Everybody has a flood story. And it's probably true. Well, that's a slight exaggeration, but people who live near water all over the world turn out to have flood legends. And geological inquiry tends to show that these "legends" are based on historical fact. In his new book, The Rocks Don't Lie: A geologist investigates Noah's Flood (W.W, Norton & Company; hardcover $26.95), University of Washington geologist David Montgomery touches on ancient flood legends in many places: Tibet, the Pacific islands, the ancient Middle East, the Pacific Northwest. And he describes the ancient deluges on which many are based.
"To me, that [factual basis for tales that virtually everyone considered fables] was one of the real eye openers," Montgomery told me recently. "I was pretty astounded to find that when you start reading" those stories and looking at the underlying geology, "some of them start to make more sense rather than less."
Of course, people tell stories of events that took place hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It seems unlikely that the details have been passed down accurately for that long. But unlikely or not, it seems to be true. "How long could stories of a great flood survive oral transmission from one generation to the next?" he writes. "Examples of stories that have been passed down through oral transmission for thousands of years have been reported from several continents. My favorite is a Klamath Indian story, recorded in 1865. It provides a compelling eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Mazama, which formed Oregon's Crater Lake more than 7,600 years ago."
As both oral and ancient written histories reflected, there were floods — plus, in the South Pacific and along the Northwest Coast, tsunamis — all over the place. But none shaped the whole world overnight — or even over 40 days and nights.
Not all of these historical deluges were classic floods caused by swollen rivers. "The stories around the Pacific Rim all sound a lot like tsunamis," Montgomery explained. "The flood stories in the Northwest [seem] rooted in the 1700 tsunami — or earlier tsunamis for some of the thunderbird and whale stories." (In whale stories, great floods happened when the earth shook.)
In the inland Northwest (and other inland areas), the stories and the floods had different origins. Dry Falls, the Grand Coulee, and the Channeled Scablands were all gouged out by the great floods unleashed over 2600 years from Lake Missoula, every time an ice dam gave way. A geologist named J. Harlan Bretz first recognized this pattern back in the 1920s, but it took decades for the geological community to accept his theory.
Geologists had been so accustomed to rejecting the idea that the earth's surface had been shaped by a single great biblical flood, Montgomery concludes, that they couldn't recognize the geological evidence of a region shaped by great non-biblical floods. It's not a new story, but Montgomery tells it well, and puts it into a much broader-than-usual context.
"It's really hard to believe something you've been taught is not true," Montgomery said. "[It's] just as hard for scientists as it is for people with religious conviction." However, "the beautiful thing about science . . . is that even if one scientist has trouble giving up a preconceived notion, [his] colleagues will do it for [him.]"
The tide of scientific opinion turned in Bretz's favor in 1940 at the Seattle meeting of the American Association for the advancement of Science, and reached its peak in 1979 when, at the age of 97, Bretz received the Geological Society of America's highest honor. "In hindsight," Montgomery writes, on that occasion, Bretz "described his work as a struggle against the dominance of uniformitarian thinking [i.e., the idea that the earth's surface had been shaped by the steady working of erosion and other natural processes operating over geologic time, rather than by a single cataclysmic event in the relatively recent past] that prejudiced his colleagues against the idea of a great flood:"
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