I’ve always had a strange fascination with ancient mythology. Maybe it’s my interest in story-telling, since ancient myths are the oldest stories we have as a species. But somehow it has always felt like more to me. Mythology was an ancient way of passing on stories, before historical accounts were ever kept. Most people tend to think that myths simply came from the imaginations of ancient people, but I like to think that most myths were a way to pass on the account of an actual important event. Of course stories get distorted, especially when hundreds of different people tell them over thousands of years, but they need to start somewhere, and it seems more likely to me that ancient people would consider actual historic events more important to pass on than made-up stories. The amount of time that human beings have been around before ever writing anything down vastly outweighs the span of time of our recorded history, so it’s fascinating to me to hear these stories and try to decipher if it holds some morsel of truth of an actual event in ancient history. There is an entire field of study dedicated to investigating similarities between myths of different cultures throughout the world, and there are some astounding correlations. It’s easy to understand how some stories may be passed from one culture to another, and due to constant migrations of ancient cultures, some stories may have simply gotten around through word of mouth. However there are a few myths from countless isolated cultures around the world that share so many similarities with each other, it’s hard to dismiss it as simply coincidence.
The most widespread and strikingly similar myth is what’s commonly referred to as the “Flood Myth.” Nearly every ancient culture has some sort of deluge story in their mythology. These stories don’t always involve flooding; in some the earth is consumed by fire, insects, and all other sorts of natural disasters. Yet the basic storyline is always the same. The earth becomes overpopulated, so the culture’s gods or deities decide to destroy it. Yet they choose one family or couple of humans to repopulate the planet once the deluge is over. Of course, there are several variations of what happens next, from building an ark and gathering two of every animal, to escaping in hollow reeds provided by a “Spider Mother.” Yet in the end, the hero survives (and amazingly almost always ends up on a mountain) and repopulates the planet with ‘righteous’ or at least more heavenly-aligned humans. The similarities and seeming universality of the myth has baffled mythologists and anthropologists for centuries. Most dismiss it as coincidence or claim that it got around by the good old means of word-of-mouth. But what if there was some sort of global event that caused all of these different cultures to pass the story on for tens of thousands of years? What sort of event could cause such a widespread cultural phenomenon at a time when there was no sort of global communications network?
First of all, let’s look at the history of the myth. The first account of a flood story is included in (coincidentally?) one of the first accounts of anything ever. The Sumerians were an ancient people that settled in modern day Iraq, which gets its name from the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk. The clay tablets found at their settlements are generally agreed to be the earliest written accounts, roughly dating to as far back as 2150 B.C.E. On one of these tablets, of which huge chunks are missing, there is written the Sumerian creation myth, which tells of a great flood and a single man, Ziusudra, who was saved by constructing a boat for himself. Two more Sumerian flood myths change the name to Atrahasis and Utnapishtim, but the story remains generally unchanged. It’s easy to see how a story written down by the first people to write anything down could be so old as to eventually make its way across the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. But how do we find similar stories in North and Central America, when the migration into North America is generally placed between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago? The way I see it, there are three possible explanations for this:
1. The story predates the migration into the Americas, and was preserved through oral tradition.
2. The stories coincidentally arose, independent of each other, across the globe, or…
3. There actually was some sort of global event that occurred, and was passed down by separate cultures over thousands of years.
The most common hypothesis, besides the coincidence one, is that at the end of the last ice age, roughly 10,000 years ago, the Earth went through intense climate change over a relatively short period of time. The polar ice caps and glaciers around the world were melting at a rapid rate, which caused water levels to rise, probably resulting in large floods in certain areas, or at least forcing people out of settlements that may have been too close to the shore. There have been several unaccounted for structures, even cities, found underwater along the continental shelf to support this theory. However, this does not account for the strikingly similar motifs in each story, such as the earth being overpopulated, the flood being caused deliberately by the gods to destroy humans, and one person being chosen to continue the human race. To me, the only plausible explanation is that all of the stories stem from one original account that predates the migration into the Americas. This explanation requires a great deal of justification. The story would have to have been known to a vast majority of humans on earth at the same time, and there must have been some reason to preserve it so carefully throughout the millennia. It seemed for a long time that this hypothesis would remain just a fantasy in my mind, with no way of ever being proven. However, new research into human genetics, along with a recently discovered archeological site and specific geological evidence, may give substance to my idea.
A new genetic study shows that at some point in our history, roughly 195,000 years ago, the number of breeding humans on the earth dwindled from 10,000 to about 600. Even with an estimated addition of non-breeding individuals, that would still make human beings endangered by today’s standards. So what caused this genetic “bottleneck” to occur? Together with geology and anthropology, we can paint a good picture of what was happening at the time. Anthropology tells us that at that time there were at least four different species of hominids on the earth, and geological evidence shows that at that time, the Earth was going through intense climate change. Accordingly, the landscape of certain areas was changing rapidly and drastically. Particularly, the middle of Africa went from being a tropical rainforest to a great plain to a desert and back again several times over a couple thousand year period. At around 200,000 years ago, the entire continent went through megadraughts, forcing our ancestors south to the coastline. The vast continental desert prevented us from moving out of that area until about 50,000 years ago. So for about 150,000 years, 30 times the span of time in our recorded history, we were geographically isolated. We spent that time evolving, concentrating our DNA, learning together, sharing information, perfecting our survival techniques, and sharing stories. And maybe just one of those stories was the story of how our particular species survived a natural disaster (a gradual one, but still) while the other “unrighteous people” (other hominids) were killed off. And maybe, as we spent the next 50,000 years spreading across the earth, beating out the weaker species, dominating our environments, we thought it was important to preserve the story of how we were saved by the “gods” in order to repopulate the planet with out “righteous” species.
It may be a stretch to equate this fantastic myth of destruction and miraculous salvation to a slow and gradual process of fine-tuning our species, but it may serve as validation to those who believe, like me, that our ancient history is preserved in our earliest stories, if we simply read them in the right light.