Living with the Extreme

The most extreme natural events (gray phase of volcanic eruptions, GLOFs* (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods), volcanic winters, rogue waves) were only fully objectified in the 20th Century. The disappearances of the city of Saint-Pierre in 1902, then of Le Morne Rouge, led the vulcanologist Alfred Lacroix to install a camera that was able to capture the discreet slaughterer that was the fiery cloud descending the slopes of the volcano.

However, there is a suspicion that the most extreme phenomena may have played a role in the structuring of cultural and mythological foundations, as evidenced by the representations of volcanic eruptions in the Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave. It is a question of having methodologies that make it possible to link climate data with cultural data. One methodology is that of the folklorists of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century: systematic collections were made around natural risks, which provided interesting material, but appeared very disparate and heterogeneous. Since then, archaeological data have been used, using sophisticated dating procedures.

2.1. The example of super-flooding

We will take the example of GLOFs, the super-floods that come from the emptying of the glacial lake. The “academic” category of GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Flood) is a recent introduction: it is the sudden emptying of a sub or periglacial lake, with a destructive power that depends on the volume of water and the height of the waterfall. Ice melting can result from a volcanic activity (we prefer to use the Icelandic term jökulhlaup) or from a seasonal or climatic increase in temperature. The abrupt rupture is caused by a moraine, landform feature, ice cliff, or widening canyon. The place given to these phenomena today is underlined by the images available from other planets. They often bear indications of relief modified by sudden flows, which leads to a reconsideration of their role in the formation of the Earth’s relief. The current Strait of Pas-de-Calais is the result of two dated GLOFs from about 400 ka and 150 ka (400,000 and 150,000 years ago), which therefore had the power to create very large shapes, visible from space. GLOF is the most severe form of flooding and is one of the markers of global warming.

In the Alps, part of the town of Saint-Gervais was destroyed in 1892 by the emptying of the lake under the Tête Rousse glacier in the Mont-Blanc massif, killing 172 people, while Grenoble was destroyed in 1219 by a similar phenomenon. The height of the waterfall was 2500 m in Saint-Gervais. The name of the Grenoble river is the Drac, meaning “dragon” in ancient languages, while the neighborhood where it meets the Isère is that of St Michael, a dragon slayer, i.e. a great dragon killer. GLOFs represent the category of the largest floods, and it may be surprising to find them associated not with flood myths, of which we know about a thousand versions, but with other myths, here, the “tricked ogre”* for Saint-Gervais and “dragon slayer”* for Grenoble.

The largest GLOFs changed the climate. Indeed, the temporary glacial lake had gigantic dimensions, covering, for example, a large part of what is now Canada, with a depth of 250 m. The lake emptied into the North Atlantic, changing the thermohaline circulation and rainfall pattern. This was specific to the Northern Hemisphere with a climate volatility greater than for the Southern Hemisphere due, in part, to the effects of ice sheet GLOFs. For the Alps or for the ice sheet GLOFs, whether the flooding comes from a glacial lake is not explicitly mentioned in myths and legends, as is sometimes found in the Andes and Himalayas (see Figure 2.1). The situation in France, with super-floods in the northern regions that are suitable for the typology of geologists and climatologists, but without any trace of the myth of floods in local cultures, and in a mountainous area of GLOFs with a translation into a diversified set of myths and legends, is, in fact, well representative of the world’s situation. The great landscape-forming GLOFs do not exceed a northern latitude (Columbia river, latitude 47°; Pas-de-Calais, latitude 41°), while the myth contains a narrative element specific to the GLOF in a small set of diluvian myths, mainly in the foothills of the Andes and the Himalayas. And this narrative element is rather exceptional, absent from GLOF sites such as Mont Blanc or the Drac valley.

The local legend for the Mont-Blanc massif is that of the “tricked ogre” type, an ancient alpine myth, but which is also found in regions of North America and Central Asia whose landscape has been shaped by GLOFs. Water cultures are divided into two main themes: those of aquatic places populated by dragons and ogres, and flood-deluge areas. Folkloristic surveys of these water cultures increase perplexity: the same associations between a certain type of phenomenon and a myth are found in very remote regions, and the most strongly dimensioned phenomena, the super-flooding of the ice sheet GLOFs, are not found in the great myths.


Figure 2.1. Depiction of floods based on geologists’ reports and myths. Source: [BER 11]. For a color version of this figure, see www.iste.co.uk/alaktif/climate.zip

2.2. In search of a new interpretative framework

As Witzel [WIT 08; WIT 12] explains, “naturalistic” interpretations (in this case, the narrative is based on information from a past event) are not appropriate: different myths can be mobilized for the same type of natural event, while the geologist may find remains of a huge event without any trace in local cultures. On the other hand, “symbolist” interpretations, disconnected from any natural event, for example, by “effervescence” in a place of population gathering [DUR 12], do not explain the existence of details precisely observed in myths and legends.

Tales and myths related to water and floods generally have an underlying hydrophilic aspiration: people lack water and demand its arrival on a massive scale. On the contrary, the greatest flood myths present a hydrophobic culture and therefore a reversal of the value of water. This reversal of the value of water exists, for example, in the mythology of southern China, but not in ancient Egypt, where Ré, the solar god, defeated the snake Apopis (this is a dragon slayer-type myth).

In the Northern Hemisphere, most regions remain attached to dragon myths, particularly maritime regions less concerned by ice sheet GLOFs, the gigantic floods resulting from the emptying of the glacial lake outside an outlet to the sea. When the Northern Hemisphere’s ice cap melted between about 17 and 8 ka, a maritime country like Japan remained in a dragon slayer culture, like other maritime civilizations, for example, the ancient Scandinavians. In flood myths, the flood can be gigantic, with no mention of rainfall or any Uranian phenomenon. For example, in Chinese mythology, there is mention of a hole in the mountain that caused the flood, and this could correspond to the GLOF phenomenon, common in the Himalayan region. But this version of the myth of Yu the Great is late, associated with great achievements in hydraulic engineering and the affirmation of an imperial political project. Similarly, i.e. for relatively recent cultures, the ancient Scandinavians had a creative myth that combined fire and ice, in an evocation of a jökulhlaup from the beginning of the world. The summary carried out on the myths of the waters of Mircea Eliade [ELI 64] promoted flood myths. It reserved only an exceptional place for the dragon in the Asian worlds. Subsequent work has indicated the presence of a flood myth in southern China, presenting the most evocative version of the processes used to deal with a super-flood. However, the phylogeny of the tales [DHU 16a] initiated by Tehrani [TER 13] disrupts this hierarchy, indicating the age-old myths associated with the dragon [DHU 13], more appropriate to climatic contexts bringing about devastating water waves marking the end of drought, such as dry African peaks.

Understanding climate change requires a better chronology of the sequence of events related to the disappearance phases of the ice sheets, the land-based ice caps. Measured by the sudden variations in the level of the Black Sea, more than 60 major events have been recorded over the past 500,000 years. The large cold abrupt weathering peaks of the last Ice Age had a return time of about 7,500 years on average for the Northern Hemisphere. Understanding climate change therefore means better understanding of mega-floods and improving understanding of them. Human cultures developed during this period, and it is also important to identify possible relationships between climate change and cultural transformations.

We will progress along the following path: first, we will give some methodological details on what is meant by the “L–E–S–C paradigm of measuring the extreme”, then we will examine the first GLOF cultures and discuss the articulation between the first cultural groups of anatomically modern humans and climate change and we will examine the forms of GLOF objectification; then, finally, we will discuss the relevance of the L–E–S–C approach for climate change cultures.

2.3. Extreme measurements

The E–V–L–N paradigm (Exit, Voice, Loyalty, Neglect) is used in a distress situation where it is a matter of dealing with a context that has already been irrevocably compromised. Jaspers [JAS 54] introduced a list of the major transformations that separate the main cultural systems. These, in different ways, are “underpinned by a trend towards ever-increasing control (of environmental elements) and achievement” ([LAM 14], p. 27). Human culture is defined as the prevention of situations of distress. When the artists of the Chauvet cave painted the volcanic eruption or a cave lion, they confronted themselves with the extreme by incorporating it with a symbolic and concrete mastery, an art. They were equipped with a measure of the extreme prior to their experience. The E–V–L–N paradigm is beyond experience, in a distress situation due to a previous event. Experience implies a future, which causes distress through its absence. Foucault’s L–E–S–C paradigm (Laughter, Ecstasy, Sacrifice, Communication) falls short of experience, in a previous, anticipatory way. Paleolithic man depicted cave lions or other forms of extreme situations such as volcanic eruptions: these enlargements somehow pushed the boundaries, reducing the possibility of a situation where only distress and E–V–L–N strategies remained.

The protection dike of the Fukushima nuclear power plant had not been designed to take into account the mention of a 9th Century Japanese annalist indicating a devastating tsunami in the Sendai region. This annalist had retained a rare event and devoted particular attention to it. His assessment of the consequences was correct. This situation was that of a relationship with extremes that is still ours: the rarer the event, the more abundant the narratives, while the objectification of the consequences is more often than not correct. This situation is that of Communication. Foucault listed four relationships at the possible extremes, Laughter, Ecstasy, Sacrifice and Communication, in his tribute to Bataille ([FOU 01a], p.263). The Lascaux cave was discovered in 1940, and Georges Bataille then produced a large monograph on this decorated cave [BAT 55]. Bataille realized that Lascaux corresponded to a culture of Ecstasy and not of Sacrifice [BAT 79].

It was then necessary to complete this initial list upstream and downstream, as Foucault had indicated. Before this artistic dimension of ornate caves that appeared in a culture of ecstasy, simple laughter was an adaptive human biological response, reducing the occurrence of distress. Downstream, the 9th Century Japanese annalist was already in a cultural system known as Communication. A number of regions of the globe, such as Europe, the Pacific coast of America and Japan, experienced an intermediate phase, that of the dragon slayer, who was also called a Witness, indicating that he experienced the extreme, singularizing it.

The question of the birth of the arts was the one that led to a succession of responses that proved unsatisfactory [MIT 91]. Today, Paleolithic art appears to be very widespread in its themes, but it dominated a figurative animal art, its processes and its principles of composition [PAI 18]. The initial questions rejected the first theories, those of a hunting magic, a symbolic art, for a discussion around a figurative art associated with a spiritual corporality [LAM 14] [WIT 12] [CLO 11].

2.3.1. Laughter: characterizing risk in climate change?

Laughter is a reflex in humans. It indicates a lack of danger and facilitates social relationships. We can only describe the major risk negatively: laughter indicates that the threat is not real. Laughter results from a biological evolution that cannot introduce a distinction between extreme, rare and singular events. It avoids the triggering of alert mechanisms, i.e. it regulates attitude and mood by detecting minor dangers and false threats. What role could such a biological complex have played in the biological history of hominids? Climate instability between 120 and 11.7 ka led to the disappearance of a large part of the megafauna and seriously affected the various human groups. The benchmark dates of 73 ka and 39 ka were those of conjunctions of adverse events, both a harmful climatic sequence and the explosion of a super volcano that caused dust emissions into the atmosphere and a “winter” probably lasting several years. The 73 ka event was centered on the Toba volcano located in South Asia on the equator, and it undoubtedly had a negative impact on the population of anatomically modern humans, and, on the other hand, encouraged the expansion of Neanderthals in Europe and Central Asia. The 39 ka event was located in Europe, the super volcano of the Phlegrean Fields in Campania. It probably precipitated the disappearance of Neanderthals. The realization of these major risks led to a drastic reduction in the hominids’ evolutionary bush. They had a good capacity for resilience; evolutionary singularities such as the existence of laughter contributed to this. However, the continuous and chaotic degradation of the climate led to a gradual increase in threats.

The inscription of laughter was made in the cultural groups of the oldest anatomically modern humans. A funny, mischievous character, the Trickster, offered archaic characteristics [WIT 12]. Lorblanchet’s book [LOR 99] provides an answer to the question of the birth of the arts: new practices and artistic translations of emotions appeared in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic, a long period preceding the proven and multiform existence of artistic expressions in the Upper Paleolithic.

2.3.2. Ecstasy

A very simple myth, such as that of a gluttonous ogre, gave indications of the extreme, which did not happen with simple laughter. Signs and marks highlight surprising elements in the human environment as early as the Middle Paleolithic [LOR 99] [AND 12]. In the Upper Paleolithic, the figures were more explicit. The Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave contains five representations of a volcanic eruption in the red phase. In one of them, there is a specific association between a figure of a large Irish elk and a gush of incandescent material from a volcano’s mouth. The composition dates back to 36.7 ka. It was the result of an artistic practice of anatomically modern humans. Hands drawn on the walls indicate a ritual that sought to appropriate the power of this place. They were in ecstasy, amazement, as already indicated in Bataille’s commentary on the Lascaux [BAT 55]. A pulsation explains the contingency that governed the environment while dragons, rather benevolent, surrounded and shaped the world, guaranteeing its order and return to balance [COL 11]. This was a consideration of temporality considered as an eternal return because of the absence of a caesura marking irreversibility in time. It was a question of taking the potential of a great natural power that manifested itself in a brilliant way. The measurement was non-additive, the hand in contact with the wall enabling the taking care of the energy of the therimeteor*. The oldest languages had a very simplified numbering: one, two, many, leading us to think that measurement was indeed of a non-additive type, the rudiments of arithmetic not being in place. The volcano brought a new Earth, i.e. powers considered to play only a creative role, without destruction. This period was thus quite logically the birth of many arts: music, dance, ivory carving, painting and wall engraving. A new production of emotion, the artistic, appeared.

2.3.3. Sacrifice

For Europe, a reorganization of sanctuaries with a new artistic practice, monumental sculpture, combined with sacrificial practice, is attested to in Magdalenian culture [ DHU16b]. The new arts were architecture, live performances and monumental sculpture. The irreversible appeared: an age, that of the dragon python, closed by a free god, that of the climate and the sun. Apollo cut the snake, killing the order that was maintained by enclosing the contingency so that the ages can follow one another. The sacrificial exchange presupposed at least one principle of reciprocity between humanity and the gods. An increase in additivity sometimes led to a count of offerings. The disproportion between circumstances and consequences was the result of a free and open game by the climate god. The transition to the additive led to the emergence of reference canons, accounting units. The situation became protohistoric with a mixture of elapsing time and legendary time, since at least one event occurred on the time scale. Power then became fully destructive. From this phase on, it is possible that the terms catastrophe and disaster came to be known.

The birth of the different arts made it possible to distinguish a pattern with great strides in the succession of belief systems. The birth of the arts in the Upper Paleolithic was associated with a culture of the limit or extreme, that of ecstasy. Georges Bataille had noticed the absence of another of the great cultural matrices among the measures of the extreme, that of sacrifice, at Lascaux, which corresponded for the climate to the last glacial maximum. The internal succession of episodes for this part in the economies of sacrifice was solarization, sedentarization, neolithization and then the beginning of the history. The great myths were then fixed. The period of climatic disturbances from very large GLOFs was entirely within the period of the extreme sacrificial type, as can be confirmed by a 12.6 ka site of the Clovis culture near Yellowstone. The association between the last deglaciation and the string of crops that ran along the ice sheets seemed to be associated with solarization. Before solarization, all dragons came from the two families of protective dragons, drakones and dragon-flood. Then, in the period of sacrificial economies, the “bad” dragons appeared: the myth of the dragon slayer was then established.

2.3.4. Communication

Communication distorts the distribution of events, emphasizing the rare event with an abundance of narratives. This is the fully historical regime with a flow of various types of events. The consequences are objective, and their magnitude is measurable as in the case of the 9th Century Japanese annalist concerning the Sendai region. This last period, that of Communication, began with the introduction of xylography in Central Asia along the Silk Road around the 9th Century AD. A representation of a dragon from this period had the same major iconographic characteristics as today.

The four attitudes were mutually exclusive. They have been presented here in the order in which they appeared, and it is particularly important to estimate from when very old indications can provide reliable information.

Table 2.1. The L–E–S–C paradigm of extreme measures

Laughter Innate reflex Improves resilience, regulates mood Not adapted to major risk No major consequences
Ecstasy Therimeteors: dragons or gluttonous ogres Prehistoric, strictly speaking. An eternal return Non-additive measure of potential Creation, positive variation
Sacrifice Dragon slayer, dismembered Protohistoric: a caesura introduced over time Increase in additivity, reference to a principle of reciprocity Destruction and creation possible
Communication Variety of catastrophes Plainly historical Amplifies narratives around rare events Correctly evaluates the consequences

2.4. The first GLOF cultures

In the Andean mythologies of pre-Inca Empire populations, two different versions were given of a GLOF, the brutal emptying of a glacial lake. In the first case, the lake resulting from the disaster bore the same name as the neighboring mountain god and testified to his strength and power. In another myth, it was a moralizing framework of the Philemon and Baucis type: the gods wandered around and were only welcomed by an elderly couple. They were the only survivors of the catastrophe resulting from the divine wrath [OVI 66]. The processes of researching the temporal depth of myths and tales [TER 13; DHU 16a] corroborate the successive strata of extreme cultures.

2.4.1. The “bathymetry” of myths and tales

The mischievous character of the trickster is part of the oldest cultural group, measured from the ATU catalog* of oral traditions of tales [UTH 04]. Their dissemination area is the largest and there are many African versions. The plot of the tricked ogre myths (e.g. the Cyclops Polyphemus in the Odyssey), for example, would be more recent and probably of European origin. It is also found in a version of the indigenous populations of the great lakes of North America, with a migration date given by population genetics indications of 18 +/- 10 ka. Archaeological evidence from sites in present-day Canada indicates a human presence 24 ka on the Far North side and 16 ka for the southern edge of the ice sheet, reducing the initial “range” from 28 to 8 ka. However, the migration corridor between Canada’s far north and the rest of North America, overcoming the obstacle of the vast Canadian ice sheet and the Rocky Mountain barrier, remains unknown. The state of the issues today is to think that populations with lifestyles close to Arctic hunters (“pre-Clovis”) first occasionally entered the American continent. Then, undoubtedly, a corridor now submerged along Canada’s Pacific coast opened up and would have brought different populations, looking for low-lying sites. Their culture (from the eponymous Clovis site in New Mexico) was then that of a sacrificial solar cult whose sites occupied a vast territory covering almost entirely the western United States and present-day Mexico. The only populations in the world that possess a mythology with the crossing of a large ice space are a small group of six Rocky Mountain tribes, the main one being the Blackfeet [BER 11].

The dragon is probably of African origin; it is linked to water, a stock of vital energy that it can restore to humans. The therimeteor situation, an association of an animal and a remarkable natural phenomenon, is found in African, then Aurignacian and Siberian sites. For example, the Irish elk depicts a Strombolian volcanic eruption in the Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave in the Aurignacian culture instead of the use of its antlers.

The presence of a snake with its head cut off in two Magdalenian sanctuaries, Montespan and Tuc d’Audoubert, dates a changeover in the sacrificial economy in Europe and America, in the same warming period in transition between the last Ice Age and the Holocene [DHU 16b]. The “bathymetry” of myths and tales therefore amounts to an attempt to date them by cross-checking statistical studies on changes in the text of myths and tales, on the history of techniques, on known migrations through population genetics studies, and using direct data from large prehistoric sites. This concern for the search for temporal depth was not very present in the folklore tradition, where collection by theme (e.g. myths related to the Moon) was favored.

2.4.2. Some examples of cultures associated with GLOFs

Eliade was part of this folk tradition; diachrony was rarely mentioned in his Histoire des religions [ELI 64], which is, in fact, not very historical. Structural anthropology is concerned with the search for large anthropological invariants. However, the climate, the relationship with the environment, has changed a lot, as have the experiences of limits and extremes. To speak of one’s lived experience is to situate oneself in an attitude towards the extreme, which is that of an age of communication. The measures of the extreme, which seem to follow one another in chronological order, are those of laughter, ecstasy, sacrifice and communication.

In the study of climate change, the period from 120 to 10 ka is the period when climate volatility was the most significant. The maximum ice extent dates back to 19.3 ka for the Northern Hemisphere and 18 ka for the Southern Hemisphere. Witzel [WIT 08] concludes for the first cultural group prior to their departure from Africa that there was a myth of “flood-reward”: spiritual hierarchy of elements of the environment induced mountain gods, for example. The aspiration was that of a GO culture, where flooding seemed both rewarding and destructive.

Gluttonous ogre myths can be opposed to tricked ogre myths. In the latter case, the relationship with a natural brutal destructive power changes, the force of the ogre being diverted by a medium. This myth of deception is present in North America and Europe, which was an indication of an Upper Paleolithic culture with a land route between Asia and America via Beringia. The myth of deception was introduced in mountainous regions (Caucasus, Alps, Rocky Mountains). It testifies to the self-confidence of the first anatomically modern humans entering mountainous regions by major natural axes, which occurred as soon as the retreat of the large glaciers covering the mountain ranges allowed it.


Figure 2.2. Gluttonous or tricked ogres, or both. Source: [BER 11]. For a color version of this figure, see www.iste.co.uk/alaktif/climate.zip

The spatial distribution of regions where the rituals were STOP-type with respect to flooding – for example, the ritual of sowing the river with soil which is evoked in Chinese flood myths as an example of an ineffective strategy – versus regions where the rituals were GO-type with respect to flooding can be introduced. A piedmont plateau situation is that of the Magdalenian site of Montespan. The climate remained cold, with a very marked alternation of two seasons, winter and a brief summer. The Montespan cave is a river resurgence at the foot of the Pyrenees and has probably been considered as a main source of it. The fossilized remains of an acephalous snake indicate the presence of a GO-type ritual in relation to the flood that marked the end of a winter that tended to be extended [DHU16b]. The Tuc d’Audoubert site has the same characteristics with a sanctuary organized around a monumental sculpture of a group of bison. The dating (Magdalenian period) of these two European “twin” sanctuaries (Montespan and Tuc d’Audoubert) is a little earlier than that of the American Clovis culture. The example of the Nile floods, where the rituals were GO-type, illustrates the fact that almost the entire African continent was GO-type. There was a great fear that water would not arrive, so the Nile regularly brought floods with catastrophic effects, without these being part of specific rituals. The spatial distribution based on folklore data is therefore marked by a strong pre-eminence of GO-type cultures: generally, humanity’s greatest fear is that of a lack of water, and in a context of greater climate volatility, it is first and foremost dry weathering that seemed to have been the first materials for the intensification of human cultural expressions.


Figure 2.3. Deluges like the dawn or end of the world, both, or neither. Source: [BER 11]. For a color version of this figure, see www.iste.co.uk/alaktif/climate.zip

The temporal distribution includes transitions. The evolution of dragon myths often precedes those of the flood. In civilizations based on hydraulic developments, those in arid environments were on the side of the dragon in terms of water myths. Thus, the appearance of river development was not necessarily induced by a diluvian mythology, even if a mythology such as that of Yu the Great in China contains many indications on water management and that of the mandate of Heaven binding the Earth administrator and celestial power. As Thomas Labbé’s study [LAB 17] indicates, there may have been periods when the diluvian reference was dominant, as in the European Late Middle Ages. The biblical reference was then associated with urban development in river beds, whereas the previous period had been marked by the most intense sequence of deforestation that Europe had ever known. The increasingly strongly anthropized natural environments of the Holocene still maintain a dualism in the myths of water, dragons and floods.

Arid and warm spaces were not very conducive to the emergence of flood myths. The deluge myths of the end of the world mainly included cultures from South America and Southeast Asia, in regions with regular high rainfall. Africa was known to have no flood myths; more precisely, the myths of great floods did not combine there in the form of a new dawn or a terminal cataclysm of the universal flood type (see Figure 2.3). The high GLOF areas of the 17–8 ka period were rather those where Aboriginal populations perpetuated flood myths as the dawn of a new era (see Figure 2.3). The myth of the dragon slayer could be found in Europe and in arid, cold or hot spaces (see Figure 2.4).


Figure 2.4. Dragon slayers. Source: [UTH 04]. For a color version of this figure, see www.iste.co.uk/alaktif/climate.zip

2.4.3. The severity of the floods and their cultural translation

An objective scale of flood severity can be proposed. Two-thirds of flood myths refer to a monsoon scenario that provides a first step for flood severity. Rapid flooding in arid or semi-arid environments constituted a second level. A superior destructive power was that of the GLOFs of high mountains. The last level was that of the ice sheet GLOFs, which alone had an important power to create new landscapes and could disturb the climate, such as the emptying of Lake Agassiz (in the territory of present-day Canada) in 8.47 ka.

Witzel rejects the “naturalistic” scenario, where flood myths would only transcribe a very large-scale natural phenomenon. These very large-scale phenomena have only very recently been objectified through interplanetary comparisons. According to Witzel, the hypothetical succession of water myths is that of a retribution flood for the oldest human culture (W1), then the appearance of a collective eschatology linked to the flood in the second cultural group (W2). Finally, creative myths were a feature of the third cultural group (W3), with a flood myth containing a dramatic plot that would be much closer to the myths of the Middle East that are most familiar to us. While “naturalism” was rejected, the fact remains that Paleolithic art and culture were figurative, reflecting an appropriation of territories by anatomically modern humans.


Figure 2.5. First migrations and severity of floods. For a color version of this figure, see www.iste.co.uk/alaktif/climate.zip

Propp is considered to be the founder of the structural analysis of myths and tales. His reference structure comes from the Russian tales about dragon killers. He was counting on the very old age of this mythological framework. Today, Propp’s insights have been more than confirmed on the age of the tale of the dragon slayer: a recent study [DHU 13] indicates that it probably had an Asian origin before the waters that separated America from Eurasia. The ancient Greeks linked Apollo, the dragon-killing solar god, to Hyperboreans from territories of present-day Russia. The dragon seemed to be associated with an irregular river regime, with flash floods, but desired due to the aridity of the climate. The dragon was logically older than the dragon killer, a myth marking the transition from a conception of a dragon as a factor of order and protection to a harmful dragon.

2.4.4. The objectification of ice sheet GLOFs

There is direct mention of a deluge from an ice-related group. However, it is quite rare, limited to very high mountain situations, mainly the Andes and the edge of the Tibetan plateau. The Aymarans preceded the Incas in Peru and occupied the Lake Titicaca region. In their myth of a “divine anger”-type Flood, it was a flood of ice that was projected on men. The Himalayan context was present in the Chinese myths of the Flood, which exposed – in a version from scholars from the time of the Warring Kingdoms – a situation caused by a hole in a mountain, a hole that could be blocked by a magic stone [LEW 06]. A great dragon shook a pillar of the world so that it remained a little shaky. About a third of the flood myths and tales do not contain any mention of heavy rains or monsoons, i.e. there is a massive influx of water outside any meteorological phenomenon. In the types of flood experience, witnesses and survivors were confronted with phenomena that can be classified in increasing order of risk and destructiveness, the first type “plain flood, monsoon” being the most common and, in fact, the most frequent. There was a long period of flood and recession, which increased the probability of observation. The second type was the wadi flood, or flash flood, which occurred in a short dramatic episode, with the possible formation of a groundswell that flowed into a steep valley. The third type was the high mountain or volcanic GLOF. However, only large floods of ice sheet GLOFs were climate disrupters (e.g. around 8.47 ka) and had geomorphological power, bringing specific diluvian forms of the landscape, those that astronomers can sometimes still observe on other planets, but that also exist on Earth.

Folklorists’ surveys in areas where the relief was formed by diluvial phenomena indicate that the cultural heritage, even where the worst floods have occurred, generally remained areas of myth or dragon tales, as symbolized by the flag of Saint George the dragon slyer chosen by England, while the Strait of the Pas-de-Calais is one of the diluvian formations for geologists. The Kent and Artois hills formed the dike of a gigantic reservoir that gave way twice around 400 ka and 150 ka. During the period of the last deglaciation, around 17.2 ka, a moraine on the territory of present-day Poland cut off the westward flow of the Fennoscandia ice sheet, postponing the flows to the major Russian rivers. For the 150 ka GLOF of Pas-de-Calais, human populations existed and were pre-Neanderthal in a Middle Paleolithic culture based on the use of fire. For the last deglaciation leading to the Holocene, flows did not spread in the Western European area.

Dragons appear to form a basic spatial distribution of humanity’s cultural heritage. Folklorists indicate that thus either a sharing took place between cultures with dragon slayers or it did not. The mapping obtained is more complex than the simple sharing between an East with protective dragons and a West with “evil” dragons, to claim a dragon slaying hero. In the toponyms of the hydrographic network in France, while the references to a dragon slayer are the most numerous, there are also those of a gluttonous dragon (Christianized in “Saint Margaret”) particularly in Normandy, and that of a full then empty water skin, the tarasque of Provence (Christianized in “Saint Martha”).

2.5. The first cultural groups of anatomically modern humans and climate change

We examine here the common cultural background of humanity and its successive reorganizations. To determine the major climate-related transformations, we take, as a common thread, a web of great myths, then we will demonstrate reorganizations taking place, leading to the transformation of the modalities of change and adaptation to the environment. For example, the long-term history of waste is accessible through the accumulations left next to human settlements. Sites in the Middle Paleolithic often had an accumulation of ocher, sometimes mixed with make-up accessories, which suggests that, to the point of excess, humans used body painting for a very long time. From the Upper Paleolithic, for example, in the sites of the Mississippi River bed, there were accumulations of charcoal associated with sweating activities. This time, it was the sauna that was used in a frenetic consumption. The requirements of large-scale hunting required that there be no smell detectable by game, so it was a matter of blending into the wild. The introduction of sweating activities probably took place as soon as the Middle to Upper Paleolithic period ended.

Table 2.2. The first three cultural groups of present humanity

WITZEL CULTURE 1: figures are those with geometric features; interpretative proposals are those of marks inspired by surprising reliefs, particular textures of animal skin WITZEL 1: Universal Pan-African Culture (300–100 ka) Groups of homo sapiens trading on the African continent Archeological site: Blombos “ocher age”, probably stamps for achieving make-up
WITZEL CULTURE 2: signs including animal tracks, hunting situations, the counting of time First representations of serpentiforms and facial expressions WITZEL 2: Senda–Sahul culture (South Asia, Australia) (around 100 ka) First exit from Africa, crossing of the Wallace boundary Archeological sites: Jwalapurum (India, around 75 ka), Diepkoof (Namibia, 65-55 ka), etc.
WITZEL CULTURE 3: animal art, creative myths In Witzel 3, the ostrich was represented in its entirety; in Witzel 2, tracks are detected; in Witzel 1, it provided a detail, for example, a characteristic depiction of the skin of an ostrich’s hoof WITZEL 3: Leurasian culture, around 50 ka, spread in Eurasia and the Americas Mixing and expansion of Homo sapiens in Eurasia, than in the Americas Maros cave (Indonesia, 39.9 ka), Chauvet (36.7 ka), etc.

“Naturalistic explanations must be excluded” for the myths of super-floods [WIT 08]. Witzel developed a reconstruction of the different cultural groups that followed one another at the beginning of humanity as composed of anatomically modern humans. The three groups were first of all human cultures before leaving Africa. The main problem facing humans was that of long periods of drought. The myth of the Great Flood existed in the form of a Flood retribution [WIT 08]. The flood came from a mountain god, a tree, a battle between stars. There was no boat, no transport out of the waters of a human future.

The second group of cultures, according to Witzel, is that of the first exit from Africa and the Near and Middle East, with a route that passed through the Arabian Peninsula, India, then Senda and Sahul, emerging in areas that included the islands of Southeast Asia (Senda) on the one hand, and Australia and New Guinea (Sahul). This route crossed monsoon areas, and the theme of rainfall leading to flooding became frequent. The mountains had a new role as refuges during the great flood. The “boats” appeared to be varied. For example, for the Aeta (Philippines), a large eagle offered transport on its back, but only a couple accepted this journey and formed the future humanity. The theme of an excess, an error, an effect in return for a transgression that causes the great flood was present. There would therefore be a formation of a collective eschatology from Witzel 2 onwards, for example, a myth of a universal flood. The factors that may have contributed to this emergence were the difficult demographic situation experienced by anatomically modern humans in this period, and their arrival in monsoon areas. It is unlikely that there was a collective eschatology in the Witzel 1 culture, due to the absence of it in all past African cultures. Dragon and deluge are an alternative to water myths. Snakes are the animals that are most commonly used to form dragon images. Large species, which are builders, were found near African rivers, in Asian jungles, Australia and the Amazon. They are totally absent from cold climate zones. The situation is the opposite for super-floods with great destructive power. The areas concerned were the most northerly or in the high mountains. These areas were reached by humans during the second major exit from Africa and the Middle East. The mythological reason for the great flood was common to this third set of cultures. The flood became a punishment, it was related to bodily fluids (blood, urine), and it left survivors. The flood in response to a transgression became a new beginning of the world that occurred after Creation and prepared the arrival of humanity [WIT 08]. A “naturalistic” scenario was that of water myths concentrated first on dragons, then only at the end of the Paleolithic, a reversal in favor of a great flood myth, because of the super-flooding that occurred then. Nothing happened like that: the first two cultural complexes already contained great flood myths, while the period of the end of the Paleolithic, that of super-floods, was that of the diffusion of solar myths of the dragon-killer type.

In the Witzel 3 cultural complex, Europe was an interesting regional unit, directly affected by the great GLOFs that affected the climate. These sudden cold weatherings were called Heinrich’s events. They can be dated by cores in the sediments of the North Atlantic seabed. The Heinrich events included iceberg breakup, which brought detritus forming identifiable layers in the sediment cores. The dates correspond approximately to the succession of European cultures, cultural groups determined in a completely different way by the work of archaeologists who group the artifacts according to the working methods used to produce them. During the period 80–10 ka, six Heinrich events affected the climate of the Northern Hemisphere, followed by some less intense events, the Dryas. There are still uncertainties in understanding the different climatic interactions that occurred in these cold abrupt variations. These cold abrupt variations were composed of a general cooling trend that persisted up to about 20 ka. Dryas were cold abrupt variations, while the trend was towards a return to a hot and humid climate Neanderthal cultures disappeared before H4, a very marked cold and sudden variation to which a volcanic winter was added, due to the explosion of the supervolcano on the Phlegrean Fields in Campania in 39 ka. The earlier period saw the arrival of the first anatomically modern humans, in cohabitation with the Neanderthals. The Aurignacian culture after H4 was very homogeneous. Blacker [BLA 99] introduced a distinction between the shamanism of the medium and that of the ascetic. Based on this typology, Aurignacian shamanism was closer to the medium type. It involved contacting spiritual entities, and possibly intervening in a risk (disease, bad weather, shortage of game). Ascetic shamanism was present in Pacific Asia, Northern Europe, South America and the Caribbean. The discussion around the emergence of the second type of shamanism is open: this form of spirituality may have had ancient roots, due to circumpolar diffusion. The representations of hands lacking phalanxes in Gravettian culture are archaeological elements that feed this debate.

The best-known version of the dragon myth is the dragon slayer, the dragonkilling solar god. It succeeded an older version, probably a constrictor snake that enclosed the world’s contingency. This succession is recorded in the mythology of the Ancient Greeks by the arrival of Apollo, who killed Python, a representation of this ancient conception of the myth of the dragon.

The formation of the productive economy is linked to the possibility of metamorphosis for the protagonists of the myth. The Anatolian site of Çatal Höyük is contemporary with the achievement of a balance between resources produced by agricultural processes and human nutritional needs. In the formation of expectations, situations occur with deformations only in the evaluation of the consequences of a risk (this is the standard approach known as Von Neumann Morgenstern’s approach), while for others, these deformations mainly concern frequency, while the consequences are objectively perceived (this is the unexpected utility model approach, for example, that of Quiggin). The site of Çatal Höyük is known for a statuette of the goddess of wild animals, found in a wheat silo. The goddess can turn into a beast if wheat is stolen from the silo, the trick of transformation being used for the proper social functioning. The probability distribution of risks was not modified in this case, which corresponded to the standard approach of expected utility. An apocalyptic discourse, which only appeared much later in the classical period of Mediterranean antiquity, was, on the contrary, an example of a deliberate distortion of the probability distribution.

2.6. The problem of Apollo’s birth

In both the Great GLOF periods, about 18 ka, which was the date of the maximum ice extent in the Northern Hemisphere, and in 8.47 ka, the GLOF of Lake Ojibway-Agassiz, a shared characteristic of cultures along the crown boundary around the ice was that of solarization, the emergence of sun worship. Greek mythology tells us that Apollo, the solar god, was the dragon slayer, therefore responsible for the change in the dragon’s status, and for a general upheaval in rituals and belief systems. The solar version, the dragon slayer, of the main myth of the dragon is the most widespread, while the solar version of the myth of the flood is intermediate between that of the suicidal diver who saves the Earth and the large written versions, such as the Sumero-Akkadian one.

Under the Python regime, the world is established and ensured a guarantee of its order, even though there is an apparent contingency. Vital energy stocks allow the balance to be maintained. The Apollonian regime is summarized in the statue of the dragon slayer Praxiteles: a teenage god about to kill a small lizard running on a tree trunk. This is a theology of divine freedom. The climate god is entirely free, he does not have to justify himself by killing a lizard. It is now possible, because of this divine freedom, that there may be brutal destructive phenomena. The god himself slaughtered Niobe’s children for convenience. On the other hand, the lizard, like the polychaete, has the property of autotomy, understood as the property of having a new life after being destroyed by the dragon slayer. Several families of dragons can be linked with the dragon slaying myth, such as the Tiamat and Mushushu/Tarasque types. Tiamat is the skinned dragon/lizard that will recreate a new world. Tarasque is the furious dragon who will have a destructive effect, but who can be appeased by an additional ritual. The dragon slayer introduces sacrificial economies: the freedom of the climate god allows him to structure, to receive offerings, to give in to prayers.

The upwelling isolated Japan at about the same time as the Bering Strait was formed, around 12.5 ka. Diffusion indicates an origin of the dragon slaying myth in western Beringia before the formation of the Bering Strait [DHU 13]. Japan’s ancient religion was of the solar dragon slaying type, which seems to indicate it's active presence in Asia before the melting of the ice that allowed access to Japan. In the Bengal Delta, the solar Munda religion comes from populations whose migration started from the central Indochinese peninsula dated 7 ka.

The archaeological sites of Lake Baikal can be dated back 24–15 ka. The lifestyles were those of periarctic populations with a summer harvest of plants. The religious situation seemed to be the coexistence of the drakones, the guardian dragons associated with a nourishing demeterian goddess represented by a spike and accompanied by the torches of the sky, the Northern Lights. So the situation seems to have remained pre-Apollonian – the sky may have a sun, but it has not yet fought and killed the dragon – the Northern Lights.

Archaeological sites in Arctic Siberia indicate that solarization was a certainty, but of an uncertain date. A site of artisanal manufacture from mammoth traces is close to that of the Aurignacian sites. A decorative motif depicts twin gods in the site from about 34 ka; it differs only in the representation of a sun from the traditional clothing of the indigenous people of the Kolyma region, who remained isolated from the rest of the world until 1637. These populations were familiar with the dragon slaying myth, but on Paleolithic artifacts, there were only representations of creative twin gods. The certainty of solarization was accompanied by a great indeterminacy on the date of solarization. Certified sacrificial rituals were around 14 ka in the European part and 12.6 ka in the American continent, before the Recent Dryas. The delimitation of toponyms in England, for example, indicates a strong accumulation of dragon-slaying toponyms in the south of the island, and thus a spread of the myth while the melting of the Fennoscandian ice sheet had just begun. The conjecture of the dragon slayer’s date of birth that derives from its considerations places it close to the extremes of the rate of upwelling, and the intensity of the formation and emptying of subglacial lakes, possibly by the destructive flooding of the GLOF. The dragon slayer would testify to a state of new expectations on the part of indigenous populations: one must expect everything from the climate god.

Table 2.3. Dragons in the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic

Cultures of ecstasy The cosmological dragon is a reserve of vital energy that ensures order in a fluid world
First sacrificial societies The dismembered dragon allows a rebirth of the world

The furious dragon, the Babylonian Mushushu or the Tarasque of Provence, was not the subject of a precise genealogical investigation. It was a dragon that transformed itself, and this transformation was a very common property in dragons of ancient China. The transition to the productive economy took place at a time when a great goddess with wild animals was represented; it was a metamorphosis between a goddess and the furious state of a wild animal. The ontology associated with metamorphosis was that of neolithization, according to Descola’s typology [DES 06]. As Descola points out, metamorphism implies a completely different ontology from that used as a basis for the shamanic religions of ecstasy, which would make the dragon furious by metamorphosis, a family of dragons that would have mainly developed in the Neolithic.

2.7. The constitution of dragons, gods and humans in the myths of the flooding of hydraulic civilizations

One of the proto-myths of the flood is the launching of a series of small animals, the last of which brought about a seed that generated the Earth. This proto-myth is very present in North America and in the territory of present-day Russia. In the Sumero–Akkadian flood myth, there is a dramatic framework between the water god, Enki-Ea, and the furious god, Enlil. The myth establishes clerical powers by indicating a number of specific religious statuses. The establishing side is also found in the Chinese myth of Yu the Great. We are now in the development phase, particularly hydraulic. The prowess of the naval architect or hydraulic administrator are then the factors of order. The entire territory is organized, but remains surrounded by wilderness.

The Mesopotamian cult was that of Enlil, the god who should not be wrathful. The water god and his architect worked diplomatically in front of the furious god. The diluvian myth inscribes a formulation of weighting between the different families of dragons. The theology of the climate god is then civilizational; divine anger does not prevent things from getting better in the long term, due to interactions with other gods.

In ancient Mesopotamia, there are curious extracts from the flood myth. These were tablets covered with cuneiform writing that only focused on the characteristics of the construction of the arch. The common interpretation is that storytellers needed a “cribsheet” on the most technical part of the flood myth. The dimensions given to the ship were unrealistic, but the shipbuilding processes were exactly those of the region. There were therefore local variants of these “cribsheet” tablets: they were intended for a public that could detect an error in shipbuilding processes. An objectification took place, and it was purely technical. However, while the techniques used were scrupulously those used by the shipbuilding yards of the time, the measures given to the vessel were extraordinary and unrealistic.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses [OVI 66] introduce a universal flood, associated with political ambition. The conditions for having a STOP culture are such that the “bathymetry” of the great diluvian myths in their complete version does not exceed the periods of the first historical empires. The case of the Mandans is, however, interesting. The tribe had settled on the banks of the Missouri River and had a mythology and rituals for the solar version of the flood myth. The context was also that of a war with neighboring tribes requiring inter-tribal alliance practices. The development of a human settlement in a riverbed was not always a sufficient condition for a STOP culture (e.g. Çatal Höyük, or ancient Egypt). The search for a federation of city-states (Mesopotamia), of Fighting Kingdoms (Chinese myth of Yu the Great, Imperial Rome), was a potential common denominator. Archaeological sites (European Magdalenian culture, Clovis culture) in transition to a sacrificial economy remain sites of GO culture. A sanctuary like that of the Tuc d’Audoubert is only accessible during periods of low water; the ritual consisting in calling for the arrival of the water that was slow to come.

2.8. Discussion

For the period 80–10 ka, the L–E–S–C paradigm indicates a clear break (around 14 ka) which brought about the transition in some regions of the globe between Ecstasy and Sacrifice. For the Laughing/Ecstacy break, Lorblanchet [LOR 99] indicates an earlier transition in a period of high climatic instability. There were forms of objectivations in each of the extreme regimes. The 60 ka egg engraver was very meticulous in creating a marine decoration for a gourd. The representations of fauna were very careful as soon as the graphic representations appeared. Water was the guarantor of the world’s dynamic equilibrium. The first archaeological evidence of sacrificial practices includes a redesign of the sanctuaries to make way for monumental statuary. Thus, in the Magdalenian cave of the Tuc d’Audoubert, there is a monumental system representing a group of bison, adjacent to the skeleton of a sacrificed snake. The proposed interpretation of this sacrificial caesura is that of the appearance of a theology of the divine freedom of the climate god, represented by the dragon slayer.

In the solar version of the flood myth, small animals followed one another, while the last one went up after his dive by bringing back a handful of soil. Then in the great Chinese and Sumero–Akkadian versions of the flood myth, the different families of dragons and gods interfered, and partially limited the free actions of a climate god. A period of climatic stability was associated with these versions of the myth of a climate god’s temperate power. Variations of the dragon slayer myth add a happy ending, a matrimonial alliance, or a transformation of the furious dragon into a gentle dragon as in the case of Tarasque.

The connection with very large-scale climate volatility that has been outlined here gives us the following correspondences between climate situations and culture:

  • – long-term climate instability, leading to the last glacial maximum in the Northern Hemisphere, was associated with a belief system with a dynamic natural equilibrium;
  • – a sudden hot variation with the highest maximum upwelling rates and floods was probably associated with the spread of a theology of the divine freedom of the climate god;
  • – low climate volatility was associated with an increase in symbolic transformations around a constitution of gods and human instituted powers. An action of the furious god was thwarted by the good god of waters, or the dragon slayer finally marrying Harmony: the theology of the climate god is now civilizational (polytheistic cultures after the climatic optimum of the Holocene).

The apparent paradox of the mismatch between the deluge of geologists and that of cultural comparison approaches can thus be partly explained. Dragon slayer-type myths are messages of climatic distress from the depths of time: the climate god enjoying his total freedom like a teenager crushing a lizard, according to sculptor Praxiteles. The diluvian myths preserved in the great religions are those of a civilizational theology and correspond rather to a state of climatic bliss.

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