- CATASTROPHES: THE DILUVIAL EVIDENCE
by Trevor Palmer, Nottingham Trent University, UK
Paper presented at the SIS Silver Jubilee conference at Easthamstead
Park, 19 September 1999
Flood myths are found throughout the world. As late as the seventeenth
century, one particular flood myth, that involving Noah, was regarded
as the literal truth by almost everyone in Europe. In contrast, for
most of the twentieth century, very few scientists have been prepared
to even consider the possibility that floods or other catastrophes may
have occurred on a global scale. Now that we can examine the evidence
with greater objectivity, it is abundantly clear that, although the
continents have not been covered by water during the time that
humankind has lived on the Earth, there have nevertheless been some
large-scale catastrophic floods. Two periods of particular interest
from this point of view are the Pleistocene-Holocene transition and the
beginning of the Late Holocene. Many questions still remain unanswered
about the events at these times.
The Ancient World
According to the book of Genesis, God breathed life into Adam and Eve,
the first man and woman, on the sixth day of Creation. Just nine
generations later, corruption had become so widespread that God brought
about the Flood, when "the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred
and fifty days", and "all the high hills, that were under the whole
heaven, were covered." However, Noah, who was an exception to the
general rule of wickedness, had been warned about the coming deluge.
This enabled his family to build a large boat, the Ark, on which to
sail on the waters. Hence they survived the Flood, the only humans to
do so .
The story of Noah is just one of over 500 flood myths from around the
world, many of which similarly involve a man and a woman escaping by
boat. Amongst these is the one told in the Babylonian epic of
Gilgamesh, where the hero, Uta-Napishtim, was warned by Ea, God of the
Waters, about the coming deluge. Others include a Greek myth, where the
survivors were Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha .
As well as legends of a catastrophic flood, there are other widespread
myths where the Earth suffered near destruction by fire. An example is
one from Greece in which Phaeton took the Sun-chariot and drove it too
close to the Earth, scorching the surface, until Zeus cast a
thunderbolt and caused Phaeton to fall to his death. According to the
philosopher, Plato (c429-347 B.C.), the basis of the Phaeton myth was
one of a series of cosmic disturbances which caused periodic
catastrophes on Earth .
The origins of myth and legend are far from certain, and may not be the
same in every case. Hence, it remains possible that some stories may,
to a greater or lesser extent, have a factual basis. Indeed, from
locations described by Homer, archaeologists such as Heinrich
Schliemann and Wilhelm D�rpfeld have found extensive evidence of
pre-classical civilisations [4,5].
In most ancient traditions, catastrophes were associated with divine
displeasure. In Genesis, as we have seen, God caused Noah's Flood
because of the increasingly wicked behaviour of humankind. Similarly,
in Greek mythology, Zeus regularly killed people with thunderbolts, as
in the Phaeton myth, whilst Poseidon was inclined to cause great storms
or floods when annoyed [2,5].
Such floods had undoubtedly occurred. By the time of Aristotle (384-322
B.C.), the evidence of marine fossils in outcrops of rock made it clear
that at least part of what was now land had once been covered by sea.
In his Meteorologica, Aristotle wrote that there were periodic
transpositions of land and sea, but generally those occurred too slowly
and over too long a time interval for anyone to notice them happening.
Nevertheless, on rare occasions a great winter could occur, bringing
protracted heavy rainfall and causing devastating floods, such as that
of Deucalion [6,7].
Renaissance and Restoration Times
When Christianity was established in Europe, the Church exercised
almost complete control over academic thought for many centuries. At
this time, it would have been heretical to deny the testimony of the
Bible, that the Earth was only a few thousand years old, having been
created around 4004 B.C., and that there had been a single major
cataclysm, the Deluge in the time of Noah. In the early sixteenth
century it was still generally accepted that all marine fossils found
inland had been carried there by Noah's Flood, although Leonardo da
Vinci and others argued that this was impossible, in view of the
transient nature of the supposed event and the thickness of the fossil
beds. The land must have risen in places, changing the shoreline in
significant fashion, just as Aristotle had suggested .
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, various theories of
the formation and development of the Earth were put forward by men who
were known as cosmogonists. In 1669, the Danish naturalist, Nicolaus
Steno (1638-1686) produced a theory to explain the landscape of Tuscany
in which the Flood played a prominent but far from unique role. Other
features included the elevation of land in some locations because of
precipitation of sediments from the waters, and its lowering elsewhere
as a consequence of the collapse of caverns under the ground [7,8].
Later, several English cosmogonists put forward models which tried to
reconcile observations with the teachings of the Church. The system of
Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), dating from the 1680s, had some features in
common with that of Steno, but instead of relying on rain and
subsidence to cause the Flood, it suggested that the appearance of wide
cracks in the Earth's surface allowed water to be forced upwards from
underground stores. As was inevitable in the seventeenth century,
Burnet started with the assumption that the Biblical record was
essentially true, and then sought natural explanations for the events
described. He was not prepared to accept that the waters causing the
Flood had been created miraculously by God. However, they must have
come from somewhere, so the interior of the Earth seemed the most
likely possibility [7-9].
William Whiston (1666-1753) who succeeded Isaac Newton in the chair of
mathematics at Cambridge University, agreed partially with Burnet. He
thought that some of the waters of the Flood might have been released
from the interior of the Earth, but he considered that the major
proportion had fallen as rain derived from the vapours in the tail of a
passing comet. These ideas were presented in a book published in 1696.
Whiston was aware that comets moved about the Sun in elliptical orbits
of high eccentricity, because John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, had
made detailed observations of the comet of 1680. Also, Edmond Halley
had deduced that the comet of 1682 (which subsequently took his name)
had the same orbit as those of 1531 and 1607, and predicted, correctly
as it turned out, that it would return in 1758. He was less accurate in
his calculations of the periodicity of the 1680 comet, but these led
Whiston to believe that it could have made an earlier visit in 2342
B.C., around the time the Flood was thought to have occurred, on the
basis of internal evidence from the Bible [7,10].
Whiston was eventually dismissed from his post for, amongst other
reasons, indicating that global catastrophes, past and future, might be
caused by natural phenomena. Halley was similarly censured for
suggesting to the Royal Society of London in 1694 that the story of
Noah's flood might be an account of a cometary impact [11-13].
Meanwhile, on the continent of Europe, the German mathematician and
philosopher, Baron Gottfried von Leibniz (1646-1716), believed that the
Earth was formed by condensation of cosmic matter, so it would
initially have been very hot, and hence in a fluid-like state. He
proposed that, as it cooled, a crust formed which later cracked on
occasions to release flood water from within the Earth, each time
depositing a layer of sediment .
The French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
(1708-1788) suggested that the "days" of creation in Genesis were not
meant to be taken literally. It made more sense, he thought, to regard
them as periods of unspecified but great length. Buffon calculated that
if, as he personally supposed, the Earth had been formed by a collision
between the Sun and a comet, it could have cooled down sufficiently
within 35,000 years to allow condensation of atmospheric water vapour
to form a universal ocean. Further cooling over many thousands of years
caused cavities to appear in the Earth's surface, through which sea
water drained until it reached its present level. As volcanoes began to
erupt, the continents appeared and valleys were gouged out by ocean
Buffon's contemporary, Benoit de Maillet, believed that erosion of the
earliest mountains by the action of the ocean over a timescale of
millions of years was an important factor in producing sediment from
which new mountains could be made [7,12].
Theories that a universal ocean once contained in solution all the
material that later formed the Earth's crust were generally labelled as
"Neptunist". In contrast, the "Plutonist" theory of James Hutton
(1726-1797) maintained that some rocks, such as granite, were not
sedimentary, but had been produced by volcanic action. That view
eventually prevailed but, to start with, Neptunism was the more popular
theory. The most influential advocate of Neptunist views was Abraham
Gottlob Werner (1749-1817), a German geologist. In Werner's theory,
precipitation of dissolved material took place over long periods of
time, first forming primitive rocks such as granite, and then, as
erosion of these began to contribute to the process, deposits such as
limestones and slates. Later, when mechanical deposition became more
significant than chemical precipitation, came the laying down of chalk
and other fossil-rich rocks [9,14,15].
As field evidence accumulated, various British cosmogonists produced
theories which attempted to be consistent with the new findings, yet
retain a place for Noah's flood. By the end of the eighteenth century
it was clear that, even if the Flood had occurred, it could only have
been one of many factors responsible for the formation of features at
the Earth's surface .
In France, Buffon, remained the dominant figure right up to his death
in 1788. However, a new generation of naturalists was emerging, and
these sought a fresh approach to science. One of the chief critics of
Buffon's style was Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) [14,16].
Nineteenth Century Catastrophists
Although most pre-nineteenth century cosmogonists, including Buffon,
used rational methods, their arguments were often speculative and
philosophical. In contrast, one of Cuvier's guiding principles was to
avoid unwarranted speculation. After Buffon's death, Cuvier quickly
established a reputation as a gifted scientist, particularly in the
field of comparative anatomy. In 1812, he published the results of a
detailed investigation of the geology of the Paris basin, carried out
over many years in collaboration with the mining engineer and
mineralogist, Alexandre Brongniart. It seemed clear to Cuvier that
there had been several sudden advances and retreats of the sea.
Alternating layers of saltwater and freshwater deposits rested on a
thick bed of chalk, whilst overlying the stratified rocks in valley
bottoms was a layer of loose material which he termed "detrital silt".
The changes between successive periods of rock formation were linked to
major catastrophes (which Cuvier called r�volutions) for, on each
occasion, almost all the animals and plants then living were
annihilated. In the aftermath, new types emerged, according to the
evidence of the fossils found in the rocks. The scale was such that the
processes involved must have affected an area far greater than just the
Paris basin, perhaps even covering the whole world. As an indication of
the speed of action of the most recent of the r�volutions, if not the
others, Cuvier drew attention to the discovery of unputrified carcasses
of large extinct mammals such as mammoths, in frozen lands to the
north, reports of which had reached Paris in 1807. Later, in 1829,
L�once �lie de Beaumont (1798-1874) suggested a possible mechanism for
the r�volutions, arguing that even if the Earth was cooling slowly and
gradually as Buffon had proposed, and that the reduction in volume led
to mountain building, then this latter process was still likely to
occur in an episodic and catastrophic fashion, with upheavals of
submerged land [16-18].
Cuvier took great care to keep his science and religion separate. In
Britain during the same period, such an attitude would have been most
unusual, for many professional scientists were clergymen. Indeed, this
was still a requirement for obtaining a senior post at either Oxford or
Cambridge Universities. So, for example, at Cambridge, the Rev. Adam
Sedgwick was Professor of Geology, whilst at Oxford, the Rev. William
Buckland was Reader in the same subject. Buckland and Sedgwick were
keen to operate as true scientists, independent of the Church. However,
as a consequence of their background, they began with an assumption
that fieldwork would rapidly confirm the essential features of the
Genesis account [16,18,19].
Early in his career, Buckland interpreted a widespread layer of loam
and gravel, corresponding to Cuvier's "detrital silt", as the product
of the universal deluge in the time of Noah. He was concerned that the
immense depths of deposits beneath this layer suggested that the Earth
must be very old, with Creation taking far longer than the six days
mentioned in the Bible. Nevertheless, the evidence for the deluge
itself seemed clear enough. Fossils found in mud deposits in caves
throughout Europe must have been of animals trapped by the rising flood
water. During his inauguration as Reader in 1819, Buckland argued, "The
grand fact of a universal deluge at no very remote period is proved on
grounds so decisive and incontrovertible, that had we never heard of
such an event from Scripture or any other authority, Geology of itself
must have called in the assistance of some such catastrophe" [15,18,20].
The case was presented in detail in his Relics of the Flood, published
in 1823. Without question, this book avoided speculation, concentrating
instead on empirical evidence which seemed to show that a single, major
flood had taken place. At the time, Sedgwick supported Buckland's
views. However, it soon became apparent that the loam and gravel layer
was restricted to northern latitudes, so was not universal. Also,
further investigation showed that the fossils in the various caves did
not all come from the same period. Buckland announced in 1836 that he
no longer believed in a single, universal flood. Five years earlier,
Sedgwick had done the same during an address to the Geological Society
of London. Admitting that he and his colleagues had been led astray by
their expectation of finding evidence of Noah's flood, Sedgwick said,
"There is, I think, one great negative conclusion now incontestably
established - that the vast masses of diluvial gravel, scattered almost
over the surface of the earth, do not belong to one violent and
transitory period" [15,18,20]
However, although Buckland, Sedgwick and others came to reject the idea
of a single Flood, they continued to find the evidence strongly
suggestive of the involvement of cataclysmic forces. It was just that
these had acted on more than one occasion, just as Cuvier had
concluded. All the geologists were impressed by the large erratic
boulders (i.e. ones foreign to the region) found scattered over much of
Europe and North America, and by the loam and gravel deposits which lay
as a mantle in northern regions. In an attempt to explain the origin of
these features, theories of tidal waves were developed from the
"cooling Earth" scenario of �lie de Beaumont [15,18,20].
Nevertheless, only a few years later, catastrophic diluvialism was a
spent force. This was because Charles Lyell (1797-1875) established
what he termed the "uniformitarian" view that the only significant
processes bringing about changes to the Earth's surface were ordinary,
everyday ones, acting gently but persistently over very long periods of
time. Also, it became accepted, largely because of the work of Louis
Agassiz (1807-1873), a Swiss naturalist and catastrophist, who moved to
the United States in 1846, that the erratic boulders and drift deposits
had been carried by glaciers during an `Ice Age', not by tidal waves
The concept of Ice Ages became a part of the uniformitarian consensus,
on the assumption that the environmental changes associated with them
occurred in a gradual fashion. Lyell's uniformitarianism, which was
gradualism by another name, ruled without serious challenge for a
century or more [9,15,18].
Twentieth Century Catastrophists
Possible catastrophist scenarios, often speculative in nature,
continued to be put forward, to little effect. For example, Hugh
Auchincloss Brown (1879-1975), an engineer who graduated from Columbia
University, proposed in a private publication of 1948 that the tilt of
the Earth's axis could change in catastrophic fashion, the disturbances
being triggered by the weight of polar ice. Ten years later, Charles
Hapgood, a science historian from Keene State College, New Hampshire,
began to argue for a similar theory, in which only the crust moved, not
the whole Earth. However, these ideas, whether they were right or
wrong, made little impression on orthodox scientific thought [7,22].
Scenarios based on extraterrestrial impacts fared no better. That was
hardly surprising, given that the starting point in many cases was the
assumption that some myths and legends were based on catastrophes of
cosmic origin, which was not regarded as a serious possibility by
University-based academics. One of those who interpreted a myth as an
actual event was the Jesuit scholar, Franz Xavier Kugler (1862-1929).
Using several ancient sources, Kugler argued in 1927 that Phaeton was a
very bright object which had appeared in the sky several hundred years
before the founding of Rome, eventually falling to Earth as a shower of
large meteorites, causing catastrophic fires and floods, particularly
in Africa [11,23].
Another catastrophist of the period was the British journalist, Comyns
Beaumont, who argued in a 1932 book that comets were planets which had
been displaced from their natural orbits. According to Beaumont,
cometary heads tended to disintegrate, forming meteors, which usually
crashed into the Sun. Some, however, were intercepted by the Earth,
with catastrophic consequences. Beaumont saw the widespread loam and
gravel deposits of the northern latitudes as being evidence of an
impact, associating the event with the Phaeton myth and the floods of
both Noah and Deucalion. Since Orosius placed the Deucalion Flood 810
years before the founding of Rome, Beaumont estimated that the impact
had occurred around 1560 B.C. .
Moving forward two decades, we come to a rather better-known
catastrophist, Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979). In 1950, this
Russian-born psycho-analyst, then living in America, launched a
comprehensive assault on the uniformitarian consensus when he proposed
a highly-controversial scenario in his book, Worlds in Collision. On
the basis of ancient records and myths from around the world,
Velikovsky argued that the most recent of a series of global
catastrophes of extraterrestrial origin was initiated when Venus was
ejected from the core of Jupiter as a comet (i.e. as a body with a
substantial tail), and passed very close to the Earth around 1450 B.C.,
giving rise to the Phaeton myth, and causing catastrophic events such
as the plagues of Egypt and the flood of Deucalion .
As to catastrophes in earlier times, Velikovsky summarised his ideas
from an unpublished book in the journal, Kronos, in 1979, suggesting
that because myths often refer to a Golden Age associated with the
figure known in Roman mythology as Saturn, the Earth might originally
have been a satellite of the planet bearing that name. Events related
to its subsequent escape from Saturn's influence caused the flood of
Partly because of an attempt by some American academics to suppress
Velikovsky's writings, they stimulated considerable interest in the
subject of global catastrophes affecting the Earth. Also, many people,
particularly young ones, were enthused by Velikovsky's exortations not
to accept orthodox opinions as a matter of course. So, for example, in
an address given in 1953 to the graduate college forum of Princeton
University, and included as a supplement to his 1956 book, Earth in
Upheaval, Velikovsky repeatedly urged members of his audience to "dare"
to formulate their own views [23,27].
A variety of writers, including scientists and other mainstream
scholars, eventually made a serious effort to assess Velikovsky's work.
In 1973, Glasgow University archaeologist, Euan Mackie, wrote in New
Scientist that, regardless of whether Velikovsky's scenario seemed
plausible, he had formulated hypotheses which should be tested in the
normal way. In the following year, together with Harold Tresman, Brian
Moore and Martin Sieff, Mackie became a founding member of the Society
for Interdisciplinary Studies (SIS), an organisation designed to
provide a forum for this to happen [28,29].
Twenty five years further on, as the SIS celebrates its silver jubilee,
various aspects of catastrophism, although not Velikovsky's specific
theories, have become incorporated into mainstream science. However, at
the time the SIS was formed, the gradualist paradigm was supremely
dominant, as it had been throughout the previous hundred years, and any
attempts to suggest catastrophist mechanisms for events in geology or
evolution were viewed with great suspicion in orthodox academic circles
and generally ignored. Exactly the same applied to catastrophist
explanations for events in ancient history, particularly ones in the
Middle East. Rightly or wrongly, such arguments were generally seen as
moves to provide support for a literal interpretation of the Bible
When the British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley, excavated the
ancient Sumerian city of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, between 1928
and 1934, he found a 3 metre thick layer of alluvial silt on top of the
levels of the Ubaid Period (conventionally dated to around 4000 B.C.)
and beneath the first traces of the succeeding Uruk Period. To some,
including Woolley himself, this seemed like evidence for the flood of
Noah. However, no other sites were found to show similar alluvial
deposits during the Ubaid Period. On the other hand, at the nearby city
of Shuruppak (the modern Fara), there was evidence of a flood during
the Early Dynastic Period, around 2750 B.C., and an alluvial deposit
dating from around the same time was found at another Sumerian site,
the city of Kish. However, no serious investigation took place as to
whether there had been a widespread flood in Sumer during the Early
Dynastic Period, as this would have smacked of unfashionable "Biblical
Archaeology". Instead, it was often suggested that accounts of some
strictly localised events in the region, caused by the Tigris and/or
Euphrates bursting their banks, at different times and in different
places, might have been used mistakenly by later generations as the
basis for both the Uta-Napishtim and the Noah stories [30,31].
Moving forward to the present day, let us try to disregard the
prejudices of the past and ask the question: is there any geological
evidence for a world-wide flood? The answer is a categoric "No!", in
terms of all the continents being covered by water, as described in
Genesis. From the time animals began living on the land, the closest we
have been to that situation was probably during the Late Cretaceous
Period, when large parts of North America, Africa and Eurasia were
covered by shallow seas. That was the time when the chalk now familiar
to us from the cliffs and uplands of southern England and northern
France was formed from the shells of sea-creatures. The same chalk
rocks also underlie the entire Paris basin, as described by Cuvier.
However, the Late Cretaceous was over 65 million years ago, according
to generally accepted dates, long before human beings were on the scene
to formulate flood myths [32,33].
At the end of the Cretaceous Period, sea-levels fell markedly, draining
the shallow epicontinental seas. That was the time of the famous K-T
event, when a large asteroid or comet of around 10 kilometres in
diameter struck Mexico, a million cubic kilometres of lava poured out
over central India, and many species of animals, including all the
dinosaurs, became extinct. Apart from another wave of extinctions
during the Eocene-Oligocene transition around 35 million years ago,
when sea levels were again very low, it is generally thought that the
next major crisis was a series of Ice Ages which spanned the
Pleistocene Epoch, beginning around 2 million years ago and ending
around 11,500 years ago. This was the period which produced the loam
and gravel layer much investigated by nineteenth century
catastrophists, as we have already noted [18,33,34].
In the prevailing gradualist scenario, the advance and retreat of the
glaciers was thought, from ideas suggested by the Scottish "independent
thinker", James Croll, and developed by the Serbian physicist, Milutin
Milankovitch, to be related to a slow tumble of the Earth about its
axis of rotation [15,18].
In contrast, various writers have suggested that the impact of a large
asteroid could initiate or terminate an Ice Age, depending on the
An Ice Age could also be caused by a sustained period of smaller
impacts, together with atmospheric dusting, perhaps linked to the
disintegration of a giant comet, as in the hypothesis put forward by
the British astronomers, Victor Clube and Bill Napier. Clube and Napier
believe that Comet Encke, the asteroid Oljato and the Taurid meteors
are the remnants of a giant comet, and extrapolations backwards from
present orbits indicate that the break-up may have occurred about 9,500
years ago. However, the giant comet may have influenced the Earth for
thousands of years prior to this, causing an atmospheric dust-cloud
which had largely cleared by the time that Encke split from Oljato.
Indeed, ice core studies have indicated that there was a great deal of
dust deposited during the last 10,000 years of the Pleistocene.
Furthermore, this has the same chemical content as dust recovered from
peat moss in the Tunguska region, where another fragment of the same
cometary system may have struck in 1908. However, much more evidence
will need to be produced if the Clube/Napier explanation for Ice Ages
is to become established [13,18,39].
On the other hand, no rival theory can provide, in itself, a
satisfactory explanation. Even if the Milankovitch theory, favoured by
gradualists, could explain the fluctuations of the ice sheets during
the Pleistocene, it says nothing about why we must go back 250 million
years to the Permian Period to find the next most recent Ice Age.
Moreover, a recent detailed study of prehistoric climate changes at
Devil's Hole, Nevada, has shown that not even in the Pleistocene Epoch
does the Milankovitch theory provide a good explanation for the
sequence of events, at least at this particular location. A similar
problem applies to theories involving isolated extraterrestrial
impacts, since the best evidence for a major impact event is at the end
of the Cretaceous Period, 65 million years ago, when no Ice Age
Vulcanism is another factor which may have contributed to atmospheric
cooling in the Pleistocene, because it undoubtedly occurred in
extensive fashion at the time. Furthermore, it is generally accepted
that the Toba super-eruption in the East Indies took place close to the
onset of the most recent of the Pleistocene Ice Ages, the W�rm, 75,000
years ago. On the other hand, the extensive vulcanism of the Late
Cretaceous did not lead to an Ice Age. Plate tectonics seems to provide
at least a partial explanation for the Permian and the previous
(Ordovician) glaciation, for continents apparently drifted over the
poles at these (and only these) times during the Palaeozoic and
Mesozoic Eras. Land at or near a pole would have provided a platform
for snow to settle on, reducing temperatures by reflecting the Sun's
rays back into space. It would also have facilitated the spreading of
ice-sheets, for these form and spread more easily over land than over
sea. However, Antarctica moved into a position over the South Pole
during the Eocene Epoch, long before the start of the first Pleistocene
Ice Age, and it is still there today, after the termination of the last
of them [18,33,40].
Thus it seems likely that a proper explanation for Ice Ages must
involve the interplay of several factors from a list including asteroid
impacts, vulcanism, atmospheric dust, continental drift and
Milankovitch cycles. They were clearly complex events .
Moreover, regardless of the causes of Ice Ages, even the effects seem
much less straightforward than generally supposed. For example, the
glaciations of the northern hemisphere were not simply times when the
polar ice cap expanded in fairly regular fashion: Siberia and Alaska,
areas now noted for their long, cold, winters, remained largely
ice-free when much of northern Europe, Greenland and Canada was covered
by an ice sheet to a depth of 2-3 km. Also, as noted by Cuvier,
unputrefied carcasses of mammoths, dating from the Late Pleistocene,
have been found in Siberia, even in regions within the Arctic circle,
where no large wild animals live today. In those times, in contrast,
sufficient vegetation must have been available, at least during the
summer months, to provide sustenance for herds of grazing animals. When
the mammoths died, temperatures must have been falling rapidly, even
though the final Ice Age of the Pleistocene, and the epoch itself, was
drawing to a close. It is difficult to come up with an explanation
which is entirely satisfactory. Even if the mammoths died during a late
cooling episode, it still has to be considered strange that, as
temperatures subsequently rose very significantly elsewhere, they and
the land which previously supported them remained in a permanently
frozen state [18,22,41].
Elsewhere, when the ice-sheets melted at the end of the Pleistocene,
the release of the stored-up water led to a rise in sea-level of over
100 metres. For many years, it was generally assumed that this had been
a gradual, even-paced process. However, it now seems that the
deglaciation, and associated changes in the oceans, took place in rapid
Some have even challenged the generally-held view that worldwide
temperatures had been falling from the Middle Miocene, about 18 million
years ago, all the way through to the onset of the Pleistocene
glaciations. They have suggested that the freezing and thawing episodes
which occurred around 12,000 years ago were not a continuation of
previous trends, nor did they take place over a long timescale. So, for
example, the retired British geologists, Derek Allan and Bernard
Delair, argued in their 1995 book, When the Earth Nearly Died, that
catastrophic events, including an increase in the axial tilt of the
Earth, occurred around 11,500 years ago. The catastrophes were caused
by the close passage of a sizeable cosmic body (which gave rise to the
Phaeton legend) and the actual impact of a number of smaller
companions. According to Allan and Delair, these could all have been
products of the Vela supernova explosion, which at the time was thought
to have occurred in a part of the Galaxy close to our Solar System
between 14,300 and 11,000 years ago, although it now seems that it
might have happened much more recently than that, around 700 years ago
Whatever their origin, the extraterrestrial bodies generally struck the
Earth whilst travelling in a northeast to southwesterly direction from
Alaska to South America. As evidence, Allan and Delair drew attention
to the presence of innumerable oval lakes with a NE/SW orientation
along the supposed path [18,41].
In the view of Allan and Delair, these events also caused extensive
vulcanism, together with hurricanes and massive floods. As a
consequence of the increased tilt of the Earth, there would have been a
change towards colder climates at high latitudes, exacerbated by the
dust cloud resulting from impacts and volcanoes. So, the polar ice caps
would have expanded, and flood water which could not immediately drain
back to the sea might have been trapped as ice. In this view,
therefore, as with that of the catastrophist diluvialists of the early
nineteenth century, the "erratic" boulders and the loam and gravel
deposits of northern regions owed more to transport by flood water than
by glaciers. To Allan and Delair, this scenario is more plausible than
the conventional paradigm in its explanation of the frozen mammoths of
Siberia, the even more extraordinary "muck" deposits of Alaska, which
contain animal remains, molluscs, vegetation, ice and volcanic ash in a
frozen, tangled mass, and the similar mixed deposits stuffed into caves
at more southerly latitudes [18,27,41].
Velikovsky's Saturn hypothesis, which has been developed by Dwardu
Cardona, David Talbott and Ev Cochrane, amongst others, would also seem
to require a short, catastrophic transition between the Golden Age and
present-day conditions, with no obvious space for glaciations of long
Yet another viewpoint on what happened during the Late Pleistocene was
provided by the American science historian, Charles Hapgood. As we saw
earlier, Hapgood argued that the entire crust of the Earth must, on
occasions, have suffered slippage relative to the core. That would, of
course, have brought some new areas into polar regions, with others
being moved away from them. Moreover, if a crustal dislocation brought
land over a pole, where previously there had been just frozen water,
then the ice-cap would expand, and vice versa [18,22,48-50].
Geologists have generally been of the opinion that the forces required
to bring about a crustal dislocation would be so great as to rule out
the possibility of such an event. However, Hapgood countered that there
were, nevertheless, good reasons for thinking that such slippages had
actually occurred. On the assumption that the magnetic poles never
stray far from the axis of rotation, he argued that palaeomagnetic
evidence showed that the location of the geographical polar regions had
changed over 200 times during the course of the Earth's history, some
of these changes being far too dramatic to be explained by the normal
processes of continental drift. So, around 80,000 years ago, an area of
the Yukon district of Canada lay over the North Pole, to be replaced
within a few thousand years by a region of the North Atlantic between
Greenland and Norway. By around 50,000 years ago, the pole was located
in the vicinity of Hudson Bay, Canada, before moving to its present
position between 17,000 and 12,000 years ago. Similar events took place
in the southern hemisphere, the South Pole moving to its present
position on the main Antarctic continent from an area between Wilkes
Land and Western Australia .
According to this hypothesis, therefore, Canada and the USA moved away
from the North Pole at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, whilst Siberia
moved closer to the polar region. This would explain why the northern
ice cap receded at this time, as the pole was no longer sited within a
continent, and why frozen mammoths have been found in Siberia. At the
opposite end of the Earth, Antarctica moved over the South Pole, so the
southern ice cap would then have expanded .
However, results of recent studies of ancient climates, based on oxygen
isotope determinations, appear to support the more conventional view of
the Pleistocene Ice Ages, rather than the "single-recent-catastrophe"
hypothesis or the "crustal-displacement" theory. Water contains two
isotopes of oxygen, the lighter one (oxygen-16) evaporating more easily
than the heavier one (oxygen-18). When temperatures are low and
ice-sheets are spreading, trapping, as frozen snow, water taken by
evaporation from the oceans, the oxygen-16/oxygen-18 ratio of the water
remaining in the oceans will be relatively low. Conversely, when
temperatures are high, and more water is being returned to the oceans
from ice-sheets than is being removed by evaporation, the
oxygen-16/oxygen-18 ratio will be relatively high. The same ratios
would be found in the shells of creatures living in the seas at the
time, so the measurement of oxygen isotope ratios in marine fossils
gives an indication of the ocean temperature when they were living.
Similar conclusions can also be drawn from oxygen isotope ratios in the
individual layers of the northern and southern ice-sheets, for it is
thought that each layer was formed from the compressed snows of a
Oxygen isotope ratios in the shells of microfossils in deep-sea cores
from the North Atlantic have demonstrated temperature fluctuations
throughout the Pleistocene, with even the highest average temperatures
of these times being far lower than the typical temperatures of the
Miocene. A correlation has also been demonstrated between climatic
events in the North Atlantic and ones from China. Comparisons of
Antarctic and Greenland climates over the past 100,000 years suggest
that the same glacial-interglacial sequences took place in both polar
regions, and these were consistent with temperature changes in the
oceans. Although there were some variations in timing between different
locations, possibly due to the effects of ocean currents, there were no
times when climatic trends in Greenland and Antarctica were moving
consistently in opposite directions, which might have been expected if
the crustal-displacement theory was correct. Furthermore, ice cores
from different parts of Antarctica all show a generally upward drift in
temperatures between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, the period during
which, according to Hapgood, the continent moved over the south pole,
so all three sites should have become significantly colder, not warmer
Therefore, despite some anomalous features, which have still to be
explained, and concerns about the nature of some of the evidence, this,
in the main, continues to indicate that a number of major cooling
episodes, affecting climate in all parts of the world, occurred at
intervals throughout the Pleistocene Epoch [18,53].
Extinctions of animal species indeed occurred throughout the
Pleistocene, but were particularly marked at or near its conclusion,
during the transition to the Holocene. As a whole, the Late Pleistocene
extinctions were minor compared to some earlier mass extinctions, such
as those at the ends of the Permian and Cretaceous Periods, but large
land animals were profoundly affected. North America lost three
quarters of its large animals, 33 genera of them, between 12,000 and
10,000 years ago. In South America, 46 genera disappeared at around the
same time, and extinctions of large animals also occurred in other
places, including Siberia, as we have already noted [18,54,55].
All of this is generally agreed, the major ongoing argument being about
the reasons for the extinctions. Whatever causal mechanisms may have
been involved, major environmental changes undoubtedly took place over
the period in question. The Late Pleistocene extinctions in North
America were synchronous with the retreat of the ice sheet north of the
Great Lakes, and with the replacement of spruce woodland and tundra by
pine and deciduous species. Similar associations of extinctions with
climatic changes are found throughout the world. Even in Australia,
where the extinctions occurred earlier than elsewhere, between 26,000
and 15,000 years ago, the death of the giant marsupials was synchronous
with a long period of heat and drought [54-56].
However, another factor which cannot be ignored is the emergence of
humankind, and its spread into new areas. Although there are hints that
there may have been isolated settlements in the New World at an earlier
time, it seems clear that the main wave of settlers crossed from Asia
into Alaska by means of a land bridge less than 30,000 years ago, when
sea-levels were low as a result of water being trapped as ice, and
spread over the northern and southern continents, reaching the southern
tip of Chile about 10,000 years ago. The Clovis stone-age culture of
southwestern USA was well-established around 11,000 years ago, some
sites showing strong evidence of the systematic butchering of large
animals. Similarly, humans may have reached Australia shortly before
the times of the extinctions there, although that is less certain
Arguments are still going on about the relative merits of climatic
change and hunting as explanations for the late Pleistocene
extinctions. However, it is reasonable to conclude that both must have
played a part [54,55].
Inevitably, catastrophic floods occurred as the ice melted and the
Holocene Epoch began. So, for example, the retreat of the glaciers
removed the barrier which previously held back a large volume of water
in western Montana, causing devastating flooding of a wide area of the
Columbia Plateau beneath the glacial lake, and gouging out deep
channels in the scablands of eastern Washington. This happened not
once, but several times, as conditions fluctuated. When, in the 1920s,
the Chicago geologist, Harlen Bretz, first suggested that the channels
of the Washington scablands had been created by catastrophic floods, he
was attacked by his professional colleagues for challenging the
assumptions of the gradualist orthodoxy. For example, James Gilluly
maintained that the channels could have been by produced by floods of a
similar magnitude to ones which still occured in the region. That,
however. is no longer seen to be the case, given the short time-scale,
and also (a fact not known at the time), a source for the catastrophic
flood-water in glacial Lake Missoula. It is now believed that
channelled scablands were also produced by waters released in similar
catastrophic fashion from other glacial lakes in the western United
States, such as Lake Bonneville, Utah. As the American ice continued to
melt, a super-lake, Algonquin, was formed in the northeast. This
consisted of the present Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, but
occupied a much greater area [57,58].
Low-lying regions throughout the world were flooded as sea-levels rose.
Sometimes there was a long delay between cause and effect, increasing
the catastrophic nature of the latter. So, for example, although it had
generally been assumed that the Black Sea expanded in area and volume
in a gradual fashion after the end of the Pleistocene, with excess
water flowing in from the Atlantic Ocean via the Mediterranean Sea and
the Bosporus as the ice melted, it now seems that the Black Sea was
sealed off from the Mediterranean by a natural dam in the Bosporus
region which eventually burst around 5600 B.C.. Water then rushed into
the Black Sea, flooding over 150,000 square kilometres of its low-lying
coastal regions within a period of a year or so. Evidence for this was
presented by geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman, of Columbia
University, in their 1999 book, Noah's Flood. Previously, the Black Sea
had been an oxygen-rich, freshwater lake, but the incoming salt-water
sank to the bottom, causing anoxic conditions in the depths, a
situation which still exists today. Radio-carbon dating studies on
cores taken from the bed of the Black Sea at various locations have
shown that oxygen-dependent shellfish living in deep water all became
extinct around 5600 B.C., whilst salt-water molluscs made their first
appearance in the Black Sea at exactly the same time. Ryan and Pitman
argued that recollections of this catastrophic flooding, passed on by
people whao managed to escape and migrate towards Mesopotamia, gave
rise to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and, in turn, to the Genesis
story of Noah and his family. That remains controversial, but the
evidence for the event itself is strong [59,60].
During the 1980s, archaeological, environmental and geological evidence
for a world-wide catastrophic event around 2300 B.C. was presented in
the pages of the SIS Review by an American engineer, Moe Mandelkehr. At
the Second SIS Cambridge Conference in 1997, social historian, Benny
Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University, summarised the results of
a survey he had made of some 500 reports of civilisation collapse and
climate change at around the time of Mandelkehr's postulated
catastrophe, most of which supported his case. According to the
evidence presented, there was a change to generally drier conditions
around 2300 B.C., with a lowering of the water-level in lakes and
oceans, and reduced river discharge. On the other hand, it appears that
there were flood disasters in China, northern India, Greece, Australia
and the USA at about this time [61,62].
Mandelkehr believes that the catastrophic events around 2300 B.C. were
caused by an encounter between the Earth and a cluster of cosmic
bodies, the breakdown products of a giant comet, as in the Clube-Napier
hypothesis. Others have also cited evidence for the impact of one or
more extraterrestrial objects at this time. Proof is still some way
off, but it seems likely that there was a single causal mechanism for
the various geological and environmental changes which took place, and
an encounter with a disintegrating comet is certainly a plausible
explanation. At the Second SIS Cambridge Conference, Bill Napier
pointed out that the impact into an ocean of even a relatively small
cosmic body, around 200 metres in diameter, would result in devastating
floods in coastal regions, through the action of tidal waves [39,63-65].
Geological evidence for a global catastrophe around 1450 B.C., as
proposed by Velikovsky, is less convincing than for one around 2300
B.C.. Much of the evidence for catastrophes which Velikovsky presented
in Earth in Upheaval, such as the Alaskan "muck" deposits, was actually
associated with the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. Although
Velikovsky suggested otherwise, the end of the Pleistocene is generally
thought to have ended 8,000 years before the time of the supposed Venus
catastrophe. It seems that there may have been localised catastrophes
around 1450 B.C., but nothing more than that [27,66].
Whilst there is no geological evidence at any time for a worldwide
flood on the scale described in Genesis, there are abundant indications
of widespread floods and other catastrophes during the period humans
have been living on the Earth, in particular during the
Pleistocene-Holocene transition around 11,500 years ago, and near the
beginning of the Late Holocene, around 2300 B.C.. There are a large
number of unanswered questions about events at both of these times.
Hopefully we shall not have to wait until the golden jubilee of the SIS
in 2024 before we get satisfactory answers to them.
Professor Trevor Palmer is Head of the Department of Life Sciences
and Dean of the Faculty of Science and Mathematics at Nottingham
Trent University. He is the Chairman of the Society for
Interdisciplinary Studies and the author of CONTROVERSY -
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Copyright 1999, Trevor Palmer