New Underwater Finds Raise Questions About Flood Myths
for National Geographic News
|May 28, 2002|
Ancient stories of massive floods pass from generation to generation and in many places in the world are integral to a people's spoken history.
The tales differ by locale, but commonly feature torrential rains or a hugely destructive wall of water bursting into a valley, destroying everything in its path. In many cases, the flooding is an act of retribution by displeased gods.
Many scientists, historians and archaeologists view these enduring tales as short, dramatised versions of the memory of rising seas at the end of the Ice Age. Like all good stories, they are rich with local drama, religious legends, and moral principles.
While images of catastrophic floods are popular, many scholars argue that the real rising sea level slowly invaded the Stone Age hunting territories for thousands of years, and the stories compress this event into overnight floods, storms, and destruction.
Recent undersea findings may yield new clues to the study of human habitations that now lie beneath the waves.
Cuba's Sunken City
Deep in the waters of Cabo de San Antonio, off Cuba's coast, researchers are exploring unusual formations of smooth blocks, crests, and geometric shapes. The Canadian exploration company that discovered the formations, Advanced Digital Communications, has suggested that they could be the buildings and monuments of an early, unknown American civilization.
Many scientists are skeptical of any theory that might tempt people to draw a parallel with the fabled lost city of Atlantis. Geologist Manuel Iturralde, however, has stressed the need for an open mind while investigations of the site continue.
"These are extremely peculiar structures, and they have captured our imagination," said Iturralde, who is director of research at Cuba's Natural History Museum. Iturralde has studied countless underwater formations over the years, but said, "If I had to explain this geologically, I would have a hard time."
In his report on the formations, Iturralde noted that conclusive proof of man-made structures on the site could reinforce some oral traditions of the Maya and native Yucatecos. These people still retell ancient stories of an island inhabited by their ancestors that vanished beneath the waves.
Iturralde makes it clear, however, that just because no natural explanation is immediately apparent, it doesn't rule one out. "Nature is able to create some really unimaginable structures," he said.
Further research is scheduled to take place over the summer. Data thus far has been collected using sonar scans and video. The structures are buried under 1,900 to 2,500 feet (600 to 750 meters) of water.
Collecting samples from the blocks and the sediment in which they are imbedded is the next step toward determining the origin of these curious structures.
Temples Beneath The Sea
Off the coast of Mahabalipuram, in Tamil Nadu, South India, the discovery of a complex of submerged ruins has sparked an investigation into their origin. Local lore has long held that the area once boasted seven magnificent temples, but that six of these were swallowed by the sea. The seventh, and only remaining temple, still stands on the shore.
Stories passed from one generation to the next tell of a large, beautiful city that once occupied the area. The legends say the ancient metropolis was destroyed by the gods who were jealous of its beauty, and sent a flood to bury it beneath the waves.
Best-selling author Graham Hancock spent several years cataloging and studying these myths. When he returned to the area as part of an expedition team jointly sponsored by Great Britain's Scientific Exploration Society (SES) and India's National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), the goal was to search beneath the sea and make a detailed survey that would confirm the existence of the temples, and investigate the date of their destruction.
Local fishermen raised on the legends were able to point the team to a dive site where the ruins were located. Expedition leader Monty Halls described the excitement the team felt on discovering the underwater structures.
"The initial feeling was one of disbelief," Halls recalled. "The sheer scale of the site was so impressive, and the fact that it was so close to shore. This gradually gave way to absolute elation."
Diving in challenging conditions, the team found the "foundation of walls, broken pillars, steps, and many scattered stone blocks," said Kamlesh Vora, a marine archaeologist with NIO.
Vora, Halls, and the rest of the team were quickly convinced that they had made a major discovery of man-made structures. "Here there would be no furrowed brows, no peering at reefs from different angles, no dusting for elusive archaeological fingerprints," said Halls. "Here man was everywhere."
Still, the Mahabalipuram expedition has created as many questions as it has answered.
"It is very rewarding that we have found something of such significance," Halls said. "However, the real questions still demand answers: How old is it? How extensive is it? What artifacts remain hidden in the ruins? For these reasons we must return as soon as possible and give this wonderful site the scientific and disciplined inspection it deserves."
Vora agrees that much work remains to be done on the site, which spreads over an area of several square miles. "We will have to carry out extensive explorations beyond this area to find out if the man-made structures observed underwater are indeed of the same temple complex," he said.
"All structures are made of granite stone which is locally available," Vora continued. "The archaeological and inscriptional evidence of sites on land near shore indicate a possible date of construction of these structures between 1,500 to 1,200 years before present. We now need to carry out detailed explorations and searches for datable antiquities and inscriptional evidences on the finds."
If the Mahabalipuram ruins are found to be of the same temple complex as the shore temple, the discovery would lend credence to the local tales that outsiders have often disregarded as legend.
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