Skip to comments.Tracking Myth to Geological Reality
Posted on 11/05/2005 12:20:12 PM PST by Lessismore
Once dismissed, myths are winning new attention from geologists who find that they may encode valuable data about earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and other stirrings of the earth
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON--James Rasmussen, owner of a funky used-record store called Bud's Jazz, and Ruth Ludwin, a seismologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, make an unlikely professional team. Late last year, they were walking down the beach near the bustling Fauntleroy ferry dock, searching for a reddish sandstone boulder. Native American legends-Rasmussen belongs to the local Duwamish people-say the boulder is haunted by a'yahos, a spirit with the body of a serpent and the antlers and forelegs of a deer. Old folks used to say not to look in the direction of a'yahos because it could shake the ground or turn you to stone. "It was not at all clear to me what my granddad was talking about when he said you should be careful as you travel through here along the shore," said Rasmussen. "Then I heard the scientific evidence, and it got me thinking about the old stories." The evidence is this: In the 1990s, geophysical images and excavations revealed a huge, hidden fault traversing Seattle. Disturbed soils and other evidence show that 1100 years ago, it produced a quake that would level Seattle today. Scientists agree that the fault could slip again at any time, toppling buildings and elevated highways. The city's infrastructure is now being reinforced for disaster. Ludwin, Rasmussen, and others have documented at least five Seattle-area legend sites related to shaking, including the boulder, all aligned along the fault near old landslides and other signs of seismic violence. They conclude that the threat was encoded in folklore long before scientists uncovered physical signs.
More and more geoscientists are willing to combine their work with such stories these days, in a budding discipline called geomythology. Volcanologist Floyd McCoy of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, says discussing myth has traditionally been "a good way to sink your own credibility"; it can put you on the list with flaky Atlantologists and other amateur zealots. But, says McCoy, "I'd be a fool to write it all off. There is a new realization that some myths have something to say." Myths can sometimes alert researchers to previously unheeded geohazards; in other cases, where science has demonstrated the danger, legends "enrich the record" and reinforce the fact that people lie in harm's way, says paleoseismologist Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Seattle, who has spearheaded many studies of seismic events in the Pacific Northwest. The trick is teasing out which myths carry kernels of truth that can be connected to hard data.
Deities of flood and fire
The movement traces in part to the 1980s, when scientists realized that the slow march of geologic time is sometimes punctuated by biblical-scale catastrophes, such as the giant meteorite that wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years ago. After this was accepted, some (usually those with tenure) felt freer to wonder if near-universal myths of great floods and fires implied that such disasters also have punctuated human time. In the 1990s, Columbia University marine geologists Walter Pitman and William Ryan argued that rising Mediterranean sea levels following the last deglaciation topped what is now the Bosporus Strait and roared into the Black Sea 7600 years ago, serving as the original inspiration for the biblical flood. Their work triggered sharp criticism and a torrent of research, resulting in growing acceptance of some sort of Black Sea flooding (Science, 22 September 2000, p. 2021). Whether the book of Genesis somehow grew from this is a further step, admits Ryan, who presented his latest findings at the International Geoscience Program in Istanbul, Turkey, in early October.
Recent studies on more local disasters have raised the field's stock, with geoscientists connecting myths to past disasters in North America, the Mideast, Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. For example, Ludwin's study on the Seattle fault came out this year in Seismological Research Letters, along with a paper in which she discusses dozens of aboriginal stories about times when the ocean along British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon rolled up in great waves, carrying away coastal villages. Native people often described these events as a battle between a great whale and a thunderbird.
Paleoseismologists have a modern explanation: Quaking along the offshore subduction zone has produced at least a dozen huge tsunamis at intervals of 200 to 1000 years, as shown by shore deposits including inland sand sheets and mud that buried native camps. The most recent wave is dated through tree rings and other evidence to January 1700; scientists agree the next can come any time.
The utility of myth became clear in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. While up to 300,000 people are thought to have died, the indigenous seafaring Moken people of Thailand almost all survived. Their traditions warn that when the tide recedes far and fast--as happens before tsunamis--a man-eating wave is coming, and everyone should run. They did.
Patrick Nunn, a geoscientist at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, believes such stories can be harnessed to find other hidden geohazards. He currently has a grant from the French government to collect tales that might pinpoint islands where scientists should look for warnings of earthquakes, volcanoes, or catastrophic landslides not included in written records. These include common motifs in which deities "fish up" islands from the water and sometimes throw them back. Nunn thinks such tales may encode sudden uplifts, subsidences, or flank collapses of islands, and he has already confirmed that sinking islands are not just myths. He has correlated at least a half-dozen stories with actual land masses seen by early European seafarers but which are now gone; a few were never charted but have since been located just under the waves, exactly where the stories said they were.
Nunn's studies have also turned up a surprise. People on the volcanic island of Kadavu, Fiji, have a suggestive legend about a big mountain that popped up one night, and locals say they have heard rumbling from the main cone recently. In 1998, Nunn and others investigated the volcano but decided on preliminary evidence that it had not erupted for 50,000 years. The island has been inhabited for only 3000 years, so they concluded that the myth was imported. Months later, a new road cut revealed pot shards under a meter-deep layer of ash. "The myth was right, and we were wrong," says Nunn.
Myths may provide unusually precise tools in the Pacific because some are tied to royal genealogies that can be roughly dated. In Hawaii, where the genealogies go back 95 generations, archaeologist Bruce Masse of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has compiled stories of battles between the fire deity Pele and others that seem to relate to volcanic eruptions; the reigns of kings at the time of the "battles" correlate within a few decades to radiocarbon dates of burned vegetation under lava sheets. Other tales apparently record celestial events. One, said to have taken place during the reign of King Kakuhihewa, narrates a human sacrifice at dawn interrupted by giant owls who fly across the sun. When Masse lined up the number of generations with recent NASA tables that calculate times of past events, he hit a match: A rare solar eclipse took place over Hawaii precisely at sunrise on 10 April 1679.
Myth has also figured in work at Nyos, a crater lake in Cameroon that exploded and killed 1700 people in 1986. The disaster was at first a mystery, with no signs of volcanic eruption. Scientists finally figured out that carbon dioxide bubbling from deep rocks had slowly built up in the water, then burst out and suffocated all living things nearby--a phenomenon never observed by scientists. It could have been dismissed as a one-time fluke except for the fact that the region is full of stories about haunted lakes that rise, sink, or blow up. Anthropologist Eugenia Shanklin of The College of New Jersey in Trenton, who collected the stories, says many local people have taboos against living near lakes and instead dwell on high ground. Scientists now know that gas buildup affects at least one other lake in the region, Lake Monoun, as well as giant Lake Kivu in east Africa, which has 2 million people living on its shores. The myths "helped tell us it happened before, and it will happen again," says geochemist William Evans of USGS in Menlo Park, California, who is working to remove gas now rebuilding in Nyos and Monoun.
Next year, the Geological Society of London will publish Geology and Myth, a collection of papers by Shanklin, Nunn, and others. Co-editor Luigi Piccardi, a structural geologist at the National Research Council of Italy, says he hopes it will lead colleagues to take the field more seriously.
Among other work, Piccardi has studied a cataclysmic 493 C.E. appearance at southern Italy's Monte Sant'Angelo by the Archangel Michael, said to have left his footprint in the rocks--code, Piccardi says, for a big, previously unauthenticated earthquake. In the late 1990s, Piccardi found ample physical evidence for the event, including a dramatic fault scarp in the floor of the popular shrine to the apparition, long hidden until it was uncovered in archaeological excavations-- the apparent "footprint." In 2001, the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome upgraded the area to seismic high risk. This may also be an example of how geomyths are periodically reinvented in places where disasters reoccur: The shrine was previously an oracle and supposed entry to the underworld dedicated to the Greek seer Kalchas, who is mentioned in The Iliad. Piccardi's description of the shrine is in press at Tectonophysics. Piccardi is currently studying the possibility that many ancient sites of worship and miracles are over active faults, on the theory that past rumblings and cracking have been transmuted into visits by monsters and gods.
One such example is the oracle at Delphi, Greece. Here, priestesses were said to enter prophetic trances by inhaling the breath of the god Apollo from a magical chasm; people came from around the ancient world to hear their words. While the oracle was indisputably real, classical scholars wrote off the chasm as an invention--until geologist Jelle de Boer of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and archaeologist John Hale of the University of Louisville in Kentucky published a series of papers on the oracle over the past few years. De Boer and Hale showed that the ruins of Delphi lie over the juncture of two faults that conduct up psychoactive hydrocarbon gases through a spring, exactly as described in ancient accounts. (Why some prophecies were uncannily accurate is another question.) This summer, de Boer and Hale visited the partially excavated ruins of the oracles of Apollo at Klaros and Didyma in southwest Turkey and detected hydrocarbon gases there too.
From story to data
The process of translating myth into geology, or vice versa, can be murky, but Elizabeth Barber, a professor of linguistics and archaeology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, believes it can be done scientifically. In the recent book When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, she argues that transmutations of reality into myth take predictable courses, with natural forces often turned into supernatural beings (Science, 27 May, p. 1261). Some examples seem straightforward. A story from the Klamath people of Oregon about a battle between the chiefs of Above World and Below World is faithful in every geologic detail to the volcanic explosion of Mount Mazama and the formation of Crater Lake in its place, from the rain of burning ash and rock to many years of rainfall afterward that eventually filled in the crater--a process that started 7000 years ago. Other legends are more confusing. These include a hypothesis that the pillars of cloud and fire that guided the Hebrews from Egypt came from the 1625 B.C.E. volcanic eruption of Thera in the Mediterranean. Here, mismatches between dates of the events and problems with the Hebrews' route lead Barber to think the account is conflated from several real but distinct events. "The question is how often and in what cases you can take it back literally," she said.
Other researchers' hypotheses about events as widely varied as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the death of King Arthur (said by some to relate to a catastrophic comet impact) suffer similar problems of time and space. Efforts to connect myths with comet or meteorite impacts have met with skepticism. Repeated, undetected big impacts in human time "contradict everything we know about the rate of impacts on Earth, and the inventory of what's out there now, and their dynamics," says David Morrison of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, head of the global Near Earth Object Working Group, which tracks celestial objects that might endanger Earth.
The pendulum may have swung too far in favor of accepting myths, says social anthropologist Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., who runs the Cambridge Conference Network, an Internet clearinghouse for catastrophist theories. Now that more people are willing to listen, he says, too many scientists are invoking myth "left, right, and center to explain everything." In a paper at a late-October workshop on natural catastrophes in the ancient Mediterranean, he asserts that no major myths have yet met scientific standards, although he does credit some regional ones, such as the Pacific Northwest earthquakes. "That's not all bad," he says. "This is all so new, you expect more speculation than hard evidence. The refinements can come later."
From his perspective as a storyteller, James Rasmussen, the record-store owner, also expresses reservations about how much myths can reveal. When he and Ludwin reached the spot where the a'yahos boulder was supposed to be, it was gone. In its place was a big wooden chair in front of someone's beach house. "Maybe it's been hauled away," said Ludwin. "Maybe the tide buried it in the sand," said Rasmussen. They poked around for a while among the foam cups, logs, and newspapers littering the beach and finally gave up. "Maybe some things show themselves for a while, and we get a little understanding," said Rasmussen. "Then they go away again, and they don't want to be found."
Kevin Krajick is the author of Barren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North American Arctic.
The following websites are portals into the realm of myth and catastrophe based on the work of Immanuel Velikovsky, author of the 1950's best seller "Worlds in Collision".
walter alter artist - wiseguy - savant
The skeptics seem to call anything they don't understand "myth". Yet these so called myths have been repeatedly proven to be fact as shovels of sand unearth the proof. These skeptics are metaphysically challenged and seem to view ANY and ALL religions as a conscious social creation of humans. Right. I wonder if there isn't a kernal of truth to the various "myths" and supernatural stories of humans who originated the "myths" and religions---possibly a visitation from the metaphysical realm (angels, demons, etc) which of course cannot be scientifically reproduced. Hey, if the bible says it, I believe it. It has an amazing track record archaeologically, historically, and prophectically. Alot more statistically significant than that of the so called experts (skeptics).
Actually they haven't; what's happened is that many have been shown to have some portion of truth behind them, but they're generally never precisely correct or completely factual.
For example, it's quite obvious and easily demonstrable that the entire earth has never been flooded with water at the same time, certainly not during the time that humans have existed.
However, It's POSSIBLE that the Biblical flood myth has some origin in a sudden Black Sea flood (that, incidentally, had nothing to do with "Forty Days and Forty Nights" of rainfall or any rainfall at all).
Well, if you can accept there being an invisible man in the sky, I guess we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss minotaurs and snakes with antlers.
It may be more accurate to think of them as stories or oral traditions, rather than myths.
And myth doesn't necessarily connote "false." One definition is "truth told in different form."
"Let there be light." or "Subatomic particles cooled enough for photons to escape." could be different ways to say the same thing.
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Velikovsky was a classic. The crushed mammoths and sabertooth cats he described in Fairbanks gold placer mines are still here, mysterious as ever.
The First Fossil Hunters:
Greek and Roman Times
by Adrienne Mayor
Fossil Legends of the First Americans
by Adrienne Mayor
Thanks for the ping!
The Fall and Rise of Catastrophism[T]he scientific issues have been clouded by a supposed association between catastrophism and religion. Rightly or wrongly, it has generally been thought that the catastrophists of the nineteenth century and earlier believed that God was directly involved in determining the history of the Earth... It should go without saying that twentieth century catastrophism, often called neocatastrophism, is founded entirely in science, relying solely on natural forces for its explanations, but was eighteenth and nineteenth century catastrophism completely different? Was it so dominated by supernatural elements that any scientific content it may have claimed was without value? That was certainly the prevailing view for most of the present century. Catastrophists have been condemned for putting dogma before observational science, whereas their rivals, the gradualists (also called uniformitarians) have been praised for taking the opposite stance.
by Trevor Palmer
Very enjoyable article, thanks. Geomyths. Will we believe what the ancients try to tell us or ignore their efforts to describe their experiences?
That misses the subtle difference between gradualism and uniformitarianism, or at least can be misleading to laymen. Uniformitarianism doesn't have to be so strict that there aren't catastrophic events.
Nobody listens to geologists, anyway...why should we listen to geologists who augment their study with the advantage of myths? :-(
But one point that must be clear is that not all myths have the predictive power that others do. And if you've played the party game "telephone," don't you wonder how the knowledge gets passed on accurately? Some elements are crucial to stories, others are not...so one part of a myth might be real, and the other not.
Uniformitarianism doesn't have to be so strict that there aren't catastrophic events.That misses the not-so-subtle century and a half or so of strictly political struggle against catastrophe (of any kind) as an explanation for anything. There is still resistance to the consequences of impacts from space (or even the reality thereof) on Earth, on the Moon, on Mars...
It remains easy to bash Bretz' critics, just as it is easy to bash Barringer's (Meteor Crater AZ) critics, or for that matter, Aristotle who wrote that stones don't fall from the sky, but rather have been picked up by the winds from elsewhere. An argument similar to Aristotle's has been used to "explain" beech tree fossils recovered from Antarctica, and dating less than 3 million years old (IOW, that the fossils were carried there by the wind -- speaking of lazy explanations).Channeled Scablands: OverviewBeginning in 1923, J. Harlan Bretz began arguing that the curious channeled terrain of Washington State was the result of stupendous floods. This idea was highly controversial. It is, of course, easy to bash Bretz's critics in hindsight, until we recall that catastrophist theories are a dime a dozen and are often the lazy way to explain phenomena. In 1925, J.T Pardee suggested that sudden drainage of a large glacial lake could have supplied the water, but it is not until the 1940's that he follows this suggestion up with field investigations.
by Steven Dutch
University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
9 April 2003, Last Update 21 November 2003
My point is that while extreme views of concepts (e.g., Lyell's) might have held much of the attention, there were plenty who saw it more like we do today.
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