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Stephen Oppenheimer


The Drowned Continent

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
There are many intriguing similarities among the mythologies of people in different parts of the world, often widely separated from one another. This is particularly true of stories of great floods; the Biblical account of a flood is merely one of many similar accounts. Such resemblances could perhaps be due to chance, but for much of the last century psychological theories were the most popular. C.G. Jung in particular advocated the view that common features in the psychology of humans were responsible for the tendency to produce similar myths.

An alternative view, which is the basis for the theory that Oppenheimer advances in this book, is that the mythologies in question are based on fact. After the last Ice Age, which reached its peak about 20,000 years ago, there were at least three major floods caused by the melting of the ice. These were sudden catastrophic events, not gradual rises in sea level. The latest of these episodes occurred as recently as 8000 years ago.

During the last Ice Age Southeast Asia was a single huge continent that included Indo-China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It was flooding that produced the archipelago of islands we see today, while much of the land mass, called Sundaland, is now continental shelf. Other coasts were affected too, including the Arabian Gulf and the coast of China. The land bridge between Asia and North America also disappeared owing to a rise in sea level.

As if the flooding were not enough, the melting of the ice caused big rises in land level as the weight of the ice was removed, and this in turn resulted in great earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. Descriptions in the Bible and other folklore repositories of land rising from the sea and of the sun and moon being made after the appearance of light (because the light was filtering through dense clouds) are taken to be records of these events.

The inhabitants of the flooded lands were forced to move north and west into China and India and ultimately to Mesopotamia, taking with them their myths and legends as well as their technology.

The book is in two parts. Part 1 deals with the evidence from geology, archaeology, linguistics, and genetics; Part 2 is about mythology, and draws quite a lot on the work of Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough. Spanning as he does many different disciplines, Oppenheimer has to rely on the work of others, and he has not skimped his research; there is if anything too much information for the casual reader.

This is an ambitious book and one that could, perhaps, only be written by someone who is not a specialist in any of the disciplines cited (Oppenheimer is a paediatrician who has lived and worked in the area). Catastrophism is still out of fashion in science, in spite of the sometimes still-grudging acceptance of the theory that the demise of the dinosaurs was precipitated by the impact of a bolide. But there have been numerous claims for the existence of advanced civilizations in the remote past (sometimes allegedly aided by advice from visiting extra-terrestrials), so it is not difficult to get oneself labelled as a crank if one ventures into these areas. But the occurrence of widespread flooding after the melting of the ice is not disputed by geologists, and it is hardly far-fetched to suggest that this would have had a profound effect on people living in low-lying coastal areas.

I am not asking for the archaeological, genetic and folklore markers I have described in this book to be accepted without question. There are too few of the former, as yet, for their provenance to be sound. And is their dating accurate? More work clearly needs to be done. What I am suggesting is that the prehistory of Southeast Asia deserves a closer review without what archaeeologist Pamela Swadling calls the 'blinkered' view of many prehistorians of the region.
Although Oppenheimer's style is informal, this is not a particularly easy book to read, because of of the sheer quantity of information it provides. In Part 1 there is a lot of argument about an Austronesian dispersal to the Pacific over 6000 years ago, much earlier than is conventionally believed. As Oppenheimer admits, this is not directly relevant to East–West diffusion and is included to show that the sailors of the time were capable of undertaking long sea voyages. I think it would have been better simply to summarise this and to move the detailed discussion to an appendix.

In Part 2 we get a relentless deluge of myths, and it becomes difficult to keep them separate in one's mind. As a result, the book suffers from a certain lack of focus. The central idea of an East–West migration of people and their ideas is stated at the beginning, but the relevance of the cited evidence is not made as clear and explicit as it might have been.

5 November 2012

%T Eden in the East
%S The Drowned Continent
%A Oppenheimer, Stephen
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%C London
%D 1998
%G ISBN 0297818163
%P xv + 560pp
%K anthropology
%O maps and plates

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