An Archaeological Explanation for the Story of Noah's Ark

The Biblical story of Noah's Ark is widely known: God decides to wipe the Earth clean of wickedness and tasks the righteous Noah and his family to safeguard themselves along with all the world's animals inside a gigantic wooden ark in order to ride out a global 150-day flood.

Though some take the story literally, there's no archaeological evidence that such an ark ever existed, nor is there any geologic evidence of a cataclysmic global flood. That doesn't mean the story wasn't based on historical events, however.

Edward Hicks

As Laurence C. Smith, a Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University, recounted in his forthcoming book, Rivers of Power, a story nearly identical to Noah's is "written on one of the twelve tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh," predating the Old Testament account by more than a thousand years.

"Numerous credible studies suggest that a real-world local catastrophe may have inspired the story," he writes.

"At the height of the last ice age around 21,000 years ago, global sea level averaged some 125 meters lower than today. The present-day Persian Gulf, extending from Dubai to Kuwait City, was a broad river valley dotted with freshwater lakes... this ancient valley became inundated when global sea levels rose rapidly from approximately 10,000 to 4,000 BCE, due to melting of continental ice sheets and thermal expansion of ocean water as it warmed... The sea's advance averaged more than 100 meters per year, and sometimes more than one kilometer per year."

About sixty well-developed communities along the modern shores of the Persian Gulf date to around 5,000 BCE. The thousands of people dwelling within the fertile basin would have been forced to move and resettle year after year until the waters finally stopped rising and they could lay down more permanent roots. As Smith writes:

"To the region's human inhabitants, living on what is now the muddy seabed of the Persian Gulf, the relentless inundation of their homeland over the course of many generations was surely a noticed and traumatic event. Oral (and eventually written) accounts of their forced migration may have passed down to their descendants and could be the original source of the Gilgamesh Epic, the Old Testament account of Noah and the Ark, and other ancient Great Flood legends."

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