: the emergence of Ubaid/Sumerian culture cannot simply have been a local development.

Perhaps a case can be made that some of the languages of the Gulf were the descendants of the languages spoken in the Gulf Oasis. Sumerian and Elamite are the obvious candidates, although the two are not related to each other.

The advancement of the sea may have pushed Gulf Oasis denizens northward, eastward, and westward, into Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Iran, but the later gradual expansion of the land by fluvial depositions of sediments by the Tigris and Euphrates provided the added land and irrigation to motivate people to move southward. So, it is perhaps through a blending of cultures that the Proto-Sumerian civilization was born: a marsh-adapted southern element, and an agriculture-bearing northern element joining to exploit the harsh but profitable environment that was formed as a result of these two processes.


sykes.1 said...

An large fraction of our prehistory lies drowned on the coastal shelves. Might this lost knowledge change our views of human evolution?

Prostato said...

Ah my pet hypothesis... ;-) For a map of the sea level changes in the Persian gulf see http://rses.anu.edu.au/geodynamics/AnnRep/95/AR-Geod953.gif. Sea levels reached a maximum about 5000-6000 years ago when they were 4 m higher then present. ("World atlas of Holocene sea-level changes referring to Ridley and Seeley (1979)). Thus the Persian gulf reached Uruk and Ur at that time.

Grey said...

My thought is that expansion occurs when one group has a higher potential population density in a particular environment than its current occupiers.

If so the most common example would be marginal land where foraging has a low population density but farming would be no better. Farmers could expand into a region taking all the land suitable for farming and leaving the unsuitable land to foragers - possibily the vast majority by surface area - and yet still have a much higher total population because of much higher population density.

However a second rarer example might be terriotory where foraging supports very high population densities. In this case farmers could expand into suitable farming land on the edges of this zone and remain a minority in total numbers. This might create the conditions for the spread of farming through knowledge rather than displacement.

I wonder if the prime candidates for situations like this might be river deltas or similar - Nile delta, Baltic edge and maybe here also?

terryt said...

"So, it is perhaps through a blending of cultures that the Proto-Sumerian civilization was born: a marsh-adapted southern element, and an agriculture-bearing northern element joining to exploit the harsh but profitable environment that was formed as a result of these two processes".

I became convinced years ago that the greatest 'advances' in human well-being have occurred from the combination of two or more cultures and technologies. The Austronesians fit such a scenario. As does the development of Indo-Europeans. A case could be made that several ancient advances were also a product of such mixing: Levallois, hand-axe. Even perhaps the original evolution of the Homo genus from Australopithecus.