Could Noah's ark really have happened?

Noahs Ark Quiz David Baker/Moment/Getty Images
Noahs Ark Quiz David Baker/Moment/Getty Images

Advertisement

Image Gallery: Storms

noah painting
Daniel McLise/Getty Images
Depiction of Noah and his family after the Great Flood.
See pictures of storms.

One of the oldest stories in the world, the tale of Noah and his ark has crossed oceans and continents over millenniums. Versions float around in nearly every human culture, and Christianity, Islam and Judaism share the overarching plot points of a man, a flood and animals marching two by two. But for all of these similarities, whether the tale traces back to fact remains contentious among religious and scientific scholars alike.

As the story goes, God told Noah to build an enormous wooden boat and load a male and female of every animal species into it. Then God made it rain, flooding the entire earth with water to swallow up the wicked.

Before we dive into the question of whether Noah and his ark existed, let's first ask if there's any evidence of ancient worldwide flooding. Scientifically speaking, such a flood would be impossible. It would take more than five times the amount of water in the oceans and atmosphere to submerge the earth up to its mountaintops [source: Discovery Channel and BBC]. And if that amount of water entered the atmosphere, the resulting pressure would crush people's lungs [source: Discovery Channel and BBC].

map of Aegean Sea, Black Sea, and Bosporus Strait

But that doesn't mean the story is bogus -- just maybe not subject to literal interpretation. Instead, geologists William B.F. Ryan and Walter C. Pitman from Columbia University postulate that a great flood resulted from the rapid water level rise in the Black Sea as the last Ice Age tapered off around 5600 B.C. [source: Wilford].

Calling it the "Noah's Flood Hypothesis," the geologists theorized that water from melting ice caps overwhelmed the Mediterranean Sea, breaking through the Bosporus Strait to the Black Sea with Herculean force and flooding more than 60,000 s­quare miles (96,560 kilometers) of land [source: Wilford]. In 2007, other researchers found evidence that a melting ice cap from Greenland boosted global sea levels 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) between 8740 B.C. and 8160 B.C., causing people to migrate toward Europe to escape flooding in the same region [source: Turney and Brown].

­But many marine geologists remain unconvinced of this theory, pointing to their own evidence of a more gradual Black Sea growth around 10,000 B.C. to 9,000 B.C. [source: Alsu et al.]. Schola­rs also think that the story links to the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and point out that the hypothesis leaves no room for the characteristic rain. On the next page, we'll examine Noah as a person more closely to find out why this river theory may be correct.

A Noah by Any Other Name -- Noah's Prequel

If you read texts predating the Bible, you'll find that the well-known Old Testament Noah did not make his literary debut in the Holy Scriptures. Rather, he made his first appearance about 2,000 years or so earlier in the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia. Holding power from roughly 3500 B.C. to 2000 B.C., the Sumerians were the first people to sketch out the story of Noah, except they called him Ziusudra.

Later, the Babylonians would record a similar tale in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest book in recorded history. As the Babylonians tell it, a man named Utnapishtim was warned of a great storm and built a boat an acre in size, split into six different divisions. All surrounding lands flooded after six days and nights of rain. Sailing to what may have been modern-day Bahrain, Utnapishtim and his wife received immortality for his obedience.

Here's where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come into play. The two waterways that slice through modern day Iraq served as the main thoroughfares for trade at that time, and were the setting for the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Because both rivers flood each summer, scholars think that Noah's story may be based on that actual event -- a greater than usual flooding of the Tigris or Euphrates. In fact, archeologists have uncovered evidence of such a great flood in Mesopotamia, dating back to around 2900 B.C., that quickly wiped out a number of Sumerian cities [source: Saggs].

The real-life Noah could have been a wealthy merchant who had a strong enough boat to withstand the storm. Passed down through generations of telling and retelling, the story could have evolved over the centuries to integrate the Judeo-Christian and Islamic beliefs.

The Bible portrays Noah as a righteous man in God's eyes, separated from the increasingly sinful world around him. Because of his uprightness, God selects him, along with his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, to build the ark and survive the incoming deluge.

In the Quran, Noah is referred to as Nuh. He makes up one of the five prophets of Islam alongside Adam, Moses, Abraham and Jesus. The book of Surah tells of Noah speaking as a prophet of God to forewarn his neighbors about the dangers that will happen if they do not turn from their evil ways.

­

­Aside from this minor difference, the Christian and Islamic records of Noah stand almost identical. Noah builds an ark, enduring the ridicule of people around him, and loads the animals two by two onto the vessel in preparation for the storm. Interestingly, in the Bible, Noah's ark settles on Mount Ararat, while in the Quran it lands on Mount Judi. Because of these two explicit locations, many believe that the ark still exists on a mountaintop. Next, we'll find out whether that belief is fact.

Noah's Ark -- Evidence of No Evidence?

Genesis says that God instructed Noah to build an ark 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits tall. That translates to just under an acre in square footage (4046 square meters), as described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Noah would have constructed the ark from wood, but the specific type is debatable since different translations specify different types. Whatever the case, it would have been huge. Because of the size and the technology -- or lack thereof -- at the time, wood experts don't think the literal ark could have withstood sailing [source: Bowen].

Nevertheless, in the past 20 years many news stories have popped up regarding a discovery of the biblical boat. In 1993, CBS aired a documentary called "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark" that unveiled the spectacular findings of wood from the ark. Guide George Jammal described his sighting of it to viewers and showed off a souvenir piece from it. But the alleged evidence in the documentary was a sham. Jammal's so-called ark wood was a fake, and he concocted his story.

Back at the Black Sea, in 1999, famed underwater explorer Robert Ballard, who found the sunken Titanic, set out to prove the "Noah's Flood Hypothesis." Going on the idea that the ark could be at the bottom of the Black Sea, he attempted to find it but was unsuccessful. In addition, carbon dating on artifacts pulled up from the depths showed that they were too recent to come from Noah's time.

Mount Ararat in Turkey has long been the focal point of biblical archeologists. Photos of the top of Ararat taken by the CIA and filed under "Ararat Anomaly" were classified for many years until a Freedom of Information Act released some of them in 1999. They highlight a large dark spot peculiar to the naked eye, fueling some people's beliefs that the ark rests there frozen in ice. That theory has since come up short. Experts claim that a glacier would have actually pushed the Ark out and down the mountain, rather than cause it to remain stationary.

Satellite photographs from Mount Suleiman in the Elburuz mountain range in Iran taken by the Bible Archeology Search and Exploration Institute held yet another possible location for the ark. Members thought a rock formation captured on film was actually petrified wood from the ark. However, there is no evidence of the joints or beams one would expect with a handmade boat [source: Ravilous].

One of the main reasons for the absence of ark evidence is that it simply wouldn't survive. Wood would likely last only a few centuries [source: Ravilous]. Also, it would take an impossible amount of rain to land a boat at a 13,000-foot-plus altitude (3,962 meters), further negating the possibility of finding ark remnants at the top of Ararat or any other mountain.

Although no scientifically conclusive evidence yet exists for Noah's ark, expedition teams will continue to gather funding to extend their quests. Until then, read the links on the next page for more information on Noah's Ark and other biblical mysteries.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Associated Press. "Undersea explorer finds new evidence of great flood." CNN. Sept. 13, 2000. (April 30, 2008)
    http://archives.cnn.com/2000/NATURE/09/13/great.flood.finds.ap/
  • Bowen, Jeremy. "Noah's Ark -- The True Story." Discovery Channel and BBC News. March 21, 2004.
  • Carney, Scott. "Did a Comet Cause the Great Flood?" Discover Magazine. Nov. 15, 2007. (April 30, 2008)
    http://discovermagazine.com/2007/nov/did-a-comet-cause-the-great-flood
  • David, Leonard. "Satellite Closes in on Noah's Ark mystery." CNN. March 13, 2006. (April 30, 2008)
    http://www.cnn.com/2006/TECH/space/03/13/
    satellite.noahs.ark/index.html
  • History's Mysteries. "The Search for Noah's Ark." History Channel. 2001.
  • Jaroff, Leon. "Phony Arkaeology." TIME. July 5, 1993. (April 30, 2008)
    http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,978812,00.html#
  • Mayell, Hillary. "Noah's Ark Found? Turkey Expedition Planned for Summer." National Geographic News. April 27, 2004. (April 30, 2008)
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/
    2004/04/0427_040427_noahsark.html
  • Ravilious, Kate. "Noah's Ark Discovered in Iran?" National Geographic News. July 5, 2006. (April 30, 2008)
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/
    09/0920_040920_noahs_ark_2.html
  • Saggs, H.F.W. "Babylonians." University of California Press. 2000. (May 1, 2008)
    http://books.google.com/books?id=BPdLxEyHci0C
  • Turney, Chris S. M. and Brown, Heidi. "Catastrophic early Holocene sea level rise, human migration and the Neolithic transition in Europe." Quaternary Science Reviews. September 2007. (April 30, 2008)
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VBC-4PNFB1S2&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=
    c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_
  • University of Exeter. "'Noah's Flood' Kick-started European Farming?" ScienceDaily. Nov. 19, 2007. (April 30, 2008)
    http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2007/11/071118213213.htm
  • Wilford, John Noble. "Plumbing the Black Sea for Proof of the Deluge." The New York Times. Jan. 5, 1999. (April 30, 2008)
    http://www.nytimes.com/library/national/science/
    010599sci-black-sea-flood.html