Of all the periods of geographic and climactic transformation our planet has undergone, the late Pleistocene is of particular interest to historians, since it was the first to be witnessed by human beings. This era saw several interlocking changes which would have had a monumental impact on human life, among them:

  • The loss of large territories to rising sea levels, most notably Doggerland;
  • The loss of land bridges, such as the those connecting Indonesia to mainland south-east Asia;
  • The retreat of the great ice sheets;
  • The extinction of many species of megafauna, most iconically the wooly mammoth;
  • The desertification of large territories, most prominently the Sahara.

Massive as they were, these changes would have happened over many centuries. Therefore, it's quite plausible that ancient humans, gazing across the English Channel, would have been totally unaware that their ancestors could have travelled from Dover to Calais on foot. But is there any evidence that any ancient humans were aware of such things?

I suppose my question could be generalised a bit further. Paleolithic humans are not known to have developed any true writing systems. But did they have a history - in the form of oral tradition, art, etc - such that they could detect changes over the course of multiple lifetimes? One comes across theories that myths and legends such as Lyonesse, Atlantis and Noah's Ark contain echoes of late Pleistocene cataclysms. I've never heard anything close to a convincing argument for such a theory, but are there any good arguments for anything of that ilk?

I'm not remotely qualified to have an opinion on this, but one piece of literature that strikes me as containing distant memories of the Paleolithic is the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The primordial couple are described as enjoying, if not a hunting, then certainly a gathering lifetyle - 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden' - but, having followed some bad advice from an anonymous reptile, are forced to make a living tilling the earth - 'In the sweat of your brow shall you eat' - and thereafter all the familiar woes of humanity ensue. This has long struck me as fitting rather well with our current picture of the transition to agriculture at the start of the Neolithic, and the enormous suffering, at least initially, that said transition brought about. Is there any mileage in my intuition? And, if so, is that perhaps evidence that memories can be preserved from the very distant past?

  • 2
    There's a David Attenborough documentary about the Great Barrier Reef. He talks about how rising sea levels in a matter of 5 or 10 years destroyed aboriginal fishing settlements. It is corroborated by aboriginal histories as well. theconversation.com/…
    – axsvl77
    Aug 9 '20 at 21:21

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