Uniformitarianism succeeded in displacing catastrophism as the acceptable approach to unraveling Earth’s past, largely because slow moving glaciers better explained the presence of displaced boulders. Catastrophists had surmised that these large rocks were washed to where they were found during a great flood which, they believed, was brought about by the close approach or impact of a comet. Though this is a vast over simplification of the contest which took place between these two schools of thought, it serves to show why true blue uniformists have had trouble accepting evidence of catastrophic floods or impacts. A pertinent example of what happens when scientists reject a hypothesis on the basis of prior assumption rather than evidence is provided by the Spokane flood controversy–a debate which closely parallels the controversy over the origin of the Carolina Bays.
Geologist J. Harlen Bretz began his study of the peculiar geomorphic features found on the Columbia Plateau of eastern Washington in the summer of 1922. By 1932 he had become a “heretic” in the minds of many fellow geologists, for Bretz contended that the features which he called, collectively, the Channeled Scabland, were created by catastrophic floods. Judging his research completed, Bretz simply stepped out of the controversy his decade of work engendered and went on to other problems, advising his colleagues that only field evidence could, or should, decide the issue.
Bretz was more fortunate than most researchers who have posited an unpopular hypothesis; he lived long enough to see his view accepted. One can imagine the smile that came to Bretz’s face, when, in 1965, this wise octogenarian received a lengthy telegram from an international team of geologists which began with “greetings and salutations” and ended with: “We are now all catastrophists.”
Victor R. Baker provides an excellent overview of this long, drawn-out debate in his article, “The Spokane Flood Controversy and the Martian Outflow Channels,” published in Science (Vol. 202, 22 Dec. 1978). Baker points out the similarity of features revealed on Mars by space-faring cameras and the Channeled Scabland, however, most of his paper focuses on the Spokane flood controversy. He ends the article with these words:
The Spokane flood controversy is both a story of ironies and a marvelous exposition of the scientific method. One cannot but be amazed at the efforts made to give a uniformitarian explanation for the Channeled Scabland and to uphold the framework of geology as it had been established in the writings of Hutton, Lyell, and Agassiz. The final irony may be that Bretz’s critics did not appreciate the scientific implications of Agassiz’s famous dictum, “study nature, not books.” Perhaps no geologist has understood and lived the spirit of those words more enthusiastically than J. Harlen Bretz.
It is difficult to envision the great flood, or floods Bretz’s research revealed. In some areas evidence indicates the surface of the water was over six hundred feet above ground level! One aqueous mountain was so vast that it manifested a surface gradient steep enough to push water, in surrounding river valleys, upstream more than seventy miles. Abrupt breaks in the icy confines of glacial Lake Missoula apparently caused this flooding. Exactly why this lake so suddenly lost its integrity is still open to debate. It is also yet unclear how many catastrophic floods occurred.
The last major deluge in this area took place over eleven thousand years ago; volcanic tephra from a dated eruption of Glacier Peak establishes this. Given the proven antiquity of this flooding episode, one can but marvel at the lucid, and if anything, understated account passed along to us by Chief Lot, a respected leader in the Spokane Indian community:
A long time ago the country around where Spokane Falls are now, and for many days’ journey east of it, was a large and beautiful lake. In the lake were many islands, and on its shores were many villages with many people. The Indians were well fed and happy, for there were plenty of fish in the lake and plenty of deer and elk in the country around it.
But one summer morning the people were startled by a rumbling and a shaking of the earth. The waters of the lake rose. Soon the waves became mountains of water that broke with fury against the shore.
Some of the water was flowing westward from the lake that remained. The people followed it until they came to a waterfall. Soon they saw salmon coming up the new river from the big river west of them. So they built a village beside the waterfall in the new river and made it their home.
Then the sun was blotted out, and darkness covered the land and the water. Terrified, the people ran to the hills to get away from the pounding water. For two days the earth rumbled and quaked. Than a rain of ashes began to fall. It fell for several weeks.
At last the ashes stopped falling, the waters of the lake became quiet, and the Indians came down from the hills. But soon the lake began to disappear. Dry land rose where the water had been. Many people died, for there was nothing to eat. The game animals had run away when the people fled to the hills, and no one dared go out on the lake to fish.
This legend was read by Major R.D. Gwydin at a meeting of the Spokane Historical Society, which was held toward the end of the last century–long before Bretz began his investigation. The full value of this account could not have been apparent then. Only results of recent geologic field work can provide the story with a time frame and so gauge its accuracy.
The fact that the legend tells of a great lake in the Spokane area which was badly drained via a new river created by the action of a catastrophic flood that occurred in conjunction with violent tectonic activity, including vulcanism, makes it difficult to misplace in time. This is almost certainly an eleven thousand year old eyewitness account of a, or the, Spokane flooding episode. Not only does this succinct report tell of a feature which required years of geologic field work to establish–the presence of a vast lake in the Spokane area–but it also reveals a detail which could not be easily proven by a contemporary geologic investigation. The assertion in the legend, that volcanic ash fell during this flood should be considered a valuable piece of collateral evidence which could shed further light on events of this time period. To date, geologists have only used the tephra deposited on these flood features as a means of limiting the time interval in which the flooding could have occurred. Accepting this Native American legend as a likely eyewitness account, rather than an ex-post-facto construct, might allow geologists to affix a fairly firm date to at least one major Spokane flood.
Folklore, like any large collection of literature (including scientific works) accumulated over time, contains valid observations along with suppositions. Generally, it is not difficult to recognize hypothesis in handed down tales, for early expositors’ rationalizations were often quite fanciful. The remains of giant herbivores inspired a variety of tales which sought to explain their presence. These stories varied from culture to culture, however, almost all have one thing in common; the given explanation is totally implausible and obviously an ex-post-facto fabrication.
J.P. MacLean provides an overview of notions engendered by finds of giant bones in his Mastodon, Mammoth and Man published in 1878:
The fossil bones of the elephant family when first discovered were ascribed either to human beings or else the demi-gods. The patella of a fossil elephant found in Greece was taken for the knee-bone of Ajax; the remains, thirteen feet in length, discovered by the Spartans at Tegea, were assigned to the body of Orestes; those, eighteen feet in length, discovered in the Isle of Ladea, were assigned to Asterious, son of Ajax; the bones discovered in the fourth century at Trapani, in Sicily, were ascribed to the pretended body of Polyphemus. So numerous were the discoveries, and so universally regarded to be those of human beings, that the literature of the middle ages, on this subject, is quite voluminous, and has been entitled “Gigantology.”
The gigantic bones discovered in 1705, thirty miles south of Albany, New York, were regarded as additional proof of the ancient stories relative to the past existence of a race of giants. One of the teeth was shown to Governor Dudley, of Massachusetts, who was “perfectly of opinion that the tooth will agree only to a human body, for whom the flood only could prepare a funeral; and without doubt he waded as long as he could keep his head above the clouds, but must, at length, be confounded with all other creatures.” The bones of the mastodon found near Santa Fe de Bogota, in the “Field of Giants,” were formerly taken for human remains. And, in like manner, the great quantity of bones of this animal found in the Cordilleras originated the Spanish tradition that Peru was formerly inhabited by men of colossal stature.
In 1456, in France, bones of pretended giants were noticed in the bed of the Rhone. Soon after other discoveries were made near Saint-Peirat, opposite Valence, which were cared for by the Dauphin, afterwards Louis XI, and sent to Bourges, where they long remained objects of curiosity in the interior of the Saint-Chapelle. In the same neighborhood, in 1564, two peasants noticed, on the banks of the Rhone, some great bones sticking out of the ground. Cassanion pronounced them giants’ bones, and this discovery doubtless caused him to write his treatise entitled “De Gigantibus.”
In the Canton of Lucerne, Switzerland, in the year 1577, a storm uprooted an oak near the cloisters of Reyden, exposing some large bones. These bones were examined by Felix Platen, then a celebrated physician and professor at Basle, who declared them to be the remains of a giant nineteen feet in height. On account of the conclusions of Platen the inhabitants of Lucerne adopted the image of the fabulous giant as the supporter of the city arms.
Otto de Guericke, a celebrated physicist and inventor of the air pump, in 1663, witnessed the discovery of the bones of the elephant, along with its enormous tusks, buried in the shelly-limestone, Germany. The tusks were taken for horns, and out of the remains Leibnitz constructed a strange animal, carrying a horn in the middle of its forehead, and in each jaw a dozen molar-teeth a foot long, and calling the creature the fossil unicorn. In his “Protogaea” he gave a description and a drawing of the imaginary animal. For more than thirty years the unicorn of Leibnitz was universally accepted throughout Germany, . . .
An interesting correlation on the Spanish belief, just mentioned comes from the “Terminal Essay” of Richard F. Burton’s famous Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, published in 1886:
. . . Speaking of the arrival of the Giants at Point Santa Elena, [Peru] Cieza says, they were detested by the natives, because in using their women they killed them, and their men also in another way. All the natives declare that God brought upon them a punishment proportioned to the enormity of their offence. When they were engaged together in their accursed intercourse, a fearful and terrible fire came down from Heaven with a great noise, out of the midst of which there issued a shining Angel with a glittering sword, wherewith at one blow they were all killed and the fire consumed them. There remained a few bones and skulls which God allowed to bide unconsumed by the fire, as a memorial of this punishment.
Burton recognized this as a likely ” . . . Europeo-American version of the Sodom legend.” As the reader will soon see the American component of this tale could be much more ancient than the legend of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the above story, two disparate legends, each likely inspired by an actual impact event, though probably not the same one, have been merged to form a totally erroneous tale.
Thomas Jefferson was also intrigued by these commonly found large bones. By his time most well-informed people knew these to be the remains of large elephants; the question in Jefferson’s mind was: Were some still lurking about? In his Notes on Virginia, first published in 1787, Jefferson reports:
Our quadrupeds have been mostly described by Linnaeus and Mons. de Buffon. Of these the mammoth, or big buffalo, as called by the Indians, must certainly have been the largest. Their tradition is, that he was carnivorous, and still exists in the northern parts of America. A delegation of warriors from the Delaware tribe having visited the Governor of Virginia, during the revolution, on matters of business, after these had been discussed and settled in council, the Governor asked them some questions relative to their country, and among others, what they knew or had heard of the animal whose bones were found at the Saltlicks on the Ohio. Their chief speaker immediately put himself into an attitude of oratory, and with a pomp suited to what he conceived the elevation of his subject, informed him that it was a tradition handed down from their fathers, “That in ancient times a herd of these tremendous animals came to the Big-bone licks, and began an universal destruction of the bear, deer, elks, buffaloes, and other animals which had been created for the use of the Indians; that the Great Man above, looking down and seeing this, was so enraged that he seized his lightning, descended on the earth, seated himself on a neighboring mountain, on a rock of which his seat and the print of his feet are still to be seen, and hurled his bolts among them till the whole were slaughtered, except the big bull, who presenting his forehead to the shafts, shook them off as they fell; but missing one at length, it wounded him in the side; whereon, springing round, he bounded over the Ohio, over the Wabash, the Illinois, and finally over the great lakes, where he is living at this day.”
Jefferson included this native narrative because it lent support to the idea that these large animals were still extant; he did not accept the notion of total extinction. This is made plain later in the same work, where, referring to his list of quadrupeds common to Europe and America, Jefferson states:
. . . It may be asked, why I insert the mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist? Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced, of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken. To add to this, the traditionary testimony of the Indians, that this animal still exists in the northern and western parts of America, would be adding the light of a taper to that of the meridian sun. Those parts still remain in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed by us, or by others for us. He may as well exist there now, as he did formerly where we find his bones.
Jefferson supposed that these large animals, probably carnivorous, had recently abandoned eastern American due to a general depletion of wild game, which, in turn, he felt, was caused by the enhanced hunting capability of natives armed with European weapons.
Obviously, this early champion of freedom saw the ‘stormy’ part of this native legend as nothing more than flamboyant free verse, added to spice up the story. Recall that, when Jefferson wrote his Notes on Virginia, well-informed individuals ‘knew’ that rocks could not fall from the sky. The mention of a “Great Man above” hurling ‘bolts’ at the long-nosed beasts from a mountain top probably caused a chuckle to issue from the great statesman as he first took this legend in–“How Jovian!”–he likely thought. Jefferson would have never imagined that this part of the story could have any historic value, however, it most probably does.
The reader can most clearly appreciate a likely connection between this legend and the formation of the Carolina Bays by comparing the geographic location given in the fullest version of this story with a map showing the probable ‘footprint’ of the suspected impact event. This particular rendering of the tale was provided, sans translator, by an English speaking member of the Delaware tribe around the turn of the century:
Long ago, in time almost forgotten, when the Indians and the Great Spirit knew each other better, when the Great Spirit would appear and talk with the wise men of the Nation, and they would counsel with the people; when every warrior understood the art of nature, and the Great Spirit was pleased with his children; long before the white man came and the Indians turned their ear to the white man’s God; when every warrior believed that bravery, truth, honesty, and charity were the virtues necessary to take him to the happy hunting-grounds; when the Indians were obedient and the Great Spirit was interested in their welfare there were mighty beasts that roamed the forests and plains.
The Yah Qua Whee or mastodon that was placed here for the benefit of the Indians was intended as a beast of burden and to make itself generally useful to the Indians. This beast rebelled. It was fierce, powerful and invincible, its skin being so strong and hard that the sharpest spears and arrows could scarcely penetrate it. It made war against all other animals that dwelt in the woods and on the plains which the Great Spirit had created to be used as meat for his children–the Indians.
A final battle was fought and all the beasts of the plains and forests arrayed themselves against the mastodon. The Indians were also to take part in this decisive battle if necessary, as the Great Spirit had told them they must annihilate the mastodon.
The great bear was there and was wounded in the battle.
The battle took place in the Ohio Valley, west of the Alleghanies. The Great Spirit descended and sat on a rock on the top of the Alleghanies to watch the tide of battle. Great numbers of mastodons came, and still greater numbers of the other animals.
The slaughter was terrific. The mastodons were being victorious until at last the valleys ran in blood. The battlefield became a great mire, and many of the mastodons, by their weight, sank in the mire and were drowned.
The Great Spirit became angry at the mastodon and from the top of the mountain hurled bolts of lightning at their sides until he killed them all except one large bull, who cast aside the bolts of lightning with his tusks and defied everything, killing many of the other animals in his rage until at last he was wounded. Then he bounded across the Ohio river over the Mississippi, swam the Great Lakes, and went to the far north where he lives to this day.
There was a terrible loss of the animals that were made for food for the Indians in that battle, and the Indians grieved much to see it so the Great Spirit caused in remembrance of that day, the cranberry to come and grow in the marshes to be used as food, its coat always bathed in blood, in remembrance of that awful battle.
Traces of that battle may yet be seen. The marshes and mires are still there, and in them the bones of the mastodon still are found as well as the bones of many other animals.
Though the geographic correlation suggests that this legend is rooted in fact, it would not be possible to rule out a coincidentally fortuitous ex-post-facto origin for this story without additional evidence. Amazingly there is a rock hard exhibit which may rule this possibility out.