But the stories of the great flood give even more cause for thought. In South America it is the most commonly reported worldwide catastrophe. Masse found it in 171 myths among groups scattered from Tierra del Fuego in the south to the far northwest part of the continent. It is consistently the earliest disaster, always reported prior to the world fire, falling sky and darkness. In the vast majority of cases only a single great flood is described, which Masse thinks makes it unlikely that it represents recollection of local or regional flooding. And South America isn't the only place it occurs.
Of course, the biblical story of Noah's flood is well known, as is the related Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh and the flood. Many explanations have been advanced for these flood stories and others in the Middle East, most involving regional events like the sudden flooding of the Black Sea in the early Holocene. Back in 1994 Alexander and Edith Tollmann foreshadowed Masse's research by proposing a cosmic impact as the cause of a worldwide flood in about 9600 BC. The Tollmann's proposal has been widely rejected by scholars, and Masse is very critical of it, saying that the Tollmanns "mix the Biblical creation myth with flood myths, and make generalizations not warranted by the myths they use." Masse emphasizes the need to apply to myth research the same rigorous standards applied to other kinds of scientific study.
Attempting to apply such standards, Masse examined a worldwide sample of flood myths in 175 different cultures all over the world (most gathered and reported by noted anthropologist Sir James George Frazer in the early 1900s)--representing about 15% of the "great flood" myths that have been published in English. He hypothesized that if these myths reflected a single worldwide cataclysm, then the information encoded in them--the environmental aspects of the flood that they describe--should form a pattern across cultures that is consistent with a single event. Collectively they should create a plausible description of the event as experienced in different parts of the world, and that description should be consistent with archaeological and geophysical data. He analyzed his 175 myths with this hypothesis in mind, and found that "only a globally catastrophic deep-water oceanic comet impact can account for all the environmental information encoded in the corpus of worldwide flood myths."
Tsunamis and Rainstorms
The majority of the myths describe a torrential, long-duration rainstorm, in many cases accompanied by a huge tsunami. The water is often described as hot, sometimes coming as hot ocean swells, sometimes as burning rain. The described durations of the flood storm in the various myths, when plotted, form a bell-shaped curve with the great majority clustering between four and ten days. Tsunamis are described as extending between 15 and 100 km inland. Survivors typically find refuge in places between 150 and 300 meters above sea level.
Supernatural creatures are associated with the flood storm in nearly half the cases Masse studied. Typical are giant snakes or water serpents, giant birds, giant horned snakes, a fallen angel, a star with fiery tail, a tongue of fire, and similar elongated things in or from the sky. Looking in detail at descriptions in the mythology, particularly those of the Indian subcontinent, Masse sees a close resemblance to the naked-eye appearance of a near-earth post-perihelion comet.
Sixteen of the myths Masse examined describe when the flood storm occurred in terms of seasonal indicators. Fourteen myths are from Northern Hemisphere groups, and place the event in the spring. The one from the Southern Hemisphere places it in the fall--that is, spring north of the equator. Seven stories give the time in terms of lunar phase--six at the time of the full Moon, another two days later. Stories from Africa and South America say it happened at the time of a lunar eclipse, which can only occur when the Moon is full. A 4th century BC Babylonian account specifies a full Moon in late April or early May.
Chinese sources recount how the cosmic monster Gong Gong knocked over a pillar of heaven and caused flooding toward the end of the reign of Empress Nu Wa, around 2810 BC. The 3rd century BC Egyptian historian Manetho says there was an "immense disaster" (but doesn't say what kind) during the reign of the pharaoh Semerkhet, around 2800 BC. The tomb of Semerkhet's successor, Qa'a, was built of poorly dried mud bricks and timbers showing unusual decay; the following pharaohs of the second dynasty relocated the royal cemetery to higher ground. Masse's analysis of astrological references in multiple myths from the Middle East, India and China--describing planetary conjunctions associated with the flood storm, whose actual times of occurrence can be reconstructed using contemporary astronomy software--leads him to conclude that the event happened on or about May 10, 2807 BC.
What was it that happened? Masse thinks the myths provide clues to that, too. For one thing, they report massive rain, falling for days at a time. This turns out to be exactly what can be expected if a large comet plunged into the deep ocean--it would loft nearly ten times its mass of water into the upper atmosphere, where it would spread widely and then fall, taking days to empty the skies. A large impact in the ocean would also cause gigantic tsunamis, as many of the myths report. In India, for example, Tamil myths tell of the sea rushing 100 km inland, a hundred meters deep.