For years, a swath of land between two Middle Eastern rivers has been widely viewed as the "cradle of civilization," where early humans first developed agriculture, language, and later political and legal institutions.
But new archaeological finds from beneath the Black Sea hint that the Tigris and Euphrates may not have been the birthplace of civilization, or at least they may have had competition.
A team of researchers announced this week that they have found what appear to be stone tools, mud-and-wattle walls, and potsherds lying in 300 feet of water off northern Turkey. The discovery, the team says, indicates that humans lived along the shores of an ancient lake that was suddenly to become the Black Sea when vast continental glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age and sent a cataclysmic flood surging into the basin.
The event, which occurred some 7,500 years ago, would have been so traumatic that it may be the origin of flood stories, such as Noah and his ark in the Bible, that appear in the religious writings of early civilizations ranging from Sumerians and Babylonians to the Hebrews, Greeks, and Egyptians.
20,000 pots under the sea
The discovery "is going to lead to a quantum leap in our understanding of this area," says Fred Hiebert, an anthropologist with the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, during a teleconference from the research ship in the Black Sea. The inundation of the lake is "an important event that could have affected the spread of farming and language throughout Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East."
The notion that the Black Sea flood could have triggered diaspora was first posited by two marine geologists at the Lamont-Dorherty Geophysical Observatory at Columbia University in New York. Based on their research in the region, William Ryan and Walter Pitman III concluded that as glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age, water from a rising Mediterranean Sea breached a natural dam at the Bosporus, plunging at least 300 feet into the Black Sea basin. For up to a year, water thundered into the area, engulfing a vast fresh-water lake and some 60,000 square miles of land.
The event, the two say, would have forced farmers and foragers to flee the region quickly. Critical to the theory, however, was finding evidence that people had actually lived along the lake at the time of the flood. Because Black Sea waters are starved for oxygen needed by organisms to speed the decomposition of organic material, such as wood, hopes ran high that any artifacts found would include well-preserved organic material. It could then be sent for radiocarbon dating.
This summer's expedition, led by Robert Ballard of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn., and Dr. Hiebert, used sonar to search an undersea shelf off Sinop, Turkey. They found a 13-foot by 49-foot rectangle that appears to be the outline of a structure, hewn wood, what look like stone tools, and other evidence of human activity. The artifacts rest on the bottom. Retrieving and dating the material is the potential "silver bullet" that could make or break Dr. Ryan and Dr. Pitman's ideas, Dr. Ballard says.
This year's discoveries are part of a larger effort to map potential land and undersea sites in the Black Sea - a region closed for decades by Cold War tensions. Only in the past 10 years have scientists been allowed in for systematic study, says David Mindell, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as a chief scientist on earlier cruises with Ballard and Hiebert.
During a 1999 search, the team mapped the contours of the old shoreline, yielding the targets for this year's expedition. They also retrieved shells of fresh and saltwater creatures that, when dated, largely confirm the timing Ryan and Pitman set for the flood.
More discoveries may well come out of this year's cruise. Dr. Mindell, who is developing remote-sensing technologies that will be used next year, says "300 feet isn't deep to us. Who knows what else is out there?"
The researchers are trying to map potential targets at greater depths along the submerged coastal area. Their work could go on at least another 10 years.
The notion that this region could have been the source for the spread of farming, language, and other advancements in human development remains controversial. Even so, the Black Sea's geological history makes it a more likely candidate than early Mesopotamia, says Geoffrey Feiss, a geologist and dean of the college of arts and sciences at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Land around the old lake would have been much more fertile than soils in the arid Mideast. Moreover, a number of artifacts, language patterns, and ethnic relationships could be explained by a large-scale movement of people from the Black Sea area 5,000 years ago. "This is very preliminary," Ballard cautions. "You have to be careful about what you extrapolate from what we've found. Still, "This is an incredible find."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society