In the well-known story told among Christians, Jews and Muslims (and in movie theaters this week), God chose to destroy the Earth with a great flood but spared one man, Noah, and his family. On God’s command, Noah built a huge boat, an ark, and filled it with two of every animal. God covered the Earth with water, drowning everyone and everything that once roamed the land. Noah, his family and the animals on the ark survived and repopulated the planet.
Science: Similar flood tales are told in many cultures, but there never was a global deluge. For one, there’s just not enough water in the Earth system to cover all the land. But, Nunn says, “it may well be that Noah’s flood is a recollection of a large wave that drowned for a few weeks a particular piece of land and on that piece of land there was nowhere dry to live.” Some geologists think that the Noah story may have been influenced by a catastrophic flooding event in the Black Sea around 5,000 B.C.
There’s a natural tendency for people to exaggerate their memories, to turn a bad event into a far worse one. And a global flood is one explanation for something like the discovery of fossil seashells on the side of a mountain, says Adrienne Mayor, a historian of ancient science at Stanford University. We now know, though, that plate tectonics are responsible for lifting up rocks from the ocean floor to high elevations.