The Great Flood: More Than a Myth?

By: Maria Trimarchi  | 
Most cultures have their own variation on the flood myth—from Noah's Ark, to Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Hindu story of Manu. JoeLena / Getty Images

In every corner of the world, from dusty ancient scrolls to modern-day religious texts, whispers of a cataclysmic flood persist. These tales recount a deluge so overpowering it wiped out societies, leaving only a fortunate few to carry on. The Great Flood looms large in the human narrative, but is it merely the stuff of legend, or could it be a historical fact?

Strap in, because we're about to embark on a quest through time, folklore, and science to uncover the truths and mysteries behind one of humanity's most enduring and captivating stories: Was the Great Flood real or just an amalgam of worldwide myths?


The Great Flood Myth: A Tale Told Around the World

You might have grown up hearing about Noah and the Biblical flood story, but that's just one chapter in a global anthology of other flood stories.

Epic of Gilgamesh

In the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Ea warns a man named Utnapishtim about a forthcoming massive flood meant to wipe out humanity. Utnapishtim builds a large boat to save his family and a menagerie of animals. After enduring seven days of tempest, his ship lands on Mount Nisir.


The Hindu Tale of Manu

In Hindu tradition, Manu, the first human, saves himself and the sacred scriptures by building a boat when warned of an impending flood. A fish, believed to be the god Vishnu in disguise, guides the boat to safety.

Deucalion in Greek Mythology

The Greek version centers on Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha. Forewarned by his father Prometheus, Deucalion builds an ark to survive a flood intended to punish humanity.

After nine days, the waters recede, and they repopulate the Earth by throwing "the bones of their mother" (stones) over their shoulders, which transform into people.

A Global Phenomenon?

So, with this panoply of narratives, what do the numbers say? Creationist author James Perloff analyzed over 200 flood myths and found that 95 percent mention a global flood. In 70 percent, a boat serves as the sanctuary, and in over half, the survivors end up on a mountain [source: Apologetics Press].

Could all of these stories possibly be pointing to an actual, historical event?

One of the most famous flood myths is the Biblical story of Noah's Ark.
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

While flood myths might make for great storytelling, where does science stand on the possibility of a massive, earth-shattering flood?

The Black Sea Revelation

Columbia University geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman stirred the scientific waters with their groundbreaking theory in the late '90s. They posited that at the end of the last Ice Age, the Black Sea, once a freshwater lake, became the basin for a catastrophic flood caused by an overflowing Mediterranean Sea with a force 200 times greater than that of Niagara Falls [source: National Geographic].

National Geographic Society explorer Robert Ballard, inspired by Ryan and Pitman's hypothesis, has discovered supporting physical evidence of such a flood, including an underwater river valley and ancient shoreline as well as Stone Age structures and tools beneath the Black Sea. His team has also unearthed fossils of now-extinct freshwater species dating back some 7,460 to 15,500 years.

The Comet Theory

Bruce Masse, an environmental archaeologist, offers a different, more cosmic, take. According to his hypothesis, a 3-mile-wide comet crashed into Earth around 5,000 years ago, causing not just flood waters, but also widespread devastation, 600-foot (182.8-meter) high tsunamis and storms.

Making matters worse, Masse's theory says that a week of darkness followed, caused by material expelled into the atmosphere.

Masse's theory derives from clues in cultural flood myths, including ancient petroglyphs, drawings and historical records, but it's the physical evidence he's after to make the case. Since Masse presented his idea in 2004, he's found support in the geological community.

A 600-foot high tsunami would surely leave behind a geological calling card — and that it did. Such a significant impact generates waves, which create wedge-shaped configurations in the sand, known as chevrons.

When the Holocene Impact Working Group went looking for these waves with satellite imagery, they were able to locate such formations in Africa and Asia. Carbon dating fossils found in the chevrons will help determine if they fit within the proposed 5,000-year timeline.

Flood plains like this one help avoid a deluge, but development removes many of nature's protective barriers.
Norbert Rosing/National Geographic/Getty Images


The Future of Flooding: Are We at Risk?

It's not just about uncovering the past. The future holds its own flood risks due to climate change, rising sea levels, and burgeoning populations. The tales of yesteryears may serve as a warning for what could happen once again.

While we get closer to figuring out if a great, global flood happened, we also face future massive flooding. Catastrophic floods threaten one billion people today and this number will rise to more than two billion by 2050 [source: United Nations]. The combination of climate change, deforestation, rising sea levels and population growth threatens us with mounting risks for flooding.


This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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More Great Links

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  • Krause, Lisa. "Ballard Finds Traces of Ancient Habitation Beneath Black Sea." National Geographic. 2000.
  • Lyons, Eric. "Legends of the Flood." Apologetics Press. 2003.
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