Après Nous, le Déluge

Thoughts on watery worlds of the distant past and the not-so-distant future

Flood Myths

Dim memories of a watery world haunt our human consciousness. As if to hearken back to a time before our evolutionary ancestors made landfall, many of the world’s creation myths tell of a terrestrial world brought into being out of the formless cosmic void of primordial waters. In Genesis, God says “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Ancient Egyptian and Greek myths similarly speak of a world that emerged from an oceanic abyss in the dream-time of prehistory.

But this watery chaos that precedes being evokes in us feelings of awe and terror too. We understand the possibility of its return, its potential to swallow up in surging waters the whole of creation. Sylvia Plath, in the final stanza of “Blackberrying” captures the feeling of sublime terror that the sudden appearance of the sea stirs in the soul, the recognition, perhaps, of an unfathomable expanse of otherness:

The only thing to come now is the sea.…
…A last hook brings me   
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock   
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space   
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths   
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

And so the world’s creation myths find their corollaries in the violent destruction of flood myths, present in almost every culture the world over. Typically, the catastrophic events represented in these myths have been attributed to divine retribution toward humanity by a wrathful deity. The Great Flood endured for 40 days by Noah and his paired species aboard a wooden ark is mirrored in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving work of human literature. Native American tribes such as the Cree and Ojibwe have their flood myths, as do the Chinese and Polynesians, among many others.

While these myths may have been inspired by localized flood events, historian Adrienne Mayor has offered the hypothesis that flood myths arose from the discovery of shells and fossils in mountains and other areas far inland, and not necessarily from the direct experience of a massive flood. But massive floods have occurred in the relatively recent past, and may very well represent actual historical events that occurred at the dawn of human cultural memory. The geologic record offers evidence for both sudden and gradual inundations over the course of human prehistory.

One such event was the collapse of Lake Agassiz, an enormous proglacial lake, located mainly in what is now the Canadian province of Manitoba but also stretching into Ontario and several US states to the south. In what geologists term an outburst flood, Lake Agassiz and adjacent ice sheets collapsed around 8,500 years ago, when sea levels likely rose between one to three meters over the course of as little as two years. This would have resulted in massive global flooding even relatively far inland, and it possibly caused a sudden decrease in global temperatures over the next two to four centuries. The Lake Agassiz event may be the historical source for the Great Flood myth and it is a possible cause for the inundation of Doggerland.

Doggerland

Before reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, I had never heard of Doggerland. In the course of describing his stroll across the Broomway, an ancient pathway that crosses a tidal flat extending into the North Sea and “allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain,” MacFarlane provides the reader with a much deeper history than those of the other ancient rights of way that comprise his book. His version of the story begins in 1931, when the crew of a fishing trawler, the Colinda, recovered what turned out to be an ancient harpoon tip. “The Colinda Point, as it is now known,” MacFarlane writes, “was one of the first archaeological clues to the existence of a vast, lost, and once-inhabited landscape: a Mesolithic Atlantis that lies under the southern half of what is now the North Sea, and over which hunter-gatherers probably ranged.”

H. G. Wells however, in his 1897 work A Story of the Stone Age, more or less accurately anticipated Doggerland. In what is an interesting and ironic inversion from the normal paradigm of science fiction writers predicting the future, Wells actually predicted the past. “This story is of a time beyond the memory of man, before the beginning of history, a time when one might have walked dryshod from France (as we call it now) to England, and when a broad and sluggish Thames flowed through its marshes to meet its father Rhine, flowing through a wide and level country that is under water in these latter days, and which we know by the name of the North Sea.”

Prior to the discovery of the Colinda Point, the paleobiologist Clement Reid and the anatomist Sir Arthur Keith had both shown interest in artifacts recovered from the area. But the name ‘Doggerland’ (after the Dogger Banks, a fishery in the North Sea) was officially given to the area by archaeologist Bryony Coles in the 1990s, who also produced the first hypothetical maps of the drowned world. The first truly detailed maps based on seismic data have only appeared in the last 15-20 years, many of them the work of landscape archaeologist Vince Gaffney and his group of researchers with the Europe’s Lost Frontiers project.

In the case of Doggerland, maps are an important first step in carrying out archaeological research. In a recent Guardian article, Gaffney states: “We can’t see [the evidence for their settlements], because the area is enormous, and it’s covered by tens of metres of sea and marine silt.” But by using data gained from the ongoing studies, scientists are better able to guess where human settlements may have been sited—for example, near a coastline—and consequently where to concentrate further efforts to recover evidence.

Gaffney’s research discussed in the Guardian article and published in the journal Antiquity focuses on another catastrophic flood event, the Storegga Slide, which occurred 8,200 years ago, a few hundred years after the Lake Agassiz event. The Storegga Slide was a massive submarine landslide occurring off the coast of Norway that caused devastating tsunamis that likely submerged much if not all of what remained of Doggerland at the time. However, this new research suggests that small islands likely remained even after the tsunamis, and that these could have been staging sites for the Neolithic farming culture that eventually advanced into the British Isles.

Doggerland probably formed a land bridge between the British Isles and continental Europe until around 9,000 years ago, in much the same way that the Bering Strait land bridge connected Asia and North America. Neanderthals occupied the British Isles from 60,000 years ago until their extinction about 40,000 years ago, and their remains have been also been found in what was Doggerland. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers occupied Britain from 40,000 years ago until the arrival of the Neolithic farming culture about 6,000 years ago. But it was the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who would have populated the coastal marshes and forests of Doggerland before it succumbed to the waters of the North Sea.

MacFarlane describes the evolution of Doggerland from tundra to temperate region in the centuries following the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. “But as global temperatures rose, melting ice sent freshwater rivers spinning through that tundra, irrigating and fertilizing it, such that it developed into a habitable, even hospitable terrain. We know that there were trout in the rivers of Doggerland, wild boar, and deer in its oak and ash woods, and that stinging nettles grew among the grasses.” Archaeologists have also discovered the remains of more distant and now extinct animals—aurochs and woolly mammoths, to name a few.

It is the fate of the human beings however, the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who inhabited Doggerland, that captivates my imagination the most, though. Given that much of my ancestry can be traced back to northern Europe and the British Isles, it’s likely that some very distant ancestor of mine hunted game in the coastal marshes or thickly wooded forests of Doggerland. To think back 328 generations and further, and to try to imagine a connection to a land that is now undersea is a dizzying prospect.

One wonders what these Doggerlanders would have thought, as sea levels began to rise and the waves started to close in on their world. How would they have registered and responded to the rising seas following the Lake Agassiz outburst? And surely the tsunamis triggered by the Storegga Slide would have been cataclysmic for many along the coasts, yet others further inland among the wooded hills would have survived, albeit in a drastically altered landscape. What conclusions would their Mesolithic minds have reached?

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Perhaps anthropologists and archaeologists of a distant future age, assuming they exist, will pose similar questions regarding humanity and the current global crises of our own creation. Unlike Mesolithic humans, we have the benefit of grasping our predicament through the lens of science and technology, and at least apprehending the causality of climate breakdown and the likely consequences of our world-altering actions.

But as evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides has famously stated, “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.” Perhaps we haven’t come so far in 8,000 years after all. Systems thinkers like Nate Hagens have pointed out the behavioral pitfalls hard wired into our brains through evolutionary biology that stymie us in our attempts to think and act rationally with regard to our own future prospects and those of generations yet to come.

In recognition of the likelihood of future catastrophic climate events, some have begun planning for the unthinkable. In a paper published in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society last summer, Dutch engineers began investigating the potential costs and feasibility of building giant dams on the edge of the North Sea, between Scotland and Norway in the north and England and France in the south—the same waters currently delimiting the submerged Doggerland. The project, called NEED (Northern European Enclosure Dam) would protect the coastal areas of one of the most densely populated regions in Europe from the 1-2 meters of sea level rise that is increasingly likely to occur by 2100.

Though currently feasible from an engineering perspective, this mega-project would cost between 250 and 500 billion euros and would take many years to complete. Worse still, it would turn the North Sea into a giant, tide-free freshwater lake, with all of the ecological and economic damage that outcome entails. But, as the study authors warn in a related Guardian piece, “the costs and consequences of doing nothing about rising sea levels would ultimately be ‘many times higher.’” The staggering scale and scope of the of the project “makes it almost tangible what the consequences of rising sea levels will be.” These costs will of course be borne by future generations and in many ways.

The NEED project is a prime example of what the anthropologist Joseph Tainter has referred to as a ‘progress trap.’ The consequences of our over-investment on a global scale in technological progress driven by fossil fuels has created the conditions of climate breakdown that now threaten 25 million people living on the shores of northern Europe. To mitigate just one small aspect of this threat and maintain the technological societies that created it requires further costly investments in technology, labor and materials—in the form of the dams—which will then further perpetuate anthropogenic ecological and climatic damage, and necessitate further technological intervention.

The more we struggle to provide technological fixes to the problems our technology has created, the more problems arise from those fixes, hence requiring further costly investments, until at some point the cycle becomes too much to maintain. At which point civilization collapses.


And so we end where we began, figuratively and literally, as the waters of the world rise around the foundations of our civilization. The ‘wrathful god’ responsible for the coming deluge is nothing more or less than the hubris of a civilization in thrall to the spell of progress at any cost. We have become like gods in our ever-greater capacity to alter the planetary systems we depend on, but we are not good at it.

Perhaps if we can free ourselves from the patterns of thought and development that have led us to this place we can survive the coming crises. If we can understand ourselves in the context of deep time and the natural world we co-evolved with, we may have better prospects for a future on a rapidly changing planet.

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