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Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution: An Overview

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Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution: An Overview

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Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural
Evolution: An Overview
Ioannis Liritzis
†‡§††
*, Alexander Westra
†‡
, and Changhong Miao
†‡
Key Research Institute of Yellow River Civilization and
Sustainable Development and Collaborative Innovation
Center on Yellow River Civilization of Henan Province
Henan University
Kaifeng 475001, China
College of Environment and Planning
University of Henan
Henan, China
§
Department of Mediterranean Studies
Laboratory of Archaeometry
University of the Aegean
Rhodes, Greece
††
Department of Mediterranean Studies
Laboratory of Environmental Archaeology and Preventive Conservation
University of the Aegean
Rhodes, Greece
ABSTRACT
Liritzis, I.; Westra, A., and Miao, C., 2019. Disaster geoarchaeology and natural cataclysms in world cultural evolution:
An overview. Journal of Coastal Research, 35(6), 1307–1330. Coconut Creek (Florida), ISSN 0749-0208.
Human records of short-term, catastrophic, geological processes, mainly in coastal or fluvial environments, and related
phenomena in historic and prehistoric times have to be considered as functions of event intensities and impacts (and
damages) caused on ancient human settlements and lives. Catastrophic events, such as, floods, earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions, tsunamis, and the collapse of ancient cultures, in particular, those allied to the birth of myths and legends, are
the subject of long-lasting, vivid debate. Longer-term, more-or-less consecutive, geological processes and climatic
fluctuations have a more pronounced effect on human history. Historical accounts provide many descriptions about
cultural evolution in a recurrent manner. The geoarchives (geology, sedimentology, and geomorphology) and the human
record (archaeology and history) are considered documentary evidence of these past events. Astronomical causes have
introduced severe phenomena (warming, heavy precipitation, monsoons, droughts) imposed on ancient societies,
including catastrophic meteor impact. Terrestrial upheavals and astronomical impacts have introduced a nonlinear
character of a quasiperiodic nature in transforming human cultural evolution and reshaping the earth’s surface. The
transient nature of geological, geophysical, and proxy climatic indices, as well as, astronomical phenomena within the
solar system, exhibit a wide spectrum of quasiperiodic frequencies as variable and effective environmental factors,
which, in addition to anthropogenic factors, reshape the human context. Several conspicuous examples have been
reported on mythological deluges and their relation to natural catastrophes. The Anthropocene sea level rise and climatic
episodes have had a decisive and prominent role on coastlines and human settlements. Alluvial sediments, sedimentary
deposits, and land modifications have drastic effects on settlements. These effects were memorized as floods, deluges, and
fallen sky. World examples of disasters derived from the coastal Mediterranean, the Great Flood of Gun-Yu in China, and
those from South America, Mesopotamia, and the Middle East and others, were critically assessed with scientific
methods.
ADDITIONAL INDEX WORDS: Tsunami, earthquakes, deluge, volcanoes, myth, flood, geomythology, geoarchaeology,
Mediterranean, Late Bronze Age.
INTRODUCTION
Disaster archaeology is a fast-growing field, which has
established a unique area of study related to environmental
studies, risk management, and policies for prevention and
mitigation during the historical and prehistorical periods
(Gould, 2007; Laoupi, 2016). The impact of disasters to both
humans and to the ecosystems’ resilience vary considerably in
the causes and frequency and on the postdisaster effects they
had on past human societies and ecosystems. This article
focuses primarily on coastal natural disasters that directly
affected human society, often to a catastrophic scale, and which
resulted in the total or near-total extinction of that human
society, a global phenomenon that has gone on since the dawn
of hominoids and life on earth. World case studies are explored,
including inland China and the relationship between the
seismic fault lines and the Yellow River; the comparable
relationship between seismic faults and river systems found in
Mesopotamia; and the Mediterranean region, and, overall, the
causes for coastal destruction of human settlement from the
DOI: 10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-19-00035.1 received 24 March 2019;
accepted in revision 13 May 2019; corrected proofs received
18 June 2019.
*Corresponding author: liritzis@rhodes.aegean.gr
Ó
Coastal Education and Research Foundation, Inc. 2019
Journal of Coastal Research 35 6 1307–1330 Coconut Creek, Florida November 2019
Paleolithic to the present day are explored. Such past events
are understood today through environmental, geographical,
geological, and archeological sciences. Modern societies are
aware of seismic fault lines, flood plains, or typhoons that
occasionally ravage lands, yet, in modern times, even with
stronger architecture and engineering, organized aid, and
international cooperation, can still produce fatal results in
human societies, in lieu of potential resilience to the effects of
the natural disasters that affect them. Ancient societies were
not as resilient because they did not have early warning
systems, strong housing construction, or many of the current
supporting structures. However, as will be shown, in past
societies, some rulers were keenly aware of the destructive
potential that could one day befall their society. Either for
cosmological, religious, or secular reasons, the ancient world
was as concerned as modern world is today with the potential
impending catastrophes that beleaguer human society.
Coastal destructions are primarily attributed to tsunamis
and earthquakes, but can be caused by fluvial flooding, as well,
including the gradual processes of silting or sea-level rise,
accumulated stress, and outbursts in a ‘‘catastrophic’’ manner.
Tsunamis can be born out of an earthquake at sea, a volcanic
eruption, or even a comet impact (Bryant, 2001).
In the past four decades, the study of cosmic events and the
impact of large meteorites has undergone a remarkable
renaissance in being considered as potential triggers for radical
change on geological timescales and in prehistoric cultures. In
such theories, archaeological horizons indicative of destruction
events are combined with evidence from geoarchaeology, ice-
core analyses, historical accounts, and mythical traditions and
are put forward as evidence for cultural disasters caused by
cosmic events.
This article critically considers the underlying concepts of
natural disastersand mythical deluges, as well as, the methods
that are meant to corroborate them.
The definitions of the terms ‘‘catastrophe’’ and ‘‘disaster’’
especially in connection with ‘‘culture’’—are strongly disputed
within the scientific literature. The least-common interpreta-
tion is that ‘‘catastrophe’’ means an abrupt, violent event, with
human victims. Any further aspects, such as changes in
political and societal coherence, abandonment of a region, or
changes in material culture, are controversial if they are used
to try to characterize a ‘‘catastrophe’’ (Torrence and Grattan,
2002). It is important to be aware of this fact because, in
everyday speech, the term ‘‘catastrophe’’ is applied very loosely
to any awful event, and a catastrophe can appear more
disastrous, the more unthinkable its trigger is.
A‘‘catastrophe’’ is defined as an abrupt event, and in the case
of a cosmic event, e.g., the impact of a big meteorite or a
tsunami, ‘‘abrupt’’ does not mean within decades but within a
few minutes (Rappengl¨uck, 2008). However, a sequence of
events may occur over a short period of a few decades that leads
to the demise of a region.
Catastrophic events caused by floods, earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions, and tsunamis, and current hypotheses concerning
the Gun-Yu flood, Gilgamesh, Noah’s flood, the loss of mythical
Atlantis, and the collapse of the Minoan civilization, or more
generally, with the birth of myths and legends, are the subject
of long-lasting, vivid debate. Longer-term, continuous geolog-
ical processes, such as delta progradation, land subsidence or
uplift, and global sea-level and climatic fluctuations also have
an impact and interrelate with the relatively short period of
human history (Wiener, 2018).
The notion of natural events spelling the demise of a society
can be traced back to the earliest form of written accounts,
mythical or historical. The pyramid texts of Egypt contain
many descriptions of the evolution of cultures during cyclical
periods, which in the well-known graphical model presented by
the Uroboros is explicitly evoked by the serpent’s mouth
(Bickel, 2007; Faulkner, 1969; Niwinski, 1981; Popielska-
Grzybowska and Iwaszczuk, 2013).
The Stoics, the philosophical school that was founded by Zeno
from Kition, Cyprus, around 308 BC, generally believed the
world to be subject to periodic episodes of destruction and the
emergence of new worlds from the ashes (see Lives of the
Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes La¨ertius, in Hicks, 1925).
Ancient geographers and historians provide valuable reports
on destructive phenomena. In fact, one could assert that the
memory or prophecy of cataclysmic destruction of a world is
probably a consistent feature of human societies’ memories and
histories.
In modern environmental and archaeological science, a 1993
survey identified 47 major positions in mainland Greece,
Cyprus, Crete, Asia Minor, and the Near East that had traces
of the destruction at the end of the Late Bronze Age (LBA)
between 1225 to 1175 BC (Cline, 2014; Knapp and Manning,
2016). Seismic events can be archived within the geological
record; therefore, to understand their impact on the history of
ancient populated areas, the geoarchives and the human record
should both be considered. In the antiquity of the Mediterra-
nean and throughout the world, there are a number of
examples of the demise of settlements recorded in both human
history and the archeological record (Figure 1).
Many volcanic centers around the world have erupted and
caused damage to the immediate environment but also had
effects over long distances, with their ultimate impacts on the
climate. Thousands of people have been lost, the fauna and
flora were destroyed, and the morphology of the surface was
altered, and in the remote past, mountains were formed.
Volcanic events leave very strong signals in both the
geological and human records, and they affect the climate
through the gases and dust particles that emerge in the
atmosphere after the explosions. The result is a heating or
cooling of the earth’s surface, which depends upon how sunlight
interacts with the volcanic material.
Records provide information on a large number of tsunamis
throughout historic and recent times. The impact of tsunamis
on coastal constructions and the damage to human settlements
can be very significant.
There is no doubt that disasters do happen and have
happened in the past. Archaeological and geological research
proves it. The modern experience of such phenomena further
confirms the degree of damage, even on a local or regional scale.
Disasters refer to ecosystems, to the many established crops, to
the biodiversity, to the hydrological cycle and desertification,
and to the sinking and flattening villages and death of
thousands of people.
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
1308 Liritzis, Westra, and Miao
There are also astronomical causes of destructions, e.g.,
several craters were formed by catastrophic meteor impacts
during the Holocene (Halliday, Blackwell, and Griffin, 1985; for
greater detail, see below in the ‘‘Comets’’ section).
The aim of the present overview is to link the synchronism of
recurrent environmental and social phenomena with environ-
mental disasters (as a general term) that have caused the
demise of ancient settlements and whole regions. It will be
demonstrated that there is a correlation between archaeolog-
ical witness, historical and mythological accounts (via geo-
mythology), geoarchaeological documentation, and particular
terrestrial and astronomical phenomena. Several examples
shall be reported on the mythological deluges and their relation
to natural catastrophes—beyond myth lies, among other issues
of ethics and religion, a natural phenomenon.
Examples of destructions, circum the Mediterranei maris
orientalis region, apparently in coastal sites, witnessed from
archaeological deposits, mythological reports deciphered by
geomythological elements, the role and importance of water,
and the impact of environmental factors (climatic, terrestrial,
and astronomical) shall be described briefly.
Considering history in ruins, the current overview focuses on
cases of the natural destruction of ancient cultures around the
world. Reports in ancient literature by various world cultures,
especially those around the equatorial belt, where the greatest
civilizations flourished, are a major source of information,
which is outlined briefly below.
NATURAL DISASTERS AROUND THE EQUATOR
REPORTED IN THE ANCIENT LITERATURE OF
THE OLD WORLD
From ancient literature and scriptures, disasters that
affected the course of civilization are mentioned in several
places. In antiquity and prehistory, several earthquakes and
tsunamis have been documented in the environmental record.
In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA, 2018) database, many references to them are found
from all over the world. Several such events occurred in the
Mediterranean during the Classical and Late Antiquity
periods, which have been well documented. In East Asia,
Japan, Korea, and China, only China has detailed historical
records of seismic activity and some tsunamis. Elsewhere in the
world, it seems either a lack of historical traditions and/or a loss
of historical texts or historical texts that remain to be
understood as records of tsunamis or earthquakes are rare.
Two case study regions are reported below—the Eastern
Mediterranean and Eastern Asia.
Eastern Mediterranean
There is no doubt that earthquakes have wiped out plethora
of settlements in the ancient world. In Greek and Latin
antiquity, several philosophers attempted to explain the causes
of the natural phenomena they witnessed through cosmic,
astronomical observation, or reasoning within their own
scientific traditions. The ancient Greeks had similar traditions
related to disasters. Aristotle (384–322 BC, in his Metaphysica,
1074 bl., Fragmentum, 18) describes destruction with the word
ekpyrosi (¼conflagration). Plato mentions three ‘‘disastrous
floods which preceded the destructive deluge of Deucalion’’
(Critias, 112a). In another dialogue, Plato attributes extensive
wildfires to heavenly powers when he refers to Solon’s visit to
Egypt (Timaeus, 22c–d. cf. Plato, Timaeus–Critias, in Jowett,
1892).
In the same dialogue, Plato describes the much-discussed
Atlantis, as described by Egyptians to Solon, which was ruined
9000 years before his time. In any case, Plato did not mean a
global flood because, in ancient times, there was no interna-
tional information network that would confirm the universality
of an event. The imaginary connection of the eruption of Thera
in Plato’s strange narrative causing a continent, Atlantis, to
sink can easily be excluded because it contains three major
errors, the size, the age, and the location, as well as, other less-
serious inaccuracies. The distant memory of some actual fact,
after so many falsifications, has not yet been found, but the
occasional hypothetical ‘‘discoveries’’ have not been established
(Papamarinopoulos, 2007).
Ancient geographers and historians (e.g., Thucydides, Her-
odotus, Strabo, Pausanias, and others) provide valuable
Figure 1. (A) SE Mediterranean and Near and Middle East major
archaeological sites (copyright Liritzis, I. and Westra, A.). (B) Mediterra-
nean, including (A), but with apparent tectonic plates of Eurasian–African
converging plates and the Arabian plate, including thrusts, ridges, and
strike-slip faults, with the major Anatolian Fault and Hellenic Arc. Around
these faults lie volcanoes and earthquakes (based on Ozbeki, Govers, and
Wortel, 2017; Wortel and Spakman, 1992).
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution 1309
descriptions of the impact of major earthquakes and earth-
quake-related phenomena on human settlements and con-
structions in historical times. As early as 426 BC, the Greek
historian Thucydides inquired in his book about the causes of
tsunamis. He argued that such events could only be explained
as a consequence of ocean earthquakes, and he could see no
other possible causes (Thucydides, History of the Peloponne-
sian War 3.89.1–6, in Hobbes, 1843).
Settlements leveled by earthquakes have been found in
excavations at Kourion, Cyprus, or the pirate port of Falasarna,
Crete, where an earthquake lifted the land several meters
above sea level (Frost 1998), and at many other archaeological
sites around the world (Peiser, Palmer, and Bailey, 1998;
Stefanakis, 2006).
One well-known account is from the Roman soldier and
historian, Ammianus Marcellinus (ca. AD 325–330 to ca.AD
391–400), who recorded a powerful earthquake and tsunami on
AD 21 July 365, in the eastern Mediterranean, centered near
the Greek island of Crete, which destroyed nearly all the towns
on the island and may have caused disasters in Palestine,
Sicily, Cyprus, and even as far away as Spain. After that
earthquake, a tsunami caused significant damage in Alexan-
dria, Egypt (Stiros, 2001). Although this account has been
heavily scrutinized, it does correspond with an apparent period
of seismicity (‘‘seismic storms’’) between AD 350 and 360s. At
that time, the AD 365 earthquake was highly discussed by
ancient authors who debated whether it was a ‘‘universal
earthquake’’ (Kelly, 2004). That earthquake is widely regarded
as an event of unprecedented scale in the 2500-year-long
historical earthquake record of the eastern Mediterranean, a
region regularly struck by strong earthquakes (Ambraseys,
Melville, and Adams, 1994; Papazachos and Papazachou,
1997). However, how much is actually known about that major
earthquake? It took place on the Hellenic fault line, west of the
island of Crete, and was felt throughout the eastern Mediter-
ranean, and the ensuing tsunami crashed into many coastal
sites of North Africa, the Adriatic Sea, Greece, and the
southern Italian peninsula (Shaw et al., 2008). However,
ancient accounts were mostly interested in the meaning of
the destruction and not in recording the actual destruction.
Furthermore, later authors often made errors in their
chronologies and with the date of the earthquake, which has,
as a result, led to considerable confusion today about the facts
of the AD 365 earthquake.
East Asia
The Korean Peninsula has been, regarding seismicity and
tsunamis, very fortunate because it lies in a relatively stable
zone. The seismicity on that peninsula is less than it is for
Japan or northeastern China because the peninsula lies on the
edge of the Eurasian plate and is controlled by the subduction
of the Pacific and Philippine Sea plates (Jin and Park, 2007).
The earliest reference in the NOAA database to a tsunami
affecting Korea is in Gyeongju from a strong earthquake dated
to AD 123. However, the Samguk sagi (i.e. History of the Three
Kingdoms) lists the earliest recorded earthquake in AD 2 and
lists several others in the following decades in which many
people died, such as during the earthquake in the reign of King
Onjo of Baekje in AD 27. Approximately 2000 years of
earthquakes have been recorded historically; many of which
took place in the southeastern region of Gyeongju-Ulsan
(Houng and Hong, 2013). Located on the Yangsan and Ulsan
faults, several earthquakes have been recorded during the first
millennium. The deadliest earthquake, with 100 victims, was
in AD 779 in Gyeongju during the Silla dynasty (57 BC–AD
935), which is described in the Samguk sagi (Lee, 1998; Lee and
Yang, 2006). The historical records of Korea list more than
2000 earthquakes, and a compilation of several historical
accounts from Korea is available in Korean (KMA, 2012). In
Japan, some of the earliest accounts of tsunamis and seismicity
date to the fifth century AD, and a deeper investigation into
Korean or Japanese materials would be interesting. In Chinese
antiquity, the picture is considerably clearer. Perhaps because
of its long history, with extended periods of writing, which
stretch back to at least the fifth century BC, there are more
records and ancient evidence of earthquakes and floods that
may have been the cause of changes in river courses, for
example. China has one of the most seismic occurrences and
has kept good records on these events for a millennium
(Needham, 1959). The earliest historical accounts from China
are believed to be from eighth century BC, as recorded in Sima
Qian’s ( )Shiji ( ), completed in the second century BC,
with contributions added in subsequent centuries. The account
records earthquakes, locations, flooding, drought, collapses,
and confrontations of opposites (as yin-yang etc.) repeated
throughout the three dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou) (Sima
Qian–Shih Chi, in Needham, 1959, volume 3, pp. 624–625).
More than 900 shocks had been recorded in China between
the eighth century BC and AD 1644. The primary seismic
regions are north of the Yangtze River and in the western
provinces (Zheng, Xiao, and Zhao, 2013). Furthermore, ancient
Chinese scholars explored the causes and reasons behind the
earthquakes that occasionally shifted the courses of rivers
causing great floods. The famous mathematician, inventor,
philosopher, and poet Zhang Heng (AD 78–139) created a
seismographic device (Needham, 1959) that could accurately
record the direction of the epicenter of an earthquake as it
happened. The earliest potential mention of an earthquake
dates to the 23rd century BC, with the simple description of
‘‘earthquake and spring gushing.’’ However, it is not until the
Qin and Han dynasties, with the standardization of the writing
system, that earthquakes were recorded with the entry
‘‘catastrophe.’’ The first collection of earthquake records
appeared in ca. AD 977. A total of 45 earthquake listings
between the 11th century BC and AD 618 were compiled in a
chapter of a book called Taiping Yulan (‘‘Readings of the
Taiping Era’’; Wang, 2004).
The available archaeological testimony of ancient catastro-
phes caused by environmental agents follows per agent, along
with a case study for Ur in Sumer, on the banks of the
Euphrates River in what is now southern Iraq.
ENVIRONMENTAL AGENTS AND
ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE
From a geological perspective, these events are not catastro-
phes but merely the regular history of the earth and the
geodynamics of its evolution. The disaster aspect of the present
research, therefore, is restricted to the events of that natural
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
1310 Liritzis, Westra, and Miao
geodynamicity that have affected the lives of human beings in
ancient times. The cause of natural catastrophes documented
in the archaeological record have always had an important role
of scientific interest and also caused a great deal of speculation.
Obviously, only actual documentation in the archaeological
and stratigraphical record can reinforce any theory. Volcanic
eruptions, earthquakes, and sudden floods (e.g., tsunamis and
river overflows) have influenced cultural changes, and aspecial
case of natural disasters during the Bronze Age civilizations
was presented by Peiser, Palmer, and Bailey (1998). Regarding
the Bronze Age events, meteoritic impact hazards have
garnered increased consideration, as well (e.g., Peiser, Palmer,
and Bailey, 1998). Selective archaeological and archaeomet-
rical evidence of major catastrophes of flourishing ancient cities
are provided below (see Figure 1), starting with Ur.
Ur: A Case Archaeological Record
The excavator Watelin at the Kish site in Mesopotamia first
started an analysis of the archaeological material from the
layers left by flooding in the Ur, southern Mesopotamia (once a
coastal city near the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian
Gulf, the coastline has shifted, and the city is now well inland)
found a ‘‘sludge of drinking water containing those elements
that are expected from the water of the Euphrates River’’
(Woolley, 1929, 1955). However, the sludge caused some
surprise ‘‘due to absence of molluscs such as drinking water
and modern microorganisms, and the presence of terrestrial
molluscs only in one sample’’ (Malycheff, 1931).
The deep deposits in Ur (about 3 m) and Shuruppak, Sumer
(approximately 60 cm), are important because they allow the
creation of conditions for lagoon formation for quite a long time,
which further research supported as a submersion in Meso-
potamia of ‘‘several tens of meters’’ plus ‘‘subsequent emer-
gence’’ (Raikes, 1966) from the flooding of the sedimentary
layers. In Ugarit, Syria, Claude F. Schaeffer (1948, 1955,
1962a,b) identified four layers of destruction from fires with
fragmented walls of houses and alternating layers of declared
peaceful conditions. He eliminated raids and suggested intense
seismic activity, a theory that was subsequently abandoned
until later, when disasters caused by earthquakes at Troy,
Turkey, 900 miles away were discovered. Phase II of the Troy
(approximately 2600–2490 BC) layers showed disaster periods
similar to those of early Ugarit (Syria) II, which ‘‘disappeared
from big fire from which no building was saved. What happened
is still a mystery’’ (Blegen, 1963).
More material from the Schaeffer (1948) excavation found
simultaneous destruction between Troy II and Tepe Hissar,
Persia, but he could not explain the nature of those catastroph-
ic events that destroyed ancient cities from Troy to the
Caucasus.
However, even in the northernmost part of the eastern
Mediterranean, relevant phenomena of successive disasters in
the Bronze Age have occurred, e.g., in the eastern Balkans and
Greek settlements in the second and third millennia BC. Itwas
during this period that Schaeffer was investigating the causes
of simultaneous disasters that appeared in the book Worlds in
Collision by Velikovsky (1950). The new theory argued that the
traditions of ancient societies that spoke of cataclysmic floods
and fires on a global scale were accurate. The scenario of
planetary conflict he attributed to the battles of gods
(theomachies).
However, the theory of disaster from extraterrestrial origin
not only won regarding geological eras (e.g., disappearance of
dinosaurs etc.; Alvarez et al., 1980; Liritzis, 1993; Raup and
Sepkoski, 1984, 1989) but also was supported by the prevailing
conception of catastrophic phenomena in the Bronze Age.
However, several ambiguities and false views were identified in
this theory. Today, almost no one accepts the theory of
Velikovsky (1950, 1956). Indeed, Peiser, Palmer, and Bailey
(1998), the editors of the Proceedings of Natural Catastrophes
during Bronze Age Civilizations, noted emphatically, ‘‘... his
faith [Velikovsky] that the planets Mars and Venus, now in
stable orbits, it could have been much closer to the Earth in
historical times to have created catastrophic phenomena on a
global scale, is incompatible with the known laws of phys-
ics....’’
Several world myths have evolved in world annals, which
have been interpreted as allegorical descriptions of split large-
comet collisions with earth. Some of the comet parts were
thought to have hit the earth in the second and third millennia
BC. A number of biblical events, especially events in ‘‘Exodus’’
and reports on the flood, describe the consequences of one or
more collisions. Comets of short period, with typical half-lives
of a few hundred to a few thousand years, not only break but
also are driven away from planetary contacts. Today, it is
estimated that there are 100 times more short-period comets
than there are long-period comets captured by Jupiter and
driven to the asteroid belt Apollo. That number is probably due
to the explosion of new, short-period comets formed several
thousands of years ago as a result of the splitting of a large
comet, as described during the Apollo asteroid’s arrest by Zeus,
or in the proximity of its orbit at perihelion (Clube and Napier,
1982, 1984).
The integration of environmental and archaeological data
along the Cypriot and Syrian coasts offers a first comprehen-
sive insight into how and why things may have happened
during that chaotic period. For example, the 3.2 ka BP regional,
catastrophic event underlies the agroproductive sensitivity of
ancient Mediterranean societies to climate and demystifies the
crisis at the LBA–Iron Age transition (Kaniewski, Guiot, and
Van Campo, 2015).
The LBA world of the Eastern Mediterranean, a rich linkage
of Aegean, Egyptian, Syro-Palestinian, and Hittite civiliza-
tions, famously collapsed 3200 years ago and has remained one
of the mysteries of the ancient world since the event’s retrieval
began in the late AD 19th century. A potential cause for the
collapse of the LBA civilization in Greece through integrated
land and sea studies can be found in Levy et al. (2018).
Agricultural activity strongly declined around 1200 cal-y BC.
Principal component analysis—a biplot of pollen-derived
climatology—indicates that agriculture only became one of
the main components of environmental dynamics after ca. 850
750 cal-y BC (Kaniewski et al., 2013). By combining pollen data
from coastal Cyprus and coastal Syria, it has been shown that
the LBA crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-y drought
event at approximately 1200 cal-y BC. Interestingly, two major
environmental changes occurred. Two main climatic steps
isolated for the past 3550 years have been observed: a dry
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution 1311
steppe and Mediterranean woodland, which corresponds to two
contrasting environments. The first step was recorded at 1450–
1350 cal-y BC, and the second step was reached at ca. 1200 cal-
y BC. That climate shift caused crop failures, dearth, and
famine (abrupt climate change–driven famine and causal
linkage with the Sea People invasions in Cyprus and Syria),
which precipitated or hastened socioeconomic crises and forced
regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the eastern
Mediterranean and SW Asia.
Devastating effects on settlements have demonstrated the
result of strong storm sequences of earthquakes. Such models
map out both the tectonic and seismic activities of the LBA in
the cities of Greece, Anatolia, and the Palestinian coast, which
were destroyed or damaged by earthquakes accompanied by
seismic sea waves (tsunamis). Earthquakes were certainly one
of the main causes for the weakening and disappearance of
settlements in antiquity. According to Nur and Cline (2000),
earthquakes were the main cause of the end of the great
civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze
Age. The demise caused by specific natural causes is reviewed
below.
Natural Environmental Agents Affecting Past Cultures
The case studies for floods, volcanoes, and earthquakes in
world and regional case studies and those of tsunami and
commentary impacts are reviewed below.
Floods
Most of the world’s cultures have had some experience with
floods, and hence, several similar legendary accounts attribute
cultural destructions to water (cataclysms, floods). As outlined
before, there are hundreds of recorded flood stories. However,
archaeological evidence regarding floods has been recorded
through paleoenvironmental studies. The examples and re-
ports on ancient sedimentological records of floods are too many
to cite here in full. The study of disaster archaeology then,
especially when dealing with the notion of floods, must go
through the study of palaeohydrology (Baker, 1987, 2008), in
combination with archaeological dating records. Floods are
associated with extreme climate changes; thus, they record
major environmental events in history. Understanding the
relationship between hydrological mechanisms, climatic
change, geomorphologic evolution, and civilizations is very
important (Zhu et al., 1997).
Sediments in the Black Sea region suggest that Mesopota-
mian and biblical flood myths originated when the rising
Mediterranean suddenly broke through the Bosporus (Turkey),
inundating the populous farmlands of the Black Sea basin
about 7500 y ago (Figure 1). The hypothesis of the Black Sea
flooding, a highly debated topic, involved its timing, rate, and
mechanisms and whether such a geological event was gradual
or sudden. It is thought that the Black Sea Lake was
transformed into the Black Sea connected to the Mediterra-
nean, which is thought to have occurred because of the flood of
the Bosphorus (Yanchilina et al., 2017). However, there is some
debate about the speed and force with which the Hellespont
was breached. At any rate, most scholars believe the origin of
the Black Sea was not a case of flooding but, rather, of gradual
infilling, arguing against Ryan et al. (1997), and instead, a
model of a noncatastrophic, progressive flood (or gradual inflow
model) has been proposed to explain the Late Pleistocene sea
level rise of the Black Sea (Ferguson et al., 2018). In any case,
that rising was, by definition, not a tsunami, and the flood
hypothesis, caused by river flaws and a spike in temperature
rise and sea level rise from ice melt, in Bosporus and the Black
sea, is a subject of high academic interest.
In Europe, however, the Danube has been occupied for many
centuries, and it, too, flooded frequently during the Holocene
(Mesolithic to Roman eras and later, as evidenced from
prehistoric settlements along its riverbed; Bonsall et al., 2015).
In Egypt, the Nile floods, which have been important natural
cycles that result from the annual monsoon causing enormous
precipitation in the Ethiopian highlands, have also been well-
known features in Egyptian paleoflood history (Hassan, 2007),
with reports from pyramidal texts. Thus, Egyptians divided the
year into three seasons the Akhet (inundation), the Peret
(growth), and the Shemu (harvest), and that cycle was so
consistent that its onset was determined by the heliacal rising
of Sirius (the dog star), a key event to set their calendar (see
Nickiforov and Petrova, 2012, and references therein).
For a pan-Mediterranean analysis of the timing of those
periods and the driving mechanisms relating to climate and
environmental changes connected to human impact, Benito et
al. (2015, p. 13) demonstrated that, in different regions, periods
of floods cluster into time intervals. Region-wide episodes of
flooding occurred in 7400–7150, 4800–4600, 4100–3700, 3300–
3200, 2850–2750, 2300–2100, 1700–1600, 1500–1400, 950–800,
ca. 300, and 200–100 cal-y BP. That flooding pattern indicates
that bipolar hydroclimatic conditions existed in the Mediter-
ranean, where in the western Iberian region, periods of
frequent floods coincided with cooler and wetter conditions,
whereas in north Africa, it coincided with generally drier
climate, and in the eastern Mediterranean, with a higher
frequency of extreme floods because of the wetter climatic
conditions.
For a synthesis of European palaeohydrology, Macklin et al.
(2006) present dated fluvial units in Great Britain, Poland, and
Spain and investigate the relationships among environmental
change, flooding, and Holocene river dynamics. Further studies
derived from that work are the CORDIS and EU-SPHERE
projects, which aim to identify regional flood patterns through
systematic review of historical and paleoflood data (Benito et
al., 2004), including the Llobregat, Segre, and Ter rivers in
Spain (Thorndycraft and Benito, 2006; Thorndycraft et al.,
2005), and the Ard`
eche and Gardon rivers in France (Sheffer et
al., 2003, 2008). Other areas in which palaeohydrology
approaches have been used are in India with studies on the
Holocene Era paleofloods of the Luni River, the Thar Desert of
NW India, and from the Sakarghat on Narmada, central India
(Kale, Mishra, and Baker, 1997; Kale et al., 2000). In addition,
the 1500-y history of massive floods, as recorded in the
slackwater deposits of the Kherlen River basin in Mongolia,
are being studied (Kim, Tanaka, and Kashima, 2017).
The Chinese myth of Yu, who combated the flood in the
Yellow River at ca. 2100 BC is famous. China’s extensive river
system and expansive lowland topography leaves much of the
eastern, most densely populated, fertile, and economically vital
regions of the country exposed to floods (Pang, 1987).
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
1312 Liritzis, Westra, and Miao
Palaeofloods are a recurring feature of the geographical
history of China. Sedimentary deposits record extreme climatic
and environmental events. China’s rich historical tradition
means that many of the ancient and historical floods have been
well recorded. However, the sedimentologic records of palae-
ofloods in China is an ongoing study (YRHLF, 2018), and the
number of Chinese rivers prone to flooding is known and
supported by historic and palaeoenvironmental data on palae-
ofloods in China (Fan et al., 2015; Yang et al., 2000). Examples
from the frequent flooding of the Yongding River by optically
stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of sediments show that
palaeofloods took place frequently during the Holocene, with
high concentrations in ca. 8.5–7.3 ka, ca. 2.8–2.4 ka, and 1–0.5
ka (Zhao et al., 2017).
Floods have frequently been recorded in the Yihe–Shuhe
River basin, which both formed the alluvial plain and affected
the evolution of the ancient civilization of Longshan, China.
Through OSL and radiocarbon dating, it has been determined
that frequent floods during the 4.1–3.8-ka period may have
been directly responsible for the decline of the Late Neolithic
Longshan culture situated in the Yihe River basin (Shen et al.,
2015). In central-eastern China, the famous Jinsha civilization
has been hypothesized to have experienced an abrupt end
between 500 and 200 BC. The Sanxingdui culture, in the same
area, is also believed to have suffered a similar catastrophic
flood, which reinforced or catalyzed political upheavals that
lead to the collapse ofboth civilizations in the same place but at
an interval of ca. 1000 y (Liu, 1998; Wen et al., 2013). The two
civilizations developed in the Sichuan plain in the area of the
modern city of Chengdu, China, and are believed to be broadly
part of the same Shu Kingdom. Archaeologically, they have
been thoroughly investigated; however, the cause of their
collapse, in ca. 1200 BC and ca. 200 BC, is still unknown (Lin
and Wang, 2017), although environmental and political
reasons have been suggested. The discovery of a 20–50-cm-
thick, alluvial layer dating to the Zhou Dynasty (approximately
1100–770 BC) has led researchers to propose isotopic data on
fluvial sediments as evidence of catastrophes related to dam
bursts and other dramatic climatic changes (Wen et al., 2013).
In addition, further paleoflood events have been recorded to
have taken place between 4.0 and 3.6 ka BP and may also have
influenced the decline of the Baodun culture in the same region
(Jia et al., 2017; Zeng et al., 2016).
The coincidental identification of the onset of early Chinese
cultures of Xia (ca. 2200–2000 BC) and Zhou (ca. 1050 BC),
including the end of Zhou (250 BC) and the uprising of warfare
activities of the Warrior States (ca. fifth–third centuries BC,
which ended with Qin uniting China in 247–221 BC), are all
connected, at least minimally, with severe and long-lasting
flooding, which deserves particular attention. In addition, it
has been observed that a period of flooding is followed by a
period of drought. The most recent debate is about the
correspondence between the Chinese quasimythical history of
the great flood at the end of the Xia Dynasty and archaeological
and environmental data, which suggests a date of 1920 BC (Wu
et al., 2014, 2016).
Further analyses of palaeofloods in conjunction with
archaeological data have been studied in the Yishu River
basin (Gao, Zhu, and Cao, 2006), the Neolithic ruins in the
Jinghe River Gorges, the Lajia ruins in the Guanting basin,
and the Yanhe River valley of the Yellow River (Guo et al.,
2017; Huang et al., 2010, 2013; Li and Huang, 2017; Pang,
1987). There are also palaeofloods recorded at the Zhongqiao
Neolithic site in the Jianghan Plain and in the Hanjiang
River valley in the Yangtze River (Huang et al., 2013; Wu et
al., 2017). Furthermore, geoarchaeological research has
further elucidated the destructive impact of floods and
climate change toward the end of the Han Dynasty (206
BC–AD 220) on settlements around the Chaohu Lake near
Hefei, Anhui Province (Wu et al., 2012).
Tsunami
Another natural agent is the tsunami. Many examples of
events from both modern and ancient times confirm the
recurrence of destructive tsunamis upon coastal societies
(Papadopoulos and Chalkis, 1984; Smid, 1970).
The Cascadia Fault has been mentioned previously because
the tsunamis that result from that rift have frequently
damaged much of the NW North American coastline (Atwater
et al., 2005; Ludwin et al., 2005). China also experiences
tsunamis, and a relatively recent example was the 1969
earthquake in the Bohai Bay off the coast of NE China, which
created a tsunami and affected the coastline (Lau et al., 2010).
Seaquakes and meteoritic falls in lakes can cause disastrous
tsunami waves. Many coastal regions in the Mediterranean
(Marriner et al., 2017; Papadopoulos et al., 2007), the Pacific
(Imamura, 1949; Lockridge, 1996), fewer in the Atlantic
(Bondevik et al., 2003; Lockridge, Whiteside, and Lander,
2002), and in the Indian ocean (Anawat et al., 2012) have
frequently experienced the combined effects of earthquakes
and associated tsunamis, till present era, with catastrophic
results. Strong tsunamis are generated by shallow earthquakes
in subduction zones because those are the most common
earthquakes that distort the seafloor. The only subduction
zones around the Atlantic are the Puerto Rico Trench, the
Antilles Subduction Zone around the eastern Caribbean, and
the South Sandwich Trench south of South America. These
subduction zones are both smaller and much less active than
the subduction zones that circle the Pacific, so the Atlantic has
many fewer tsunamis. However, tsunamis have hit Puerto Rico
and the Virgin Islands half-a-dozen times in recorded history
(most recently in 1918). On 1 November 1755, a magnitude 8.6
earthquake at Gorringe Bank destroyed much of Lisbon,
Portugal (Gutscher et al., 2006). Minutes after the earthquake,
the tsunami arrived. At least three great waves, about 10 m
high, entered the city. The waves also raked the nearby coasts
of Spain and North Africa and did extensive damage in the
Azores, Madeira, and Canary islands (e.g., historical tsunamis
between 1530 and 2016 have occurred around the Caribbean,
Central America, Mexico, and adjacent regions; CCAMAR,
2017).
In the Mediterranean, in antiquity, there have been many
earthquakes and tsunamis that have affected several coastal
and inland settlements to varying degrees. An example of the
complete destruction by an earthquake is the case of the coastal
Helice (or Heliki), central Greece, in the Corinthian Gulf, one
winter night in 373 BC: ‘‘A tidal wave caused by an underwater
landslide covered the valley and surrounded the city followed
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution 1313
by the powerful earthquake that devastated the city in ruins
burying their residents and then new wave caused by vibration
covered the already submerged by the first landslide area
taking this time at the bottom and the city with the dead
inhabitants. Although abstained by two kilometers from shore
it disappeared along with the intermediate plain’’ (Pausanias,
Achaica, book 7, chapter 24, sections 1–12) (Katsonopoulou,
2005a,b; Liritzis et al., 2001). From written sources, it is known
that the ruins of the city of Helice were visible until the
Byzantine period, showing land subsidence, rather than
landslides, from the city to the sea. Today, there is nothing
visible in that region. The alluvial deltas of the rivers have been
completely covered the area.
Much work has been performed through different periods in
the eastern Mediterranean caused mainly from seaquakes and
the Santorini Plinian volcanic eruption, e.g., along the
Levantine coastline (Goodman-Tchernov et al., 2009; Good-
man-Tchernov and Katz, 2016). Further, the Santorini LBA
posteruptive, flood-producing calderas bear on the importance
of caldera collapse in tsunami genesis (Nomikou et al., 2016),
which devastated coastal regions of the Aegean and was the
main agent destroying the Minoan civilization. Moreover, the
Holocene evolution of some sites on the western Mediterranean
has been strongly influenced by strong seismic events, which
produced coseismic, vertical displacements and devastating
tsunamis. A recent review of nearly a thousand sites of relative
sea-level (RSL) data-points has resulted in the first quality-
controlled database constraining the Holocene sea-level histo-
ries of the western Mediterranean, which identified historical
and prehistorical tsunamis (Vacchi et al., 2016).
Volcano
The next natural agent is the volcano. The Mediterranean
has two of the most famous volcanic disasters of the past. The
first famous eruption known was of Santorini in the LBA
eruption of ca. 1600–1620 BC, which buried Akrotiri, a
settlement with excellent mural paintings, and contributing
to the destruction of the famous Minoan civilization. The
volcanic ash was detected in the islands of the SE Aegean lakes
of Asia Minor, in the Nile Delta, and the ice of Greenland,
although the latter signaling was not easily identified and
confirmed (Coulter et al., 2012; Friedrich et al., 2006), and the
ash caused a short, yearlong, global drop in temperature, which
resulted in the Minoans being vulnerable and eventually being
occupied by the Myceneans from mainland Greece. The second
famous event was the Vesuvius eruption (AD 79) near Naples,
Italy, which ejected a cloud of stones, ash, and volcanic gases to
a height of 33 km. The pyroclastic deposits buried the Roman
cities of Pompeii, Orlonti, Herculaneum, and several other
settlements (Driessen and MacDonald, 2000) according to the
description by Pliny, the Younger (AD 61–112 in his Letters
6.16 and 6.20, to Cornelius Tacitus), discovered in the 16th
century (Radice, 1969).
Comets
Extraterrestrial impacts, such as comets, also create natural
disasters. Comet impacts have, in the past, occurred and been
recorded in surface sedimentary deposits or in historical
accounts, which are occasionally conveyed as a myth of a fallen
sky. A list of citations related to possible meteorites has been
assembled by searching the ancient Greek and Latin literature
up to the end of the west Roman Empire. The catalogue
illustrates the attitude of ancient populations toward the fall of
meteorites and extends the record of meteorite falls back in
time (Piccardi and Masse, 2007, and references therein). In
other reports, some evidence has been produced from mea-
surements or alternative interpretations (Bobrowsky and
Rickman, 2007; Masse et al., 2007).
With the comets that have streaked throughout the sky,
almost every culture has a legend about a great flood, and, with
a bit of searching for hidden meanings, many of them noticed
something like a comet on an impact course with the earth, just
before the disaster.
Current models demonstrate that the calamitous effects of
asteroids and comets that have executed more than one-fourth
of the earth’s human populace have happened once in about
every one million years, and smaller impacts, such as the 1908
Tunguska impact, which leveled in excess of 2000 km
2
of
Siberian timberland, happen every 200–300 y. In this way,
cometary effects most likely influenced hominine development
and possibly prefigured in the Holocene period of human
cultural history. Unfortunately, only a handful of archeologists
are prepared to value the nature and potential impacts of
cosmic effects. However, the effects of such impacts have been
made into virtual-reality scenarios (Masse et al., 2010), and
sea-bottom cometary traces have been reported in R´
ıo Cuarto,
in central Argentina (Schultz and Lianza, 1992).
The Chiemgau impact in Bavaria is another more-convincing
case (Ernstson et al., 2010, 2011, 2012; Liritzis et al., 2010;
Rappengluck et al., 2010; Shumilova et al., 2018) over the
arguments of some opponents (Doppler et al., 2011; Rappen-
gluck et al., 2011).
The large Chiemgau meteorite impact in southern Bavaria
(Ernstson et al., 2011; Hiltl et al., 2011; Liritzis et al., 2010;
Rappengluck et al., 2006, 2010, 2011), which happened some
4000–2500 BP, affected a region that was probably densely
populated, although the magnitude of the cultural implications
is still being discussed (Rappengluck et al., 2006). Geologically,
the conspicuous layer at Bavaria, inferred to be an impact-
related, dimictic intercalation with intermixed artifacts of the
Bronze Age, was probably during the Urnfield culture (ca.
1300–800 BC), as well as during the Hallstatt culture (ca. 800–
500 BC). The layer is in a stratigraphical sequence that, so far,
appears to lie between the Neolithic culture below and the
Roman paving above, which presents a unique situation of a
layer formed by a catastrophic impact and which was
sandwiched between dated archaeological horizons. Typical
archaeological objects and fractured bones and teeth have been
uncovered from the various horizons.
However, despite historical accounts and mythological
references and beyond admitted cometary fall in older times,
this topic is still lacking concrete evidence from the Holocene.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, such as
craters or unambiguous shock material. Such evidence is still
lacking.
The timing of the Mediterranean Sea’s flooding, as well as the
flood’s causation has also been revisited, and a cometary impact
has been suggested, which is the presumed Younger Dryas
(YD) event episode, marked by abrupt increases in snowfall
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
1314 Liritzis, Westra, and Miao
and dramatic changes in flora, fauna, megafauna, climate, and
the oceans. The precise cause remains unknown, although it
has been attributed by some to a cosmic impact roughly 12,800
YBP that has yet to be identified (Firestone et al., 2007;
Wolbach et al., 2018a,b). The impact is reported to have
induced YD effects across at least four continents (Kennett et
al., 2015), and it also formed an associated layer of nano-
diamonds (Kennett et al., 2009), microscopic diamond crystals
that are created by very high-velocity collisions, found across
most of the planet (Jaye, 2019; Kinzie et al., 2014).
Finally, additional cometary impacts may include the Ch’in-
yang event of 1490 (or the Qingyang event; March or April
1490); meteor showers in China, e.g., the AD 616 meteorite
recorded in the Sui-shu (History of the Sui Dynasty,AD581
618), which destroyed a wall-attacking tower, killing several
people (Yau, Weissman, and Yeomans, 1994); the potential
impact crates of the Zerelia Twin Lakes (Thessaly, Greece; ca.
7000 BP minimum age; Dietrich et al., 2013, in addition, see the
list in http://www.passc.net/EarthImpactDatabase/New%20
website_05-2018/World.html).
Earthquakes
Earthquakes are the main cause of many frequent cataclys-
mic events around the world. Many societies in China, the
Mediterranean, Central Asia, Polynesia, and the Americas
have been severely affected by powerful seismic tremors for
millennia. The destructions at Jericho or the opening of the Red
Sea show that earthquakes are both responsible for the
destruction of cultures and the strength of the natural force
on the crust of the planet (see Nur and Burgess, 2008). Since
the early 1990s, earthquake archaeology has developed into a
discipline (see Galadini, Hinzen, and Stiros, 2006; Sintubin,
2011; Stiros, 1996; Stiros and Jones, 1996). Earthquakes are
known globally as periodical occurrences. From coastal
settlements in the Mediterranean, NW America, or the East
Asian countries, such as Japan, to the inland societies in
Central Asia in modern-day Afghanistan or in western China,
all can face the same destructive effects of potent seismic
activity on a society’s organization, infrastructure, and resil-
ience. The ensuing humanitarian disasters resulting from
powerful earthquakes are known to this day (Shroder, 2014).
The subject of earthquakes has overlapping, but distinct,
approaches, including paleoseismicity, earthquake archaeolo-
gy, and disaster archaeology. The geology, topography, and
geography differ, as do the various human responses among
the peoples of the Mediterranean, NW America, and Japan, as
far as coastal societies are concerned. It is clear that, across the
world, societies have coexisted with earthquakes (Zeilinga de
Boer and Sander, 2004). Ancient earthquakes have been
recorded historically (see Ambraseys, 1971; Guidoboni, Comas-
tria, and Traina, 1994) and archaeologically (Jusseret and
Sintubin, 2017; Rapp, 1986).
The eastern Mediterranean has featured prominently in
palaeoseismictyand earthquake archaeology. However, coastal
earthquakes and tsunami have also occurred in Japan and
along the northern American coast. Although both China and
Japan are ‘‘seismic cultures,’’ unlike ancient Greece, there does
not appear to be any evidence suggesting an antiseismic
architecture (Barnes, 2010; see also, Stiros, 1995). That
difference may instead be indicative of a ‘‘strategy’ that is
specific to Chinese or Japanese cultures, architecturally
speaking. Japan’s seismicity is a particular feature of that
archipelago. Japan is located between the continental Amur
plate in the west, which is part of the Eurasian plate, and the
oceanic plates to the east (Barnes, 2010; Taira, 2001). Both
subduction and active faults have been responsible for
earthquakes in Japan. The earliest recorded event goes as far
back as AD 599 and is recorded in the Nihon Shoke chronicle
(AD 720), but most events are listed after the AD 10th century
(see Ishibashi, 2004; Usami, 1988).
The case in China is different. Earthquakes are spread
throughout the country, with specific areas of high seismic
frequencies near the Tibetan Plateau and along the northern
borders. The world’s largest orogenic belt is the Himalayas and
the Tibetan plateau, and there are at least 64 major tectonic
zones in China (Yin and Nie, 1996). China is also where the
Paleo-Asian Ocean, the Tethyan, and the western Pacific
domains meet (Zheng, Xiao, and Zhao, 2013). Therefore, China
is in a very active seismic region, which has caused numerous
destructive earthquakes in the past. The Catalogue of Chinese
Earthquakes (published in 1995) is a two-part catalogue that
lists in only historically determined earthquakes in one part
(Lee, Wu, and Jacbsen, 1976; Min et al., 1995). The earliest
entry begins in 23 BC and ends in the 20th century and lists
1034 earthquakes of magnitudes greater than 4.7 (Figure 2).
Several societies in ancient China were affected by the
disastrous effect of earthquakes. For example, the famous
Bronze Age society at Sanxingdui was discovered in the 1980s
and is believed to be the remains of the Kingdom of Shu in the
SW province of Sichuan (Figure 2). Sanxingdui flourished
between 2200 BC and 1500 BC and ultimately ended abruptly
ca. 1200 BC (Jiang, Yan, and Li, 1997) (recalling here as well,
theabruptendoftheLBAintheSEMediterranean).
Sanxingdui was succeeded by the Jinsha culture in the area
surrounding Chengdu ca. 1000–500 or 200 BC. The Sanxingdui
and Jinsha civilizations are part of the Shu Civilization that
developed in the Sichuan Plain and whose chronology, material
culture, and geographical extent have been well defined by
archaeology. The causes of the collapse of these two civiliza-
tions are argued to be political upheavals or floods and, more
recently, earthquakes along the active fault of the Longmen
Shan thrust. Researchers have discovered that during the past
5000 y, major seismic events occurred at least another four
times, at an interval of approximately 1000 y. However, the
scale and extent of the impact and damages of those
earthquakes have not been assessed in depth. In fact,
archaeological evidence suggests that those seismic events
were strong enough to cause many fatalities and destruction to
the infrastructure and the economy and could be correlated to
the collapse of Sanxingdui and Jinsha cultures (Lin and Wang,
2017).
In the Mediterranean, the buildings, destruction layers, and
cultural remains are of concern as part of the case for the
generalized destruction during the LBA, which seems to have
been a ‘‘seismic storm,’’ which ultimately ushered in the LBA
collapse (see Nur and Cline, 2000). Mediterranean archaeolo-
gists, who deal with earthquake damage to buildings and site
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution 1315
destruction layers routinely consider this collapse odd (Barnes,
2010; Galadini, Hinzen, and Stiros, 2006).
The eastern Mediterranean is ahighly seismic area in
which the African and Euro-Asiatic lithospheric plates
converge. The most famous case of seismicity in antiquity is
the seismic storm that occurred at the end of the LBA, which
may have been responsible for the so-called LBA collapse.
The social decline at ca.1200 to the 9th century BCE is
attributed to drought and storms of earthquakes, and then, to
the Sea Peoples (Kaniewski et al., 2013; Nur and Cline, 2000).
However, palaeoseismicity and archaeology, for example, at
the sites of Agia Triada and Phaistos (Crete, Greece), indicate
that there were powerful and destructive earthquakes in
Protopalatial (1700 BC) and Neopalatial (1450 BC) periods
(Jusseret and Sintubin, 2017; Monaco and Tortorici, 2004).
Another prominent earthquake is reported to have happened
in ca. AD 365, with the epicenter somewhere south of the
island of Crete, and several regions in the eastern Mediter-
ranean were severely affected (see Figure 1) (Shaw et al.,
2008; Stiros, 2001). However, it has been argued that
between the AD fourth and sixth centuries, there were
frequent earthquakes, which are recorded in historical texts,
archaeological records, and palaeoseismic records (Stiros,
2001, 2010), aphenomenon of sequential seismic storms.
In Egypt and eastern Africa, the image of earthquake
destruction is present deep throughout history. There have
been several studies in earthquake archaeology (see Kara-
khanyan, 2010; Karakhanyan, Avagyan, and Sourouzian,
2010). There are many accounts of destructive historical
earthquake in Thebes and middle Egypt in the Pharaonic
times; however, there is little scientific evidence, and Maa-
moun, Megahed, and Allam (1984) did not identify any
earthquakes exceeding 5.5 on the Richter scale from 600 BC
to AD 1972. Temples, such as Tuthmosis III at Deir al-Bahari,
are believed to have been destroyed by an earthquake, and at
the time of Ramses III, the Nile’s banks were nearly destroyed
˜
by aseries of earthquakes. Incidentally, great cultures
flourished along seismic zones, and although reminiscent relics
have been found for many of them, the frequent holistic
destructions wiped out others.
Earthquakes in South America. Kovach (2004) compiled
archaeoseismic evidence from the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan
cultures and has described structural damage from seismic
shaking affecting corbelled arches, pre-Hispanic pyramids,
walls, and tombs. When the Mayan Classic Period ended in the
AD late ninth century, the cities of Quirigua and Benque Viejo
(Xunantunich), now located in Guatemala and Belize, were
suddenly abandoned. According to Kovach (2004), the cities
could have been destroyed by a single earthquake centered on
the Chixoy-Polochic and Motagua fault zones.
Other destructive events provide evidence of the high
frequency of often destructive earthquakes in Peru (Cuadra,
Karkee, and Tokeshi, 2008), the Trans-Mexican region with
paleo-earthquake chronology (Ortuno et al., 2015), and Chile
(Ruiz and Madariaga, 2018). Even though sparse, there are
seismic data for ancient times from South America, and the
historical records of the past 300 y and the subduction zones
reinforce the existence and destructiveness of South American
earthquakes.
Earthquakes in Central Asia. It has long been recognized that
the Tibetan plateau was created by the collision, which began
about 50 million y ago, of the northward-moving Indian plate
and the relatively stationary Asian plate (Zhao et al., 2010).
The fate of the colliding Indian and Asian tectonic plates
below the Tibetan high plateau may be visualized by, in
addition to seismic tomography, mapping of the deep seismic
discontinuities, such as the crust–mantle boundary (the Moho),
the lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary, or the discontinu-
ities at 410 and 660 km depth. The consequences of this fate to
human settlements were severe along this convergence region
throughout the past. Along the Central Asia Silk Road, the
associated seismic faults from the convergence of Asian and
Indian tectonic plates are evident. Earthquakes and disasters
in this elongated region have been reported (Korjenkov et al.,
2003; Shroder, 2014).
Earthquakes in the Pacific. In North America, on the western
coast, is the Cascadia Subduction Zone or the Cascadian fault.
A convergent plate boundary that stretches along the NW coast
of North America, it has likely been responsible for tsunamis
that affected both the NW coast of the United States and the
eastern coasts of Japan periodically for at least 3500 y
(Valentine et al., 2012). The earthquake of 1700 along the
Cascadia fault was responsible for a tsunami that wiped out
entire communities on the NW coast of Canada and NW United
States (Kelsey, Hemphill-Haley, and Witter, 2002), from
which, survivors’ stories have survived orally (Atwater et al.,
2005; Ludwin et al., 2005). Indeed, volcanic, seismic, and
tsunami events are part of Japanese culture. The Nankia
Trough has been responsible for periods of earthquakes
recorded as far back as the seventh century (Ishibashi, 1999).
Such major destruction by earthquakes have been memori-
alized and retained through oral and sometimes written
traditions from generation to generation and are expressed as
myths, which can be unfolded by science.
Figure 2. Tectonic plates converge in regions with great civilizations;
volcanoes, earthquakes,and tsunamis are major issues in these coastal sites,
with dots marking major sites. In central China, major cultural centers and
fault lines coincide (based on Zhang, Liou, and Coleman, 1984; https://www.
gnxp.com/blog/2008/08/earthquakes-progress.php).
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
1316 Liritzis, Westra, and Miao
DISASTERS AS MYTHS
Natural disasters may have initiated myths but science’s
contribution beyond the myth is intriguing; thus, through
geomythology to geoarchaeology, archaeology is reinvented.
It is important to understand that these disasters can occur
as a single event or as a chain of events, e.g., a seismic shock can
cause a tsunami, which floods part of the coastline, which then
leads to systemic societal failure through the loss of labor, tools,
equipment, or communications, as well as the loss of authority
or legitimacy for the ruling caste (often described as divine
punishment) and weakness against outside, violent incursions
(hostile raids, abductions, slaughter, etc.), which can be
exacerbated by crop failures and disease from lagoons and
stagnant water; all of which ultimately can lead to near-total
societal collapse. At that point, based on a risk-assessment
logic-flow model proposed in next section, this period would be a
‘‘transition’’ phase, or perhaps, more poetically, a survivors’
phase.
Natural events, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados,
fires, and so on, will occur on the surface of the planet,
regardless of whether there is a human presence. Such events
may cause ecological ‘‘disasters’’ and wipe out a large amount
of the fauna and flora in the area. However, the disaster
archaeology here is twofold. First, many fields have studied and
synthesized global and local chronologies about temperature,
silting, humidity or aridity, and polar magnetism as regular,
constant geological and geographical processes, and have
discovered and explored the abrupt events of nature that have
occurred within recent geological times (Pleistocene and
Holocene) and which have altered the environment dramati-
cally and, relatively speaking, quickly. However, the Black Mat
event in the Alps barely touched the glacial landscape, so that,
when Hannibal passed through, the landscape he observed
looked nearly the same as what it is seen in the area today
(Mahaney, 2016). Second, in disaster archeology, researchers
have to deal with the human understanding of the concept of
disaster. Because they are dealing with the human past,
archaeologists will primarily evaluate the disaster in ecological
and cultural terms. Catastrophes or disasters are expected to
occur periodically and within human memory, which can then
be formed into data and statistics. However, the further back in
time the research goes, the more there are accounts of
disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, which have been
adopted into religions and myths. Flood myths, about floods
that have had the potency to eradicate entire cultures, are
widespread in ancient human mythology and folklore. Flood
events in the form of divine or natural retribution are described
in many mythological and scriptural texts, such as the three
surviving Babylonian deluge epics of Ziusudra (Eridu Genesis),
Utnapishtim (Epic of Gilgamesh), and Atrahasis (Epic of
Atrahasis); the river flood sediments in Shuruppak, Uruk;
the WB 62 Sumerian king list recension (Rowton, 1960); the
Genesis flood narrative (Genesis 6:9–9:17), which has been an
enduring trope in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and the
respective deluges in Deucalion and Pyrrha, which are the
Greek versions (Hesiod in Works and Days, 109–200, Evelyn-
White, 1914). According to Theogony of the Apollodorus’
Bibliotheca (Frazer, 1921), the Bronze Age (the third age of
the ‘‘five races of mankind’’) was ended by a deluge or great
flood, created by Zeus when he was disappointed and outraged
by the aggressive and cannibalistic behavior of the bronze race.
The natural disasters that caused the demise of ancient
societies, as evidenced in the archaeological record, are linked
to surviving historical sources, and all are linked, finally, with
the traditional accounts that compose mythology. Many
mythologies, traditions, folklore, and religions around the
world have stories related to cataclysms or disasters, to special
cosmic events, or about geological formations (rock formations,
hydrological features, such as underground water, and volca-
noes), and many other natural phenomena. Even though
wholesale acceptance of myths as fact is ill-advised for scientific
analysis, many myths carry moralistic or ethical lessons in
them, but may also, potentially, be evoking actual historical or
geological events. Good folklorists or ethnologists are aware of
the dangerous pitfalls and shortcomings of exploring the facts
behind myths. They must contend not only with centuries or
even millennia of mistakes, mistranslations, and other corrup-
tions of an original text, but also with questions about whether
an original text or story even existed or whether there has been
gradual amalgamation of narrative tropes and motifs. Com-
bining folktales and mythologies with historical perceptions is
not new, but it is a field that, nowadays, has few adherents
because the enormous amount of pseudoscience, wishful
thinking, and rushed deductions can be detrimental for
respected scientists. In 1968, geologist Dorothy B. Vitaliano
coined the term ‘‘geomythology’’ to mean the systematic study
of geology and mythology (Mayor, 2004; Vitaliano, 1968).
Even though the rich history, archaeology, and mythology of
ancient Greece has been a trying ground for the potential to
match geological, environmental, archaeological, and mytho-
logical evidence, geomythology has grown to include oral and
folk traditions from Australia (Hamacher, 2014). The field has
enjoyed only limited interest in academia, but it has been one of
the most popular topics of discussion in film, literature, and
popular knowledge. However, because of the popular appeal of
subjects such as euhemerism and geomythology, topics
emerging from pseudoscientists often emerge with claims of
extraterrestrial or futuristic pasts. One such theme is the
eponymous and notorious topic of the lost city of Atlantis,
mentioned by Plato in Timaeus and Critias. Vitaliano (1968)
drew inspiration from the ancient Greek Cyrenaic philosopher
of Euhemerus, the work of Greek archaeologist Marinatos, and
the geologist Galanopoulos (Galanopoulos and Bacon, 1969;
Galanopoulos and Chalkis, 1984; Marinatos, 1939). Euheme-
rus and the school of Euhemerism believed that the mythol-
ogies of the Dodekatheon, for example, were not works of fiction
or religious scripture but were, in fact, historical events that,
through the vagaries of time, have been warped into religious
tale (e.g., Brisson, 2004). Outside of the geography of Hellenic
mythology, texts from China, India, and Egypt also survive. In
societies with little or no writing traditions, oral traditions
occasionally survive to this day, such as the case of the Black
Sea Lake flood in the early Holocene and its potential
connection with the concept of biblical floods. The most recent
compilation of data by Yanchilina et al. (2017) suggests that, in
fact, the Black Sea Lake was flooded once the isthmus of the
Bosphorus was breached. It can be presumed that the flood of
the Black Sea Lake, if it was a sudden event, would have a
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution 1317
significant effect onthe minds of the people ofthe region, which
may have spurred other folktales of which the authors are
unaware. Such a tale may fit differently into large human
geography and historical reconstructions, or it may have been
an event from which there were few or no survivors to recount
the tale. In disaster archaeology, it is important to remember
that there may be no survivors or no circumstances that
allowed for the survival of the account of a particular
destruction. The case for establishing matching factual
historical chronologies between oral accounts and scientifically
discovered natural events is difficult and is only rarely
convincing to the scientific community.
At any rate, geomythology does not focus only on destruction
but also on any significant geological phenomena, including
cosmic events, such as observed astronomical phenomena,
which the field of archaeoastronomy is pushing to better
understand with greater resolution. Comet impacts on earth
may become part of regional history and worship (Whiston,
1717), such as in the case of Australia, in which the relationship
between impact craters and aboriginal oral tales has been
explored (Hamacher and Goldsmith, 2013). Another ancient
example of meteorite impact and its impression on ancient
societies is found in Aegos Potamoi in Asia Minor, a place that
has become a sacred location, worshipped and visited for many
centuries (McBeath and Gheorghe, 2005).
So far, no serious attempts had been made in research to
examine mythologies through science. For example, a prelim-
inary step to any scientific understanding of the Greek religion
(and its traditions) is a thorough study to demystify its rituals.
This habit of viewing Greek religion exclusively through the
medium of Greek literature without reference to the allegorical
meaning of its message has brought with it an initial and
fundamental error in method if it is to be properly proven
scientifically. Beneath this splendid surface of mythology lies a
stratum of religious conceptions, but practical functions and
environmental issues as well, which are ignored, suppressed,
or symbolically covered by ancient writers (Liritzis et al., 2017;
Liritzis and Coucouzeli, 2008; Liritzis and Raftopoulou, 1999;
Levy et al., 2015).
Engel (2012) has provided a synthesis of sedimentary
evidence for prehistoric tsunamis, evaluating the long-term
influence of extreme wave events on the coastal geoecosystems
and improving the chronology of major prehistoric tsunamis for
Bonaire, The Netherlands, and the southern Caribbean. These
studies have given rise to a neocatastrophism concept, which
developed as a new discipline (Morhange et al., 2014). Among
other coastal areas of the world, geoarchaeological evidence for
coastal change and vertical ground movements since the
Roman period has been documented for the Phlegrean Volcanic
District of Italy. The offshore geomorphology and archaeology
of the Vivara and Procida islands, known to Aegean-Mycenae-
ans during the Bronze Age, provides several palaeocoastlines
between 1 and 21 m below sea level, the lowest one assigned to
ca. 5000 BC, whereas those between18 and10 m are thought
to date to the 18th to the 15th century BC, based on the landing
structures and other archaeological finds. Traces of other short-
lived, relative, sea-level stands have been discovered. In fact,
this area underwent discontinuous subsidence of about 15 m
during the past 3800 y (Putignano et al., 2009).
The well-known deluges in both the holy Bibles and the
traditional, intangible heritage convey bits of information if
properly approached.
Mythological Deluges
Each site presents its own genesis, as modified by its
immediate natural environment. In Greek mythology, three
major cataclysms are listed: Ogygos (Attica-Boeotia), Deuca-
lion (Thessaly and variations mentioned the Parnassus), and
Dardanus (Macedonia). Other cataclysms include the periods
of the famous pyrotechnologist Telchines in Rhodes (coming
from Lemnos) and the Inachos deluge at Argolid. The former is
transmitted from the Bronze Age, whereas the latter has been
attributed to the early second millennium BC, i.e. both are from
the same period.
This cataclysm has been proven from drilled bore cores dated
to the Early Helladic (approximately 3000–2700 BC), revealing
a sedimentary layer that was covered by 1–3 m of alluvial
sediment (Liritzis and Raftopoulou, 1999). At the same time, a
related phenomenon of sedimentation from floods is located in
Attica in a conglomerate layer in Cratylus (3200–2600 BC). In
both Argolis and Attica, the transgression phenomenon and
floods were strong enough to be memorialized in the Inachus
and Ogyges deluges. Thus, variations in local myths also
display the deluge of Inachus, in the Argolida region (Grimal,
1991). In contrast to that period, the era of Inachus’ son
Foroneas was the time of a large population increase, which
required the dispersal of peoples into different settlements and
encouraged harmonious communication and the development
of both local dialects and multilingualism.
The myth of Babel (Genesis 11.9) also refers multilingualism
in such an unavoidable sociocultural event.
The Old Testament and the Sumerian tradition has an
established lineage is patrology based on the myths and facts
about a flood as the cause and the starting point. Noah, like
Inachos, was a parent of humanity in the local tradition, as
imagined by their respective people. Their descendants,
Abraham and Foroneas, respectively, promoted the culture
and society of their peoples.
Heracles is a characteristic LBA hero. Three of the 12
labors mystically ordained by the Delphian oracle to Heracles
are related to hydraulic content. The Lernean Hydra or the
clearing of the manure from the stable of Augeias reflects the
concern for larger hydraulic works in prehistory. The
immortal Hydra with seven or nine heads wreaked havoc
on the fields of the Bronze Age farmers south of Argos, near
the Lerna swamps. The extermination of the Hydra’s heads
coincides with the hydrogeological behavior of the karst
springs of Lerna, with annual and long-term changes in the
hydraulic system of the Argive Plain (Clendenon, 2009). On
occasion, streams in the area would both flood the Lernaean
Plain and form disease-infested swamps, as well as destroy
much in their path by their sheer momentum (Mariolakos,
1998). Heracles’ feat was the drying up of the marshes by
leading the torrents into one head river, which, in turn,
produced the famously fertile Argive Plain. Although some
research on this area during that period exists (Walsh et al.,
2017), there is not much geological work to determine it
geomythologically. On the other hand, the clearing of the
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
1318 Liritzis, Westra, and Miao
manure implies either a tsunami or the converging rivers
into one strong, controllable stream.
Local climatic and geological phenomena accompanied by
disasters result in the core of theogony and anthropogony of
people. The cataclysmic meaning, therefore, of myths reflects a
local geological or climatic event with serious consequences for
the wider area concerned. With that in mind, the legends
embedded in the wider environmental reality cease to serve
exclusively as imaginary. The historical facts may well be
mythologized and even more to build legends from the available
archaeological data. The respective myths that imply a flood
are also found in China.
The Chinese Parallel
The great flood trope and its large circulation in ancient
civilizations have drawn many scholars to try and decipher the
reasons for its widespread, nearly global, presence.
Chinese mythology is replete with water deities and deified
individuals who acted on the order of the emperor to control a
river. This practice is well known in the Han (AD 206–220) and
Song (AD 960–1279) dynasties, in which individuals who were
given the charge of undertaking engineering works to prevent
floods were subsequently worshipped officially and even had
shrines built in their honor. The most prevalent and well-
known myth from China about a heroic character who tried to
triumph over a pernicious and unpredictable river is that of the
challenge of Gun Yu. The great flood of Gun Yu (Pang, 1987) is
the story of a major flooding event, which allegedly lasted for
two generations. Modern water engineers of China are well
aware of rivers, such as the Yellow River, which are prone to
flooding to this day, and extensive canals, irrigation, channels,
dams, dykes, and other projects have been carried out to
prevent and/or mitigate the devastating effects of floods.
The stories of the floods of Gun Yu and Da Yu are the stories
of the founding of the Xia and Zhou dynasties (1700–260 BC),
as quoted in the Book of History, describing the flood (Wu,
1982).
The interpretation of such endeavors against water (agricul-
tural activitiesand protection of cultivated lands and irrigation
systems) seems to be a common archetypal human expression,
for similar natural drastic events that occurred throughout
world cultures, from China to Greece and Egypt’s Nile, from
native Indians to aborigines in Australia and South America.
The frequent occurrences of natural disasters reshaped the
Old World and continues to do so in the contemporary era.
Attempts to investigate recurrence or a statistical elaboration
of available proxy data by time-series analysis has some
interest and reiterates a wise consideration of learning from
history.
Having set the archaeological, historical, and scientific
background of natural disasters in ancient societies, an
attempt to model the evolution of the cradle of ancient
civilization, based on the interaction between neighboring
groups of people and environmental agents, unfolds below.
A MODEL FOR CULTURAL GENESIS
Geomythology investigates mythological reports. These
stories of the mastery of water (dams, swamp drainage, coastal
infrastructure) or pyrotechnology (ceramics, metallurgy, de-
velopment of food preparation) refer to the technological
progress of societies and to the subjugation of elements, quests
for wealth, and so on are a historical aspect of humanity’s
unknown conquerors, city-founders, explorers, and leaders
that form a common cultural substrate for example, of the
Mycenaean and thereafter the Hellenic and European culture,
as well as the achievements by heroes, such as Hercules, Gun
Yu and Great Yu, Gilgamesh, and more, in various cultures.
The ‘‘model’’ for the genesis of a civilization is comparable
from Mesopotamia,Egypt, Greece, and China,and rely on local
geological or climatic events. Environmental phenomena, such
as flooding (wet climate), drought, landslides, and seismic
activity, display a serpentine, curved line, with an average
duration (extreme wet and mild dry climate phenomena, etc.) of
80–120, 200–250, 500–700, or about 1000 y and longer periods
with similar climatic cycles have also been identified in
geoarchaeological research and in approximate climate indica-
tors, such as changesin the thickness of tree rings, carbon-14 in
the air, thick sludge ponds, geomagnetic fields, and solar
activity. Superimposing these cycles then forms a network of
periodic waves of ‘‘chaotic’’ changes in time (Liritzis, Diagour-
tas, and Makropoulos, 1995; Liritzis and Fairbridge, 2004;
Liritzis et al., 1994; Liritzis and Kovacheva, 1992; Xanthakis,
Liritzis, and Galloway, 1992). Careful analysis of climatic,
geological, and solar parameters indicating such climatic
cycles, and economic–social reasons are the main cause of the
nonlinear fluctuation in ancient civilizations.
The recurrent model goes as follows: First, any closed system
(A), a kingdom or a city, interacts with reciprocity with system
(B), external societies, and with system (C), environmental
agents (Figure 3). The latter (system C) includes all natural
disaster factors already reported above (Figure 4).
Internal Circle (A)
The Internal Circle represents a population (a group of
people that live together, a core of settlers or immigrants, an
organized society or habitation), one that involves social unrest
or revolt, limited and controlled food producing, religion, a
hierarchical system of governance, an explorative character,
and an economic system.
External Circle (B)
The External Circle is the near or distant population
groups or residents, with which the given population (A)
interacts directly or indirectly. An interesting critical
assessment of humans in these two circles is made by Sass
(2012).
Environmental Circle (C)
The Environmental Circle comprises elements such as
geophysical and climatic phenomena (earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions, floods, extreme and continuous drought, and
rainfall) and the geomorphological and geographical setting.
Specifically, exposure of humans to environmental threats is
unevenly distributed. Some locations may pose greater risks
than others, e.g., high latitudes, floodplains, river banks,
marshy areas, small islands, and coastal areas. In addition,
human exploitation or modification of the environment, such
as deforestation, an increase in paved areas covered by
buildings and roads, and river canalization, have created
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution 1319
impacts that often affect areas along way from the source of
the environmental change.
The Model
Sporadically, within a cultural phase, paths may be linear
but can gradually become a local outburst and saturation and
the proceed to the threshold of the next phase, which is
established by complex fluctuations of the three interacting
domains and the internal strange attractors of circle A(Figure
5). In the end, a recurrent state is formed (Figure 6).
The flow of the overall evolution of a system, e.g., a
homogeneous population, follows irreversible processes. Thus,
in times of equilibrium, for a homogeneous social group (the
inner circle [A]) transition from one state (K1) to a next one (K3)
happens because of the impact of the other circles, the external
(B) and environmental (C) circles, goes through an intermedi-
ary stage (K2), where transitions K1 through K2 produces K3
are the so-called detailed balance (Graham and Haken, 1971).
Then the ratio (K1/K3)¼e, which corresponds to the maximum
entropy. Entropy is the measure of a system’s thermal energy
per unit of temperature that is unavailable for doing useful
work.
An open system is aphysical system that can exchange
both matter and energy. This can be contrasted with an
isolated system without any external exchange—neither
matter nor energy can enter or exit but can only move
around inside—and aclosed system, which can exchange
energy, but not matter, with its surroundings. Consider an
open system, from the homogeneous social group, with
different dynamic effects from the second and third circles
in Figure 3; then, for every given state aand c,there are
many possible states for the intermediate phase b. Among
these, however, only one corresponds to the state of
thermodynamic equilibrium and maximum entropy. That
particular state can expand far from equilibrium in thermo-
dynamics.
The energy change over time in aculture is reflected in the
change of entropy dS ¼dSs þdSi þdSp, where, dSs describes
the transport through the boundaries of social systems, dSi is
the entropy generated within the social system, and dSp is
the entropy (of that social system) with the environment
(positive or negative [þor ], depending on the type of
exchange). The second law of thermodynamics certifies that
dS .0(dS ¼0applies to an equilibrium). In cultural
evolution, the entropy production rate dS/dt (dt ¼entropy
over time) is of interest, in conjunction with the rates and
forces of various irreversible processes (wars, floods, earth-
quakes, fires, pollution, epidemics, migration, trades, inva-
sions, and raids, etc.).
The structure and function of a social group (nomad, city,
nation...)are inextricably linked. However, how the struc-
ture of aculture emerges in conditions of nonequilibrium
sustained in agiven mild interaction energy is the question.
Stability is the crucial point here, which is, however,
interpreted by is free energy, F¼ETS, where, Eis energy,
and Sis entropy. Fis minimized in an equilibrium in away
that even outliers in entropy and free energy ensure that
cultural disturbances or fluctuations have no impact on its
equilibrium.
Cultural evolution is based primarily on mutual interactions
of different components, f(ti), at variable time interval (ti¼t
0
to
t
1
), derived from the three factors. Therefore, the cumulative
result could be expressed as in Equation (1):
Yti
ð Þ ¼ Z
t1
t0
fti
ðÞd tð Þ ð1Þ
The parameterization of mathematical expressions is not an
easy task and the attributes that define cultural levels per time
have to be defined quantitatively (work in progress).
Historical periods of such stability are reported at Mycenae
in the Mycenaean civilization and at Athens in the age of
Pericles, as well as in Middle East and elsewhere, e.g., in China
during certain periods: approximately 2000–1600 BC, 1600–
1050 BC, 1053 to approximately 650 BC, and later, which mark
dynastic transitions and coincide with major climatic, disas-
trous events (Fan, 2010; Wu et al., 2016), in which the retention
period for such new states leading to a centre of culture and
development ranges from a few decades to 500 y.
The prediction (Yin, Yun, and Xiuqi, 2016) is that better
times—warmer and wetter, with stronger monsoons—will
predate or accompany the rise of dynasties, whereas worse
times—colder and drier—will predate their fall.
The durations of alternative stability and perturbations
caused by the two agents described above are mainly driven by
Figure 3. Three interacting circles (A,B, and C) that drive any cultural
evolution (from Liritzis, 2013, fig. 1). Figure 4. Circle Cconsists of environmental factors classified into three
causes or sources: climatic, geological, and those of an astronomical nature
(Liritzis, 2013, fig. 5).
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
1320 Liritzis, Westra, and Miao
environmental factors—terrestrial and astronomical—as de-
scribed below, although some of this follows environmental
determinism (e.g., seasonal changes, observations of natural
phenomena).
The prediction of recurrent catastrophes is a matter of
research, but their connection with periodicities in natural
(terrestrial and astronomical) phenomena is examined below.
PERIODICITIES IN TERRESTRIAL AND
ASTRONOMICAL PHENOMENA
The impact of environmental phenomena (terrestrial and
astronomical) on cultural evolution seems to follow a synchro-
nization with a periodic or quasiperiodic nature.
Various theories have been developed for the interpretation
of the how and why in the evolution of social–cultural
complexity, based on social, terrestrial, and astronomical
causes (Liritzis, 2013).
Here, as a system, it means taking all manifestations of a
group of humans that have a common conscience of similar
rooting, ethics, religion, etc, which develop and create a culture.
It is accepted that the development and trajectories of such
cultures in the world depend on various factors in a synergistic
way (Juarrero and Rubino, 2008; von Bertalanffy, 1950, 1976).
Dynamic, complex mechanics are operative in any culture’s
formation, and the complex systems present problems both in
mathematical modeling and philosophical foundations. The
study of complex cultural systems represents a new approach
to nonlinear science that investigates how relationships among
parts give rise to the collective behaviors of a system and how
the system interacts and forms relationships with its immedi-
ate and/or distant environment.
Because all cultures have many interconnected components,
the science of networks and network theory are important
aspects for their study. Disaster dynamics in archaeology has
been shown to be so powerful that they changed the course of
human history. Mighty empires have collapsed, vanished, or
been shocked irreversibly. Natural environmental factors
triggered the fall of well-organized social systems. Drought or
flooding; epidemic diseases, such as plague and other diseases;
tremendous volcanic eruptions; and meteoritic impacts, tsuna-
mis, and earthquakes influenced the circum-Mediterranean
civilizations and the NW European, Asian, African, and
American civilizations. The search and interpretation of such
unknown disasters leading to unexplained results is based
solely on interdisciplinary approaches. This recalls an earlier
proposed thesis (Liritzis, 2013) that every theory should rest
upon diverse, dynamic factors derived from the three following
prominent concentric, interdependent systems or circles (see
Figure 3).
The system’s variables comprise the input of energy, the flow
of energy, the transformation of matter, the concept of
reversibility, and the organization of space and information.
Indeed solar, terrestrial, and cometary periodic factors have
been well established as exhibiting a rhythmic occurrence,
which spreads throughout a timescale from minutes to millions
of years.
The longer periods in nature are recorded because of the
onset of igneous and metamorphic processes (onset of conti-
nental drift, orogenic belts, etc.) that occurred during a
succession of cycles of orogeny that may generally be described
by a sequence of events, such as prolonged down wrapping of a
long belt of the earth’s surface (at subduction zones where one
plate bends deep beneath another, and the sinking plate acts
like a conveyor belt), metamorphism and folding of plutonic
rocks, widening of the original geosyncline, and general uplift
and erosion. The cause of this observation directs insight into a
common, universal mechanism that drives such global phe-
nomena (Liritzis, 1993).
A complete data set of globally distributed, shallow (about h
,60 km) earthquakes of magnitude M7.0 that have
occurred throughout the entire Earth in 1898–1985 were
converted into seismic energy and have been statistically
analyzed, and they exhibit a network of periodicities with
predominant periods at 3, 4.5, 6.5, 8–9, 14–20, and 31–34 years
(Liritzis and Tsapanos, 1993). An additional overbalanced
effect is the occurrence of earthquakes that may appear as a
‘‘coseismic storm’’ lasting a few decades. The AD mid-20th
century ‘‘earthquake storm’’ unzipped the North Anatolian
fault during a ca. 30-y period from 1939 to 1967 (Stein, Barka,
and Dieterich, 1997, fig. 1). A similar event may have occurred
Figure 5. Trend of a cultural system toward a new state.
Figure 6. Recurrent state, from natural disaster to reactivation of
civilization.
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution 1321
in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean sites destroyed ca.
1225–1175 BC. Indeed, the same earthquake centers are
superimposed on the maximum intensity of seismic ground
motion in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean during
ca. 1900–1980, in which the intensity was greater than 7.0 on
the Richter scale.
The region of synchronous destructionincludes the mainland
and Aegean Greece and Anatolia, having interconnected fault
systems and, also, a causal relationship to global seismic
energy release. The latter is reinforced by a statistical
correlation study for the period 1917–1987, in which the Greek
seismic activity exhibited a very significant, positive correla-
tion to the preceding global activity with a time lag of 15 y. It
seems that all of Greece and the two characteristic areas from
which it was separated (Greece without the Arc and the area of
the Greek seismic Arc), follow global seismic activity but with a
time shift of 15 y. Moreover, an intrinsic interaction mecha-
nism seems to exist between the Greek seismic arc and the rest
of Greece, which may be deduced by their different behaviors
exhibited when they are correlated with global activity, as well
as from the correlation between themselves, where a very
significant positive correlation has been found with a time lag
of 3 y for Greece without a preceding arc. A quasiperiodic term
of 30 y was also observed in these detailed four seismic time
series.
The cross-correlation analysis of seismic time series, as
shown, serves as a powerful tool to clarify the complicated
space–time pattern of the worldwide mosaic of tectonic-plate
motion. The implications of a spring-block model of the
interaction of tectonic plates is invoked, which considers that
the earth’s rotation rate changes as its triggering agent
(Liritzis, Diagourtas, and Makropoulos, 1995).
Particular emphasis may be given to the potential of such
studies in earthquake prediction efforts from local or regional
scales to global scales and vice versa.
Such strong hypotheses seem to show they interact with
other (regional and global) forces at work in these areas ca.
1200 BC and merit consideration by archaeologists and
prehistorians but also by geoarchaeologists.
Studies of such proxy-interlinked phenomena have been
performed (Liritzis and Galloway, 1995; Liritzis et al., 1994,
and references there in).
To facilitate the study of long-term variations in palae-
oclimate (Lamb, 1977), physical measurements, which can be
interpreted as proxy indicators of past climate, are important.
A few examples of such measurements applicable within
particular contexts include the variation in relative abundance
of
18
O (Shackleton, Imbrie, and Hall, 1983), the variation of
magnetic susceptibility (Da Silva et al., 2014; Kent, 1982;
Robinson, 1986), and the variation in the relative abundance of
14
C (Sonett and Suess, 1984). The possible influences on past
climate (or perhaps strictly the influence on the proxy
indicators) can be considered. For many decades, astronomers
and meteorologists have looked for clues to a causal connection
between solar activity and climate (Centre National d’Etudes
Spatiales, 1980; Roberts and Olson, 1973; Pecker and Runcorn,
1990; Stauning, 2011). Links between climate and geomagne-
tism have also been sought (Abrahamsen, 1986; Courtillot et
al., 2007; Doake, 1977; Flohn, 1974; Gnevyshev and Ol, 1971).
A sound relationship has been established among solar
activity,
14
C relative abundance, and climate during the past
4 Ka (Lamb, 1977; Rampino et al., 1987; Sonett and Suess,
1984; Stuiver and Quay, 1980), whereas the variation in the
natural radioactivity of lake and marine sediment as a depth
dependence has been shown as a possible alternative-proxy
climate indicator (Liritzis et al., 1994, 1999). In fact, lake
sediments have shown a periodic nature in mud thickness and
geomagnetic inclination values (Liritzis and Fairbridge, 2004;
Xanthakis and Liritzis, 1989). An analytical representation
and the application of maximum entropy spectral analysis of
European archaeomagnetic inclination data of the past 2000 y
revealed the possible existence of periodic terms of approxi-
mately 1000, 500, and 260 y (Xanthakis and Liritzis, 1989).
All the examples above show the environment broadly as a
direct or proxy agent related to climate and severe changes in
palaeoclimate having a strong impact and diminishing ancient
cultures in prehistory, but Paleolithic, period (during the
Quaternary), to the extent of creating archaeologically subdi-
vided periods or cultural phases.
The issue of natural disasters as revealed in the archaeolog-
ical record and historical sources, mainly of coastal sites, is an
important topic to be developed as an inseparable part of
archaeological investigation. The issue becomes vivid in the
modern era with the consequences of catastrophes experienced
and caused by extreme phenomena of weather and other
environmental agents.
DISCUSSION
The evolution of human societies and, in general, of human
history, does not follow a linear trend but rests mainly on
mutual interactions among different components. Identifying
the meaning of that complexity in human processes, which
involve material, energy, and environmental factors, is cultural
evolution as viewed via a complex-system approach of a
collective result of nonlinear interactions, making a series of
successive transitional phases along a trajectory. The interact-
ing, multifactorial issues derive from three concentric circles or
dynamical systems, the internal (A, issues derived from within
a given society), the external (B, issues derived from interac-
tions with neighboring societies), and the environmental (C,
issues related to the context and other geological phenomena).
Chaos theory is intermingled with various identified attri-
butes that define and affect the cultural evolution of a human
organized system. Atlantis and other reported accounts
(legendary and historical) are sufficient to stress the natural-
istic methodology, which serves as the basis of for a synoptic
and synthetic philosophy that involves art and culture, science
and technology, and existence, corresponding to classical
techne,logos,andethos (Liritzis, 2013). So, drastic impacts on
humans have initiated mythology and ideological evolution.
Exploring the ‘‘unknown’’ has introduced poetical prose, heroic
labor, mystical knowledge, and allegorical tales, such that the
‘‘myth’’ invented by the human race echoes something related
to ethics, to a huge event, to deities, to imaginary conceptions.
At any rate, it is a task for academia to decipher the myths,
considering geological and environmental issues as the natural
event that describe ‘‘reality’’ (Levy, 2010).
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
1322 Liritzis, Westra, and Miao
In the pyramid texts of Egypt are many descriptions of the
evolution of cultures during cyclical periods. Ancient writers
provide valuable descriptions of the impact of major earth-
quakes and earthquake-related phenomena on human settle-
ments and constructions in historical times. Many volcanic
centers around the world have erupted at times and caused
damage to the immediate environment but also to long
distances, with ultimate impacts on the climate. Volcanic
events, in fact, leave very strong signals in both the geological
and human records. Volcanoes affect the climate through the
gases and dust particles that emerge into the atmosphere with
the explosions. The result is a heating or cooling of the earth’s
surface, and the subsequent tsunamis and the damage to
human settlements and coastal constructions can be very
significant. Records provide information on a large number of
tsunamis throughout historic and recent times. Thousands of
people were lost, the fauna and flora were destroyed, and the
morphology of the surface was altered, whereas in the remote
past, mountains were formed. Several examples have been
reported of mythological deluges and their relation to natural
catastrophes (beyond the myth lies, among other issues of
ethics and religion, a natural phenomenon). There are also
astronomical causes of destruction, e.g., several craters have
been formed by catastrophic meteor impacts (Clube and
Napier, 1984). These and many other events of modern and
ancient times confirm the presence of destructive impacts in
the past. There is no doubt that earthquakes, tsunamis, as well
as typhoons have wiped out a plethora of major cultural centers
of the ancient world. The cataclysmic disaster, therefore, of
myths reflect a local geological or climatic event with serious
consequences within the wider area concerned. With that in
mind, the legend embedded in the wider environmental reality
ceases to serve exclusively for the imaginary.
The position presented here is that not all disastrous events
spelled the end of a civilization; however, several of them had
much larger effects on human societies than previously
considered. These events can lead to changes in, or even
near-complete annihilation of, human societies and natural
ecosystems when biological, environmental, political, techno-
logical, geographical, and cultural features were fiercely shook.
Fortunately, these disastrous events leave distinguishable
traces on the environment and even on the human psyche.
The periodicity and cultural and ecological changes from these
events tend to be observable in the archaeological sequences
and stratigraphies, the mythohistorical accounts of deluges,
and so on, and naturally through other proxies and data about
past disasters and palaeoenvironments.
Disaster archaeology deals with a great deal of issues
because it can cover every sort of known human disasters.
Natural events, phenomena, or hazards and human societies’
vulnerability or resilience and exposure to the hazards can be
assessed in a field similar to that of risk assessment. Simply,
risk can be summed by calculating the hazard (tornado,
tsunami, earthquake, etc.), the exposure to the hazard (alluvial
or flood plains, seismic activity, pressure systems), and the
vulnerability of the settlement (construction material, preven-
tion-warning-response systems, and strength of the ruling
authority, etc.). Once that information is factored, the impact of
the disaster on the environment and on human societies in the
area can be estimated, and whether the event weakened a
human ecosystem to the point of collapse can be determined.
The after-effect of such a collapse can lead to decades or
centuries of regional, if not global, political and demographic
changes because large population migrations will often clash
with, and supplant, their neighbors, thus, creating a large-
scale cultural and demographic domino effect.
CONCLUSIONS
To explore, then, the relationship between human adaptive
strategic and cultural responses to short-burst cataclysms that
punctuate the long history of humanity, a great deal of
interdisciplinary collaboration is needed. From environmental
science, archaeometry, and archaeology to historical, mytho-
logical, and ethnological research is needed to produce
comprehensive reconstructions. The archaeology of natural
disasters, or disaster archaeology, as defined, is summarized
like this: it defines the identity, the impact, and the dynamics of
natural hazards into the evolution of human civilization, tries
to find and analyze the kinds, frequencies, and magnitudes of
the natural hazards discoverable within the archaeological
landscape, and searches for the adaptation processes of past
human societies against the new hostile and unfamiliar
landscapes that are formed after the disaster (i.e.new
shorelines, stagnant water, and a general ecological upheaval,
among others). Floods, either riverine or coastal disaster
events, in general, similar to most natural disasters, occur
periodically with interrupted, unpredicted issues, as order in a
chaotic pattern, which varies in frequency, potency, and the
magnitude of the functional structure.
There is no doubt that disasters happen and have happened
in the past. The archaeological and geological research proves
it. The modern experience of such phenomena, however,
confirms the degree of damage, even on a local or regional
scale. Disasters refer to the ecosystems, to the many estab-
lished crops, to the biodiversity, to the hydrological cycle, the
desertification, to the sinking and flattening villages, and to the
killed thousands of people.
In historic and prehistoric times, other disasters may have
occurred, in addition to those mentioned above, from strong
tectonic movements to hurricanes and to floods, mainly on local
scales.
These more-local scale events have resulted in the decline of
some civilizations and the flourishing and emerging of
neighboring cultures, of development at different cultural
stages, of migrations and the conveying of ideas, experiences,
and knowledge to others, and the emergence of strong events
with reverberations in myths and legends. Other events recall
the ethical didactics of a myth, and that may apply to Plato’s
Atlantis, which he conceived an ideal State, in which arrogance
and ethical decline perished because of that cataclysmic event.
Overall, there exists a network of variable systems that
activates and self-organizes on a universal analogous law—a
correspondence principle between micro- and macrosystems. In
this case, the ancient artifacts and relics of socioculture reflect
the dynamic interactions of humans themselves and the
environment (with its broader, geographical sense), and any
attempt to interpret the cultural evolution trajectory, and the
remains that survived, by interpolation and/or extrapolation,
Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 35, No. 6, 2019
Disaster Geoarchaeology and Natural Cataclysms in World Cultural Evolution 1323
need to account for the tools derived from an applied
epistemology. Mythological legends reflect rather destructive
events derived from the environmental factors of terrestrial or
direct or indirect astronomical origin, depending upon how the
related questions above are resolved.
Natural disasters are something that humanity has had to
deal with since its inception. Beyond a myth lies, among other
issues of ethics and religion, a natural phenomenon. The
hermeneutics of cultural evolution with an overview of
archaeological terms is basically founded upon the theory of
complexity.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
Ioannis Liritzis and Miao Changhong are thankful for the
partial funding support for the project from the Key Research
Institute of the Yellow River Civilization and Sustainable
Development and Collaborative Innovation Center on the
Yellow River Civilization of Henan Province, Henan Univer-
sity, Kaifeng 475001, China.
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