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Noah’s Ark and a Mongolian Brain Drain


What if the biblical story of the Flood was an early exercise in counterfactual history? The well-known version suggests that, amid a world-destroying rise in the water level, Noah built an ark and optimized its passenger list to save biodiversity as best he could.


The plot is more or less similar in the pre-biblical versions: divinities, bored or angered by humanity, wipe out their habitat, and a culture hero emerges to spawn a new and improved survivor class. And as animals were also saved, it’s only right that humans have the perpetual right to eat them.

A common Christian reading – which drove vast amounts of archeological efforts in eastern Turkey – is that all this happened around 4,000 years ago. Recently, secular scholarship version came up with a model by which the flood was a plausible event, albeit it happened 8,000 years ago when a collapse in the Laurentide Ice Sheet – that’s basically Canada – triggering a 1.4 meter rise in global sea levels and a kind of tsunami effect that force the Mediterranean to flood the Black Sea.

Lots of people were displaced, including some nerdy early technologists engaged in something known as farming decamped further west.

But wait. What if what really happened was a catastrophic drought of sorts, the opposite of a flood?

Chinese scientists have just reported that groundwater sapping –essentially one giant river successfully draining a great lake- led to the rapid and irreversible desertification of a chunk of Inner Mongolia. This area was once a verdant paradise, an Eden of sorts, and home to Neolithic Hongshan peoples able to make jade artifacts with symmetrical designs, including one that might be China’s first dragon-like symbol.

A convincingly-described “threshold event” – involving deep geology that won’t be amenable to current efforts to reforest the arid region – occurred around 4,200 years ago, rapidly drying up the area and forcing mass migrations.

It would hardly be a shock if further research finds evidence that the people fleeing the Hundshandake Sandy Lands brought with them agricultural skills and offer a new way to crack one of the world’s great mysteries: Where did rice, the staple diet for half the world’s population, really originate, the staple diet for half the world’s population, really originate?

It’s possible that the flood and the giant sucking sound both actually happened. Then we could have a bunch of neat contrasts between clearly-divided world cultures that so many people enjoy.

Of course, it’s probably more complicated. These ecosystem calamities pushed people around. Recent genetic research suggests that contemporary Europeans, for example, appear to be the product of a powerful and late surge in arrivals from the Central Asian steppes – about, as it happens, 4,500 years ago – that basically took over from a rump population of primitive farmers.

Genomic tests suggests that the newcomers, good with livestock and pottery, were mostly the Yamnaya, who appear to have moved to Europe in a hurry, possibly using the wheels they had invented, and perhaps bringing Indo-European language roots with them.

The stakes are high here, at least in the Western Culture bazaar. Many prefer the thesis that farming was born in Anatolia and the flood moved its practitioners west. But the Yamnaya thesis suggests we’re basically quasi-Siberian hunters and gatherers at heart.

Two researchers at a business school in Sweden highlight the debate in a paper published this month published this month that purports to track “the long-run influence of the Neolithic Revolution on contemporary cultural norms” and finds that core agriculturalist societies end up being collectivist and centered on obedience, prompting individualists to migrate away and advance the frontier of democracy!

The Hundshandake discovery suggests that perhaps the real agents of change were hill peoples who themselves may have been reacting to the arrival of refugees from a suddenly-desertified Eden.

Even if there’s no difference, that is a distinction.


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