This article was first published in the November 2007 ABR Electronic Newsletter.
The November/December 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review included a review of a recent book that theorizes that the Genesis flood story is based on a real event. "The Black Sea Flood - Changes in Coastline, Climate and Human Settlement" is a compilation of essays by numerous authors who marshal evidence to demonstrate the possibility that the Black Sea (just north of Mesopotamia, where most of early Genesis takes place) experienced a massive, catastrophic event that caused much of the Near East to suffer a flood so gargantuan that the peoples of the region believed it to be worldwide.
A.J. van Loon, a geologist with Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, reviewed the book and agreed with its premise. He stated that the Genesis account and the Sumerian flood story (the Epic of Gilgamesh), were born of this event, further asserting that numerous Native American flood stories were inspired by "a devastating tsunami that destroyed the northwest Pacific coast on January 28, 1700" (Van Loon 2007: 74).
The flaw in this reasoning is that remarkably similar flood stories can be found all over the world, not just in Mesopotamia and the Pacific Northwest. The Montagnais Indians of Canada, for example, believed that when God became angry with the giants, He commanded a man to build a large canoe, and then flooded the world. The lone survivor sent out an otter, which came back with a clod of earth from which the man created a new world (Hitching 1978: 165). The Creek Indians believed that a dog warned the Flood hero of the impending disaster and told him to build a raft in preparation (Cavendish 1985: 995). The Algonquian Indians have various versions of the flood story, involving the help of either a raven, a muskrat, an otter, a lynx, a wolf, or a Great Hare (Alexander 1916: 43-43).
In Central America, the Mayan "Popol Vuh" states that the gods, unhappy with a race of wooden beings they had made, sent a heavy, resinous rain to flood the earth (Alexander 1920: 163-4). The Papagos Indians of northern Mexico believed in a sunny, fertile Golden Age that was ended by a terrible deluge that destroyed all life except for the hero Montezuma and a coyote that had warned him of the coming flood. They built boats to survive the Flood, and afterwards helped the Great Spirit restock the world with people and animals (Hitching 1978: 165). According to the Aztecs, "All mankind was lost and drowned, and found themselves changed to fish. In a single day all was lost." Only Nata and his wife Nana were saved, having been warned by the god Titlacahuan to make a boat from a cypress tree (Hitching 1978: 165).
According to the natives of pre-Columbian Haiti, a man called Yaya killed his son Yayael ("Earth") and put his body in the skin of a calabash. One day Yayael's bones turned into fish. Four men tried to steal the fish and eat them, but Yaya caught them in the act, and they dropped the calabash. It broke, and the contents flooded the world, forming the sea and its fish (Hitching 1978: 165).
In South America, the Pamary, Abedery, & Kataushy Indians of the Amazon Basin possess a legend which states: "Once the Sun and Moon turned red, yellow, and blue, a rumbling was heard above and below the ground and wild beasts mingled freely with men. A month later there was a roar and the Earth was plunged into darkness and a downpour of heavy rain. The waters rose and destroyed everybody except for Uassu and his wife, whose descendants repopulated the world" (Hitching 1978: 165). The Aurucanian Indians of Chile believed there was a flood that very few people survived. They did so by taking refuge atop a mountain called Thegtheg. The Tupi Indians of Brazil believed the god Monan created the first race of humans and later destroyed the world by flood and fire (LaRousse 1984: 445).
The Efe Pygmies of Africa recount this story: "A long time ago men fought a terrible war. Efe escaped by climbing a tree which had a big hole in the trunk. He hid in the hole while the battle raged on earth and in heaven. Then our chameleon man, our angel and savior, came with his axe and cut the trunk of the tree. The flood gushed out of the trunk, turned into a mighty river and went all over the world. Efe came out with the flood but the water did not wet him. Efe thought he would be lonely, since he was the last man on earth. Then he met a beautiful woman...All men are their children" (Hitching 1978: 165).
In India, the Hindus believe that the prophet Manu came across a tiny fish in his washing-water that announced that it would save him from a "purification of the worlds" about to occur. Manu reared the fish until it was fully grown. He then released it into the sacred Ganges River, and the fish rewarded him by instructing him to prepare a ship and supplies. When the Flood came, everyone was destroyed except Manu and seven wise men he had taken with him. For many years the fish guided their boat until they reached a mountaintop. There the fish revealed itself as Prajapati Brahman, the supreme God, who helped Manu recreate all living things (Hitching 1978: 165).
The Chingpaws of southeast Asia tell this story: "There was once a great deluge from which only two people were saved - Pawpaw Nan-choung and his sister Chang-hko. They escaped in a large boat with nine cocks and nine needles, which they daily threw into the water to see if they were subsiding. On the ninth day the last cock crew and the last needle was heard to strike a rock. They took refuge in a cave with two elves, and Chang-hko eventually bore a child" (Hitching 1978: 165).
In one tale from the South Pacific, the god Tawhaki stamped his foot on heaven's floor, which cracked it open, causing it to flood the earth. Another version says that Tawhaki, in an act of vengeance, called upon the rest of the gods to flood the whole earth, except for him and a friend, who took refuge on a mountain top (Dixon 1916: 38-39).
The Maoris of New Zealand believe: "Mankind once became so disrespectful of the great god Tane who had created them that there were only two prophets left who preached the truth. Insulted by men, they built a house on a large raft, stocked it with food and dogs, and brought down heavy rains by incantations to demonstrate the power of Tane. The waters rose and the prophets embarked with a few others. After six months the Flood began to subside and they settled on dry land, to discover that the whole world and its inhabitants had been destroyed" (Hitching 1978: 165).
The Lake Tyers Aborigines of Australia possess a Flood story in which all the waters of the world were swallowed by a gigantic frog, depriving all other animals of drink. Trying to make the frog laugh so it would disgorge the waters, a comically contorting eel made the frog laugh so hard that he belched forth the waters and flooded the whole world. The human race would have been completely eradicated if the pelican had not gone about in his canoe, picking up survivors (Hitching 1978: 165).
Space does not permit us to even touch upon the entire range or tribes and civilizations that possess remarkably similar flood legends. In the Arctic, flood legends are held by Greenland Eskimos, Norton Sound Eskimos, and the Tlingit Indians. Included among the Flood-believing Indians of North America are the Kashka, Tshimshian, Spokana, Nez Perce, Cayuse, Iroquois, and Natchez. Among the Indians of the Mesoamerica/Caribbean region the Luise'o, Pima, Tarahumare, Huichol, Cora, Nicaraguan, Tamananque, and Arawak all possess worldwide Flood legends. Flood-believing Indians of South America include the Jivaro, the Chiriguano, and the Caingang (Hitching 1978: 165).
In Asia, the Singhpos, Lushais, Anals, Ami, Tibetans, Lepchas, Bhils, Hos, Kamars, Lolos, Bahnars, and Benua-Jakun all possess universal Flood stories. In the East Indies/Australia region the Ot-Damons, Toradias, Alfoors, Nages, Atas, Valmans, Fijians, and Kurnai Aborigines all believe in the occurrence of an ancient, worldwide deluge. In pre-Christian Europe, flood-believers included the Welsh, Lithuanians, Greeks, Romans, and the Voguls of northeastern Russia (Hitching 1978: 165).
The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that when Zeus became angry with sinful man he sent a Great Flood consisting of torrential rain and an overflow of the earth's oceans (Hamilton 1942: 74). Another ancient European people, the Norsemen, record the following legend in the epic poem of Iceland, The Younger Norse Edda: "Odin, Wili and We, sons of Bor, slew the giant Ymir, father of the ice-giants. So much blood flowed from Ymir's wounds that all the race of giants were drowned, except for Bergelmir, who saved himself and his wife in a boat and fathered a new race of giants" (Hitching 1978: 165).
The existence of highly similar flood stories from all over the world seriously weakens the arguments of Van Loon and the others. Large, regional floods did indeed happen in the past, and there is no reason such colossal events would not have given rise to flood legends, but the sheer number of stories from all over the globe, in addition to similar details in them (a mountaintop, a boat, attendant animals), argues for a different interpretation. At some point in the distant past, the entire world must have suffered a devastating Flood.
Alexander, Hartley B., The Mythology of All Races, Vol. X, North American (Louis Herbert Gray, ed.; Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1916).
Alexander, Hartley B., The Mythology of All Races, Vol. XI, Latin-American (Louis Herbert Gray, ed.; Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1920).
Cavendish, Richard, Editor-in-Chief, Man, Myth & Magic, Vol. 4, Reference Edition (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1985).
Dixon, Roland B., The Mythology of All Races, Vol. IX, Oceanic (Louis Herbert Gray, ed.; Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1916).
Hamilton, Edith, Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1942).
Hitching, Francis, The Mysterious World: An Atlas of the Unexplained (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1978).
The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, 1984).
Van Loon, A.J., Review of The Black Sea Flood Question - Changes in Coastline, Climate and Human Settlement (V. Yanko-Hombach et al., ed; The Netherlands: Springer, 2007).
Editorial Note: Stephen Caesar holds his master's degree in anthropology & archaeology from Harvard. He is a staff member of the Associates for Biblical Research.