Underworld

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Is interglacial flooding really such a good thing? Let us know what you think on the Mysteries Message Board!

God’s Garden
By Christopher F. Ash

In part one of this series, Christopher Ash suggested that Eemian Inter-Glacial flooding of coastal lowlands (the same coastal lowlands that now lie under water during our current Holocene Era) may hold the key to explaining the settlement patterns Hancock claims for his hypothesized, first urban Ice Age culture. Now, in part two, Christopher continues the discussion with a dissection of Hancock’s understanding of Ice Age lowland conditions, as outlined in Underworld.

Part 2: The Silt Solution

In Underworld, Graham Hancock accounts for the exclusive, seashore settlement of his pre-historic urbanites with only the barest outline of an hypothesized, environmental push-pull scenario.

In his notes for Chapter Three, entitled Meltdown, Hancock writes:

E.g. scenario: Population is tempted to migrate to coasts, or to low-lying valleys near coasts, by improved conditions; several thousand years of stability and prosperity; all eggs placed in the basket of the coastal cities; flooding suddenly resumes and engulfs the cities; there are only a few survivors etc.

Again, on page 272 of Underworld, Hancock tantalizes us with the following speculation…

…many of the coastal lands that were inundated would have offered desirable refugia from inhospitable and unpredictable Ice Age conditions….

Nowhere does Hancock provide detail for what constituted these “improved conditions.” In fact, in neither instance does he explain why his hypothesized Ice Age peoples would have placed “all eggs in the [coastal city] basket.”

Nevertheless, his essential premise is clear: “inhospitable” conditions in inland areas pushed early humans toward the seas while “desirable” conditions along the “coastal lands” pulled the population in the same direction. Hancock does not detail the nature of either variable: neither what accounted for the supposed hostile conditions of the inland areas nor what constituted the attractive qualities of the coastal plains.

The closest Hancock comes to offering a cognizant explanation for the above scenario is to suggest that the outer extremities of rivers, especially river deltas, proved particularly attractive to the first urban humans (Deltas are formed from the deposit of sediment, transported by rivers).

In a discussion of Taiwan in on page 635 of Underworld, Hancock writes:

These long-lost coastal plains [between Tiawan and the Chinese Mainland, were] fertile with the silt of the Ancient Yangtze and Yellow rivers….

The idea that rich soils deposited by rivers attracted a human presence is certainly plausible and even likely. That a relatively numerous population might have been supported is also reasonable, as there are many examples around the world, both modern and historical, that illustrate the high productive yield of river deltas (even without agricultural exploitation). However, though the melting of the ice caps would doubtlessly have submerged any settlements many Ice Age deltas contained – urban or otherwise – it is questionable whether the attractive qualities of deltas alone can explain the exclusivity of the settlement pattern hypothesized for Hancock’s original urban civilizations.

Historically, civilization does not appear exclusively at river mouths. Many of the greatest ancient cities emerged at points far from the coast – often (as with the biblical “Garden of Eden”) at the headwaters of rivers -- quite the last place one would look for a delta. If post Ice Age civilization was possible in areas other than river deltas, without compelling evidence to the contrary, there seems no reason to assume that the rules were much different during the Ice Age – especially in equatorial India where Ice caps and “harsh conditions” might presumably have been relegated to mountain highlands.

Some scientists have argued that the rules in fact were different during the Ice Age: that climate conditions were such that large-scale settlements, supported by inland food sources, were practically impossible.

The “Little Ice Age” of Europe, many have argued, offers us a glimpse of the pre-Holocene, Ice Age environment, and its potential impact upon the food supply (whether grown or gathered).

Between the years 1450 and 1850, the global climate cooled by approximately two degrees (compared with the average nine degree drop that characterized the Ice Age). This period has been described as characterized by…

…repeated famine and cultural dislocation, as many people fled regions that had become hostile even to subsistence agriculture.

If a mere two-degree drop could produce measurable changes in human settlement patterns, we might reasonably expect a nine-degree drop to have had an even more dramatic effect.

If the Ice Age world was one in which only areas of high soil potency had the capacity to produce large quantities of foodstuffs, this would go some way toward supporting Hancock’s scenario. The “push” factor of a harsh worldwide climate might keep urban settlements from encroaching deeply into inland territories while the “pull” factor of relatively rich river deltas could draw human settlers to the shores in search of sustenance.

If we examine the Ice Age climate of India, we find some additional support for Hancock’s scenario (see side bar and animation). The vast expanse of the subcontinent was, at that time, dominated by desert, grassland and scrub. This seems to suggest an environment hostile to food production, both natural and (if anywhere existent) human engineered. Perhaps, now-submerged river deltas may have served as relatively bountiful refugia from this seemingly hostile world (indeed, it must be said that, if conditions in inland India were as harsh as the “Little Ice Age” might indicate, perhaps we ought to be surprised to find anyone at all living there!).

Nevertheless, though Hancock’s scenario appears defensible, it remains somewhat problematic.

Deltas are of limited carrying capacity. Civilizations that have settled on or originated at river deltas have historically tended to spread up the accompanying rivers – in keeping with their expanding population. This was the case with Ancient Egypt, where storage and transportation techniques permitted the outlying Nile delta to become the breadbasket for a community spanning a much larger mass of land (the river itself, providing a ready flow of fertile deposits to human settlers along its shore – even in the heart of what would otherwise have been a desert).

Had a scenario similar to the Egyptian model occurred before the Holocene, remnants of the larger civilization would almost certainly have survived in the archeological record, as glacial melt-water would have submerged only the outward extremities of the great rivers.

Thus, if Hancock’s civilization was born at the river mouths of the Ice Age world, for some unknown reason, it failed to spread up the lengths of the connecting waterways. As this appears to imply a lack of suitable storage and transportation techniques, Hancock’s civilization starts to look a lot less like a sophisticated urban society and more like a populous and (for a time) fortunate group of Paleolithic scavengers that simply stumbled upon a particularly fertile refugia.

Of course, if the particular deltas on which urban developments emerged were limited to those surrounded by large areas of low-lying plains – plains that were destined to sink below sea level – this would assure the extinction of the surrounding population centers supported by the delta bread basket.

Unfortunately, this essentially gets us back where we started: arbitrarily picking and choosing particular oceanfronts for hypothesized antediluvian cities. While the notion of the Ice Age fertile delta might explain to some extent why civilization originally located in the low lands, it appears inadequate, even in the context of climatic data, to explain why civilization failed to radiate up-river and leave its “fingerprints” in the present archeological record.

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