When the waters rise (and fall)

We hear a lot about the likely effects of climate change and what this means for rising seas. It’s a terrifying prospect that, at worst, offers a vision of a quite literal apocalypse. I am in no way trying to deny, undermine or minimize that here. But I will take this view of rising seas to explain some dramatic recent scientific facts. discoveries that really have important consequences for history and religion. In short, throughout history the waters have risen and fallen, and the maps have changed drastically, and no, I’m not back to the woo-woo theories of Atlantis.

Let me put it like this. Over the past thirty years, my vision of the world has changed so much that I no longer believe in the ground under my feet. I kick myself when I realize how badly I was seeing the cards. The world, in fact, is a much bigger place than I ever imagined. Lest you fear for my sanity, I am referring to a drastic but quite scholarly revision of our understanding of the human past that is currently underway, a revision that has profound implications for our consciousness of the world.

Even though we don’t believe they are literally eternal, we accept certain aspects of nature as immutable and absolutely reliable. The sun will rise and set, and the lands of the world have certain familiar shapes and contours. The coasts may change, but the continents are much like they always have been: Italy is, and always has been, a boot. Often associated with particular ethnic groups, these landscapes are part of our national identity. Some places have a lasting sanctity: Jerusalem and the Jordan, Varanasi and the Ganges, Glastonbury and Mont Saint-Michel. Yes, the world might have been very different in very ancient times – the age of the dinosaurs, perhaps – but humans have always lived in a world mapped much like our own.

But they didn’t. If you look at any map of the world, you will notice that where the land ends, you see a substantial expanse of continental shelf, usually light blue in color, before plunging into the dark blue of the deep ocean. Much of this plateau area is quite shallow, perhaps a hundred meters deep. What we know now is that for thousands of years, when the seas were much shallower than they are today, most of these shelf areas were above water. These were not temporary land bridges, but rich landscapes and thriving hunting grounds. Many have been heavily traveled by modern humans, just like us, who reasonably preferred to spend time on these bountiful plains than on the arid uplands of what we now consider the “true” coastline. More remarkably, many of these lands remained flourishing until late in human history, just eight or ten thousand years ago, when the first farms were emerging in the Middle East.

The best-studied of these rediscovered lands (and the one that truly intrigues me personally) lies beneath the North Sea, off what everyone knows is Britain’s fortress island. Over the past century, however, fishermen and explorers have steadily noted signs of human cultures that once thrived on lost lands, stone tools and mammoth bones, recalling a time when this land teemed with game, all as the Serengeti does today.

Borrowing the name Dogger Bank – a notorious hazard to navigation – the researchers dubbed this area Doggerland and, to their amazement, found they could map it in great detail. As the oil companies had prospected the area, they had used the latest seismic technology to trace the contours of the seabed, and this evidence allows us to see a map of Doggerland as clear as that of any modern English county. You can see every river and every stream, every lake and every valley. At its height, around nine thousand years ago, Doggerland was somewhat smaller than modern England itself, allowing nomadic families to walk easily from Kent to northern Germany or Denmark. Judging by the abundance of game, it was one of the most heavily populated areas of old Europe. It remained so, probably, before disappearing under the sea around 6,200 BC, but some now sunken islands may have remained above water for thousands of years after that. When Doggerland disappeared, countless rivers and sacred shrines disappeared, and the gods worshiped there.

But Doggerland was anything but unique. Take a look at these continental maps, and this light blue. Look at those areas of water around the globe that for thousands of years would have been equally heavily populated and traveled – in much of what we now call the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Beringia and the Sea of eastern China, not to mention much of the shallow waters off the current eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada. (See the large list of lost lands offered by Wikipedia). Some really exciting finds are popping up in North America, where it’s even claimed to be “A Doggerland of the Great Lakes.” One of the centers of exploration is Sundaland, the submerged kingdom in the seas that now separate Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia. It was probably an early agricultural center and a crossroads for migration. Scholars are beginning to assimilate the implications of this lost geography.

For archaeologists, the lesson is bitter: most of the areas where human societies have emerged are irretrievably engulfed under the waves.

In the Middle East, some believe the cataclysmic flooding of the Black Sea left behind legends that eventually gave rise to the stories of Noah’s Flood. You may or may not accept these views, but it seems plausible that memories of such disasters are long lasting and that they spawn mythologies of cosmic conflict and divine judgment.

We are still in the early stages of a complete overhaul of the recent human past. Such a project is all the more necessary today as scientists nervously reflect on the future consequences of global warming and the resulting rise in sea levels.

The main lesson is that the world is in a much greater state of flux than we ever realized, and the earth itself is truly changing, fading, and flowing. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem about the lost kingdom of Lyonesse, the inhabitants had no legitimate reason to be surprised when they discovered that they had been abandoned, that

The Great God
Had lazily closed one eye and let them slide
Above the English cliff and under so much history!

It could happen again. If the predictions about climate change are true, it will be.

My favorite Doggerland book is Cartography of Doggerland: Mesolithic Landscapes of the Southern North Sea, edited by Vincent Gaffney, Kenneth Thomson and Simon Finch (Archaeopress, 2007). There’s a great podcast discussion of the In our time series.