Tsunami or Melting Glaciers: What Caused Ancient Atlit to Sink?

A complex of ancient buildings and ancient graves with dozens of skeletons lies at the underwater site of Atlit-Yam.

At the bottom of the sea, some 300 meters west of the Atlit fortress, lies one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of the Mediterranean basin. About 20 years ago, archaeologists discovered a complex of ancient buildings and ancient graves with dozens of skeletons at the underwater site of Atlit-Yam. The team of marine archaeologists that excavated the site, headed by Dr. Ehud Galili of the Israel Antiquities Authority, came to the consclusion that an ancient settlement once existed there, but sank beneath the surface of the sea some 8,000 years ago. The finds at the site, including goat and pig bones and wheat seeds, indicate that it was a well-established community whose residents supported themselves by agriculture, hunting, fishing and animal husbandry.

Over the past few months, a major argument has erupted among researchers over what caused the village and the surrounding region to flood. A few months ago, a team of geologists from Pisa, Italy published a paper that offers a dramatic theory about how the ancient settlement met its end. They claim that the settlement was submerged all at once by a tsunami in the Mediterranean, causing the death of dozens of its inhabitants. This theory attributes the tsunami to something that happened thousands of kilometers away.

About 8,300 years ago, there was a mighty volcanic explosion at Mt. Etna in Sicily. The Italian geologists examined the area of the volcano, which is still active today, and found that the explosion caused a tremendous avalanche of rocks to go tumbling into the sea. They came to the conclusion that this event gave rise to a giant tsunami that crossed the Mediterranean, reached its eastern shore and, among other things, caused the destruction of Atlit-Yam and the death of its residents.

The researchers also derived some modern-day implications from the findings: Even in the Mediterranean, tsunamis can flood the coast and cause extensive damage. Their research, they wrote, proves that tsunami waves caused by an avalanche from a volcano can constitute a significant threat even to coastal communities thousands of kilometers away from the source of the tsunami.

But Galili, who carried out the dig at the site, says that the conclusions reached by the Italian scholars were too hasty. In a response that he and other researchers published recently in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters (where the Italian researchers' study was originally published), Galili said that the village was not abandoned due to a tsunami.

It is impossible to state categorically that no tsunami occurred in the Mediterranean, he wrote. However, he argued, no traces of a tsunami were found at Atlit-Yam. The Israeli researchers believe that most of the people buried at the site died of illness, and not as the result of a one-time catastrophic event.

"They forced the facts to fit their theory," Galili said. "Because of the catastrophic tsunami in 2004, tsunamis have become a very popular subject and have aroused a great deal of interest. The claim that this is what caused the flood at Atlit-Yam is nice, but in our opinion, that is not what happened."

So what did cause the village to flood? Galili argued that the flooding was caused by a slow rise in the level of the Mediterranean that led to a gradual evacuation of the village. He believes that changes in the climate about 8,000 years ago, which caused glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise, were responsible. "The flooding occurred as the result of the melting of the glaciers, as is happening today," he said.

Therefore, it appears that the fate of the village at Atlit-Yam might nevertheless be the harbinger of a similar catastrophe that will strike coastal communities in our times. However, for flooding of that type, we have more time to prepare.