Archaeologists have theorized many ancient flood events might have been the inspiration for the story of Noah. Few, however, would have matched the speed and size of a tsunami that hit the area that is now northern Israel between 9,910 and 9,290 years ago, possibly searing itself into the collective memory of those who survived.
The eastern Mediterranean region is tragically prone to tsunami-inducing earthquakes and submarine landslides. In recent years, there is evidence of minor tsunami events every decade or so. Deposits from larger waves have been found at a rate of around one every 160 years since Roman times. Typically, these have been found to travel around 300 meters (1,000 feet) inland in low-lying coastal areas.
Dr Gilad Shtienberg of the University of California San Diego is studying sediment cores collected at Tel Dor, south of Haifa. “Our project focuses on reconstructing ancient climate and environmental change over the past 12,000 years along the Israeli coast,” Shteinberg said in a statement.
The last ice age finished around the start of the period Shtienberg is studying, so sea levels were still rising as glaciers caught up with the new warmth. Consequently, the shoreline was a long way from where it lies now.
In PLoS ONE Shtienberg and co-authors estimate the shells and marine sand they found at Dor were collected between 1.5 and 3.5 kilometers (0.9-2.2 miles) away, at what was then the coast, in what was then a freshwater wetland, suggesting something on a very different scale. The authors calculate it must have been between 16 and 40 meters (50-130 feet) high at the coast.
Inevitably, many coastal villages – and even those some way inland – must have been wiped out to the point we have no record of them. Even villages on higher ground may have been abandoned if the land they depended on was inundated. On the other hand, we have abundant evidence of the area’s settlement from at least 8,000 years ago.
“We never dreamed of finding evidence of a prehistoric tsunami in Israel,” Shtienberg added. “When we cut the cores open in San Diego and started seeing a marine shell layer embedded in the dry Neolithic landscape, we knew we hit the jackpot."
Stalactites in a cave on the nearby Carmel ridge record evidence of a major earthquake around 10,000 years ago. Seafloor mapping off Israel’s coast reveals evidence of two landslides large enough to trigger tsunamis of this scale, but their timing is unknown – although one estimate places them within the last 17,000 years.
The paper does not speculate on the possibility survivors’ tales of such an epic event might have been handed down over millennia before their conversion into the Biblical flood. However, we now know Indigenous people in Australia kept alive memories of rising seas and volcanic eruptions over even greater spans of time.