History: What if Our Best Guesses Are Wrong?

Posted by Jonathan Nori on February 20, 2012

I like to follow archaeology and history research. I find the study of the past to be fascinating–not only because of what we learn, but of what we find out we must UN-learn.

The implications that discoveries in one discipline can have on another, especially when connections are not always readily apparent.

I find geology and archaeology to be intrinsically linked, though some of the things implied by conclusions between the two are sometimes difficult to reconcile because of the implication that much of what we take as “truth” could be radically incorrect.

Recently, there have been articles on some new research off the coast of Scotland, where divers are exploring sunken towns hundreds of feet off the coast. Some of these settlements are in the English Channel, which according to current geologic models was connected to mainland Europe as recently as 9,000 years ago.

In fact, it is well-known that coastlines and sea levels have not always existed as they do now. These same geologic models tell us that ocean levels were much lower during the last ice age, by as much as 1,000 feet in some places, easily extending shorelines by hundreds of miles in most places. Based on models and maps, the eastern coast of North America once likely extended out by as much as 400 miles into the present-day Atlantic ocean in some places. The Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Islands could also have been part of the surface world as recently as 10,000-15,000 years ago, if estimates on ocean depth changes are accurate.

It’s not just the Americas that would be affected by such a change in sea level, though. Japan was once connected to what is now mainland China, and the entire Korean Peninsula would not have been a peninsula at all. The Yellow Sea only has an average depth of about 150 feet, placing it well within the range of “dry land” in previous millenia.

Even the Philippine Islands were once more a long mountain range of active volcanoes than a series of islands.

But what does this mean? Let me answer that question with a story.

On the coast of India there is a fishing village situated on top of a cliff. The oral history of this village tells of a glorious past as a prosperous fishing and trade port; a thriving city where many tens of thousands of people made their homes and hundreds of fishing and merchant ships found berth. Yet, looking at the village, it’s hard to imagine any truth to this tale when one sees nothing but a few hundred shacks housing at most a couple thousand subsistence farmers and fisherman. But this is when the story gets interesting: The thriving city was at the bottom of the cliff. A place now submerged beneath 65 feet of water. According to legend, the denizens of the great port city angered the gods, who punished the people with a great flood that buried the city beneath the waves. A few of the people who survived by scaling the cliff wall re-established a village at the top of the cliff, but were never able to again reach their previous stature. Their great port was gone, and all that remained was a rocky cliff face.

This story was nothing more than local legend until an archaeological dive team heard the tale and took interest. They traveled to the town, talked to a few residents, and determined that if a city had ever existed at the bottom of the cliff, it would have to have been thousands of years older than any other known settlements on the Indian subcontinent, and would have the capacity to rewrite the entire story of what we think we know about “the dawn of civilization.” So, with dive gear in-hand and a healthy skepticism in place, the archaeological team took a boat to the base of the cliff and dropped 65 feet below the surface of the water. They are still trying to figure out how the city they found fits into the historical record.

I have a theory, though.

Our understanding of the archaeological record tells us that about 10,000 years ago a hundred different pockets of hunter-gatherer humans all nearly simultaneously discovered agriculture. Now, we have a historical precedent for this kind of parallel discovery, one need only look at the advances made during Europe’s Renaissance and  the West’s Industrial Revolution to see instances of similar discoveries and inventions happening nearly simultaneously.

However, there’s a distinct difference between what we’ve witnessed in recent centuries and the domestication of plants ten millenia ago: Communication. Ten thousand years ago we shouldn’t have groups of peoples separated by entire oceans deciding to begin cultivating fruits and vegetables. At least, not unless they were drawing on some kind of common knowledge base.

What if, for the sake of argument, the earliest traces of civilization that we know of are not the beginnings of Man’s advancement, but rather the survivors of the last great civilizations? What would that mean to everything we know? The knowledge of the past that we hold dear? Our belief that Man has never achieved as much as we’ve achieved now? What if all of our best guesses are simply wrong?

I don’t want to lose you, so let me lay out my theory.

We don’t know precisely when the last ice age ended. Or, more accurately, when the ice cover melted away. Glaciers tend to be big. Thousands of feet thick. The glaciers that covered much of North America and Europe would have been almost 2 miles thick (some estimates say as much as 2.5 miles near the center of the glacial mass), lowering present-day ocean levels by at least 350 feet.

These glaciers would have covered nearly all the farmland presently used for food production, and would have had a profound impact on the climate in places such as northern Africa and the Middle East, where it is known that rainforest  jungles were widespread as recently as 1,500 years ago.

The shorelines of all the continents would have been vastly different. The Gulf of Mexico would have been fa smaller than it is today, and would have been considered an inland sea or a great lake. The Korean Peninsula, Japan, and many of the outlying islands would have been part of mainland China. The Philippines, rather than a string of volcanic islands, could have been a volcanic mountain range connecting Australia to southeast Asia. The English Channel did not exist yet. The east cost of North America (where it wasn’t covered in glacier) would have extended into the Atlantic ocean by as far as several hundred miles in places. Cuba, and the islands of the Caribbean, could easily have all been connected by vast tracts of farmland and forest.

Let’s not forget either that the most recent studies of glacial retreat suggest that the massive ice coverings could have vanished in the space of just a few years. I posit that some event occurred, maybe a series of meteorite strikes along a vast stretch of glacier, or a large volcano erupting beneath an area of glacier, that created a vast inland sea and vaporized billions of gallons of water into the atmosphere. Then the rain began. And the ice walls holding back the inland glacial seas collapsed. Ocean levels rose catastrophically, burying the civilization that had arisen, and scattering the survivors. I don’t think I need to bother mentioning the pervasive flood/deluge myths that nearly all cultures share.

If the ocean levels were that vastly different, and many of the places we now have major cities were once under several miles of ice, isn’t it perhaps remotely conceivable that after ten or fifteen thousand years, even something as large and seemingly-enduring as New York City could succumb to the rigors of time were it dumped into the ocean?

I’m aware that much of the current archaeological record disagrees with my theory. But I also understand that science is progressive and ever-changing. We would never have gotten to the Moon if we had never progressed beyond the steam engine (as awesome as a steam-powered rocket ship might be!). Every day scientists and researchers are finding new and exciting things that challenge our preconceived notions.

What was it that Agent Kay said in Men in Black? Oh yes (historical inaccuracies concerning beliefs about the shape of the Earth aside): “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Oh, and let’s not forget links!












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