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Antiquity Vol 78 No 300 June 2004

The great flood legends - ancient misreadings of the fossil record?

Richard K. Jeck

Over the past two decades there have been renewed attempts to search for remains of Noah's ark and to discover evidence of the biblical Flood itself. In the early 1980s, several expeditions led by an American astronaut and others ascended Mt. Ararat, the legendary resting place of Noah's ark in northern Turkey, in an unsuccessful search for remains of the ark. More recently, evidence has been reported that the Black Sea may have formed suddenly about 7500 years ago by break-through flooding from the Mediterranean Sea (Ryan & Pitman 1998; Ballard 2001). These authors speculate that this natural disaster (for the then dwellers of the Black Sea basin) was the source of biblical and other ancient deluge legends.

It has been generally assumed that since the Flood is such a detailed and epic part of the book of Genesis, the Flood must have really happened. But what if the ancients among whom the story originated simply, but falsely, inferred from perceived evidence around them, that a flood of such great magnitude must have occurred sometime in their past? Their seemingly irrefutable evidence may be no more than the presence of marine fossils in high elevations.

Fossils of marine organisms, especially shellfish like clams and other molluscs, and sometimes fish, can be found in relatively high elevations in many places around the world. They are found throughout the Near East and countries bordering the Mediterranean. These include Egypt and Libya (Turek et al. 1989:303-306), Lebanon (Case 1982:412-415), and in the mountains and hills of Armenia, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Jordan (deMaillet 1968:70,89,96,249,267,292,299,304). An extreme example in the Western Hemisphere is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

Figure 1: Marine Fossils on Top of the Andes Mountains. More than 500 giant fossilised oysters were found 3000 metres (about 2 miles) above sea level in Peru in 2001 by Arturo Vildozola, palaeontologist with the Andean Society of Paleontology.
(photo from AP/Wide World Photos)

Now, to the ancients, fish and/or seashell fossils up in the hills and mountains naturally implied that water levels at some time in the past had to be that high. How else would those seashells get up there?

In the experience of the ancients, only a persistent, calamitous flood could account for such high water in a region that is otherwise largely desert, and where the nearest lakes and seas are far below the elevations where some of these fossils are found.

The world-wide occurrence of marine fossils in high elevations can explain why stories of a great flood are found in the folklore or legends of ancient peoples in diverse places around the globe (Bright 1961; Wickersham 2000: 66-69). It is understandable that primitive peoples had no other conclusion to draw than that a deep flood, one like no other in their experience, must have put those seashells way up there. They did not know about mountain building and the geological processes that can raise fossil-bearing, sedimentary rock strata to great heights. In their minds, the mountains and hills had always been there, just as they saw them, from the beginning of time. The mountains never changed over their lifetime or even over generations. They had no way of knowing about the slow geological processes that we know about today.

The occurrence of marine fossils in high elevations also explains the ancient conclusion that a flood that deep must have covered the whole earth. To the ancients, a global flood also seemed to nicely explain why seashells were found on the hills and mountains in distant countries as well.

In any case, if this fossil explanation is correct, then searches for any remains of Noah's ark and for evidence of the Great Flood will continue to be futile, despite the possible discovery of major, local events like the filling of the Black Sea. The evidence today is the same evidence the ancients had---marine fossils on mountains and hills. They needed a great flood to explain why seashells were up that high. We know today that those marine creatures lived in low-lying lakes or seas millions of years ago. Their fossilised remains were gradually lifted to present-day heights by slow, mountain-building processes that were totally unknown to the ancients.

So it is simply the lowly, or should we say lofty, fossil that is probably the culprit behind the Great Flood stories around the world. Some writers and thinkers from early Christian times to the present have cited fossils as evidence of the Great Flood (Halstead 1982: 10, 32, 70-72). But nobody seems to have considered the possibility that the ancient contributors to Genesis did the same.


  • BALLARD, R.D. 2001 Deep Black Sea. National Geographic, May 2001: 52-69.
  • BRIGHT, J. 1961 Has Archaeology Found Evidence of the Flood?, in G. Wright & D. Freedman (eds.), The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, 1: 32-40. New York: Doubleday.
  • CASE, G.R. 1982 A Pictorial Guide to Fossils. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
  • DE MAILLET, B. 1755. Telliamed. (English translation, 1968) Urbana (IL): University of Illinois Press.
  • HALSTEAD, L.B. 1982 The Search for the Past. New York: Doubleday.
  • RYAN, W. & W. PITMAN 1998 Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed the World. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • TUREK, V., J. MAREK & J. BENES. 1989. Fossils of the World. New York: Arch Cape Press.
  • WICKERSHAM, J.M. (ed.). 2000. Myths and Legends of the World. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.


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