Scientists are seriously challenging a fascinating proposal that Noah's epic story -- setting sail with an ark jam-full of animal couples -- was based on an actual catastrophic flood that suddenly filled the Black Sea 7,500 years ago, forcing people to flee.
In a detailed new look at the rocks, sediment, currents and seashells in and around the Black Sea, an international research team pooh-poohs the Noah flood idea, arguing that all the geologic, hydrologic and biologic signs are wrong. Little that the earth can tell us seems to fit the Noah story, they say.
The new research takes direct aim at the work of two Columbia University geologists -- William Ryan and Walter Pitman -- whose proposal in 1997 ignited much new interest, and much new research, into Middle East history and geology.
According to Ryan and Pitman, their strong evidence shows that sudden flooding of the Black Sea did occur, and they think it was such a traumatic event that it became part of the folklore of ancient peoples of the Middle East, showing up vividly in the Bible.
Ryan and Pitman's bold proposal, first published in a marine geology journal, holds that the gradual rise of sea level at the end of the last Ice Age eventually overtopped and washed out a fragile natural barrier across what is now the Bosporus Strait. And once the barrier fell, it set off a catastrophe for settlers living in a huge basin to the northeast.
As the fragile barrier across the Bosporus collapsed, Ryan and Pitman proposed, a massive amount of seawater surged from the Mediterranean into what was then a stagnant, low-lying basin, the huge region now filled by the Black Sea. According to their scenario, the surge of seawater continued for about two years, until the major inland sea reached its present size.
Before the flood, Ryan and Pitman calculated, the basin contained a large soggy marsh sitting about 500 feet lower than the sea, which was held back by the barrier at the Bosporus. Once the barrier was breached, they estimated, some 10 cubic miles of seawater poured through the gap every day.
That, certainly, would have been a memorable event for people living around the basin. They would have seen the water rising inexorably, pushing them farther and farther up-slope, driving them away from their homes and fields. But whether it actually happened, and whether it matches what the ancient writings report, are questions that are open to serious debate.
Now an international team led by Ali Aksu argues there was no Black Sea flood at that time, and little else to support Noah's story. Instead, they see evidence that 7,500 years ago the Black Sea was already full, that it wasn't very salty, and more water was running out of the Black Sea than was pouring in through the Bosporus. As it does today, they said, the narrow strait carried a two-way flow 7,500 years ago, with salty water going in via the bottom, and less-salty water coming out on the surface. So, no flood.
This narrow strait, the Bosporus, is important both geologically and historically. It is a thin channel that separates the two major land masses, Europe and Asia. It has been a historic crossroads for millennia, a place where East meets West, in what is now Turkey. At the Bosporus' northeastern end is the Black Sea, and at the other end is the Sea of Marmara, linked to the Mediterranean, and thus to all the world's oceans.
What Aksu and his co-workers argue is that for the past 12,000 years brackish water has been steadily streaming out of the big inland sea and into the Mediterranean. Their studies of deltas, sea-floor sediment cores and the remains of marine life at the southern end of the Bosporus show no evidence of a Noah-type flood.
This detailed study of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara region was undertaken by Aksu and Richard Hiscott at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada; Peta Mudie and Andre Rochon of the Geological Survey of Canada; Michael Kaminski at University College in London; Teofilo Abrajano at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.; and Dogan Yasar at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.
Their new look into the region's history was undertaken in response to the controversial proposal by Ryan and Pitman, at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in Palisades, N.Y. Ryan and Pitman announced their intriguing evidence in 1997, boldly suggesting that old flood stories in the Bible and other ancient texts speak of a true flood, an event of gigantic proportions.
Despite the new evidence gathered by Aksu's team, Ryan and Pitman aren't retreating. Ryan pointed out in an interview that Aksu's team did most of its work outside the Black Sea, mapping the flow of water, the buildup of sediments and other evidence beyond the southern end of the Bosporus.
"Their paper is strongly model-driven," Ryan said, using a "concept of how water masses work. But our work is with directly sampled and directly dated Black Sea sediments."
Also, Ryan said, "I will concede to them that there was an outflow" from the Black Sea "from 11,000 to 10,000 years ago. But we see after that another drawdown, the Black Sea going back down" in time to allow the huge flood that is part of the Noah story.
Ryan also said Aksu's conclusion that certain shores and deltas in the Black Sea are older than the Noah story suggests "is a little gutsy, because we do have the direct observations" with accurate dating.
Aksu and his international research team politely disagree. "Many of our observations are entirely incompatible with a late catastrophic flooding of the Black Sea," they announced in the journal of the Geological Society of America.
They even claim to have enough new data "to discard this hypothesis" about a flood.
While the flood explanation proposed by Ryan and Pitman was admittedly speculative, it found a ready audience. They soon wrote a popular book, "Noah's Flood," published in 1999, explaining the idea and the depth of their research.
Several expeditions into the Black Sea have been mounted in hopes that signs of old settlements might be found on ancient shorelines that are now submerged. Some remnants of ancient dwellings have actually been found under the Black Sea's waters. Such clues indicate that the Black Sea's water level has changed, although they don't prove the flood hypothesis.
Several of the recent Black Sea expeditions were conducted by explorer Robert Ballard, discoverer of the sunken Titanic in 1985. His team reported finding some spectacular underwater archeological sites, including several sunken ships that may date from Roman times, as well as a few remains from small buildings in areas that are now submerged off the Turkish shore. These signs of structures fired the imagination, and the interest in further exploration has intensified.
Ballard's main interest, however, is the discovery of old shipwrecks. He surmised that some of the vessels that plied waters of the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, must have sunk, and many of them should be in water that is so deep that the wrecks haven't been touched. That has turned out to be true.
Ballard, attending a recent deep-sea archeology meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the challenge to the Noah idea from Aksu's team should ignite a good fuss.
"It's going to be interesting to see people attack that" new report, which argues there was no massive flood. In any case, Ballard added, Aksu's new results don't mean it's not worthwhile to study the Black Sea. The ancient shipwrecks already found are so well-preserved that they make research and study efforts very tempting and exciting.
The shipwrecks are so well-preserved, scientists said, because water near the Black Sea's bottom is very low in oxygen. This means that many materials aboard the ships do not rot and disintegrate as rapidly as they would in other conditions.
For example, at the recent meeting at MIT, archeologist Cheryl Ward from Florida State University reported on four old vessels that were recently found on the bottom of the Black Sea. One is in such pristine condition that its mast still stands upright.