Today, let's ride the wake of an old old flood. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Gilgamesh, hero of Babylonian mythology,
went on a journey to find Utnapishtin, who had
survived the flood. Gilgamesh meant to make
Utnapishtin tell him how to escape death. So the
great flood of antiquity tiptoes into yet another
old myth. Maybe there were several floods. This
Babylonian story can be traced back further than
Genesis in its written form. But it's hard to know
how much further the stories go in oral form. One
common thread catches our ear, however: Noah lived
950 years, while Utnapishtin learned to escape
In any case, scientists now offer, as a candidate,
the flooding of the Black Sea in 5500 BC. If, as
some think, the Gilgamesh story refers to a
Sumerian ruler who lived around 2600 BC, the Black
Sea flood would be much too early and somewhat far
to the North. Still, Gilgamesh had to travel to
find Utnapishtin, and myths do leapfrog from one
real event to another.
The Black Sea flood was a truly major upheaval.
Here's what happened: The last ice age retreated
12,000 years ago and the world began warming. As it
did, ice melted and oceans rose, while lakes began
to evaporate and shrink.
The Black Sea was a great freshwater lake in those
days and, as the new technology of farming matured
eight thousand years ago, farmers moved into the
lands around it.
By 5500 BC, the lake lay 500 feet below sea level.
Then the thin strip of land between the salt Sea of
Marmara and the freshwater Black Sea gave way. A
terrible gush of water cut through, creating the
Bosporus channel. The flow was 400 times greater
than Niagara Falls — making a sound heard over
sixty miles away.
The water advanced a half-mile a day. Within three
months it'd flooded 60,000 square miles of
farmland. The Black Sea had turned from fresh water
to salt, and its size increased by a third. The
farmers fled, carrying their art to places that'd
never known farming. Stone-age farms first appeared
in the valleys and plains of central Europe about
200 years later.
The flood turned the high ground of the Crimean
Peninsula into a near island. It created the Sea of
Azov, nested above the Crimea and connected to the
Black Sea by a small channel. The Sea of Azov
remains a nearly freshwater body, fed by the Don
The rest of the Black sea is fed by the fresh
Danube and Dnieper river water, but it's also fed
by the salty Mediterranean. The fresh river water
flows out through the Bosporus at surface level,
while the heavier salt water flows in underneath it
— in a fittingly Byzantine arrangement of flows.
And what about Noah's and Utnapishtin's floods? We
cannot know, of course. But the Black Sea certainly
provides a dramatic enough basis for the grand
myths — that we still remember today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds