Stories in Stone
NPS Arrowhead logo


IF your patience is not already exhausted and you retain a determination to remain with me to the end, will you consider with me now some of the legends of the origin of the earth, and some of the ancient and modern beliefs concerning it.

Thus far we have been thinking in present-day terms and using modern expressions. But in geology, as in everything else, present conceptions and beliefs are the results of growth. Some one in the dim past, perhaps, had a crude, imperfect idea. Some other person following him saw a germ of truth in the idea and improved on it. Succeeding men perfected the idea, retaining the good and rejecting the bad. Thus did geology grow.

The growth of the science of geology might well be likened to the growth of a plant. A seed that does not look much like the mature plant but that has in it the germ of life, is planted and growth follows. The young plant may not look like the seed nor like the plant at later stages, but after going through a period of growth it finally blooms and produces fruit.

It has been said that if we could know all the circumstances that entered into the formation of a conception we would find no ground of criticism for those who hold that conception. It is quite impossible to know all the circumstances that gave rise to men's early conceptions and misconceptions of the earth's formation or even to discuss at length those which are well known, and yet I cannot resist the temptation of setting down some of those things in the history of the science that have interested me. I like to think of the science of geology as I would of a person whose biography I am considering.

No man's biography is complete unless it tells just where and when he was born. Even though the circumstances of his birth may have not the slightest bearing on his accomplishments, we feel unacquainted with him until we learn when and where his life began. As we proceed with his history we are conscious that the biographer is leaving out many things that might be said. He is dealing only with those events and circumstances which he deems important. Another biographer might handle the subject in a wholly different manner.

So in this account of the growth of the science of geology I shall set down only such things as have appealed to me as being interesting. In doing so I am fortunately able to begin with an event in which all are interested.

Everyone is interested in the mode of origin of the earth, and there are many different accounts of it. Some of these accounts harmonize with many facts; others with a few; and still others are wholly legendary. The savage may accept a myth which to us seems ludicrous; the less primitive man may credit a legend of uncertain origin; the credulous man may hold to a supposed revelation; and one scientist may entertain a theory which seems untenable to others.

Ancient Speculations

The present conceptions regarding the origin of the earth and its early history have arisen through a long period of mental development. The earliest explanations were vague and nebulous, but some had in them the possibilities of healthy growth.

Primitive men seem to have felt the necessity of explaining the things which they observed, especially the things that excited fear. They knew nothing of the cause of lightning and thunder, of chasms and mountains, of darkness and storm. And yet their "wise" men, the priests of old and the medicine men of the aborigines, in order to maintain their reputation for mental superiority, must give some convincing explanation of these things to those whom they presumed to instruct. (I wonder if "wise" men will ever outgrow this habit?) For this reason lightning was said to result from the bolts of Jove; chasms were formed as passage-ways for the gods; darkness and storm resulted from the wrath of some divinity.

Indian Myths

It is not difficult to imagine how myths and fables sprang up and how stories which appealed to the imagination gained credence. A belief once established and incorporated in the tradition of a race, although it may be as impossible as the Hindoo's Tortoise-theory of the earth, is likely to live as long as the race endures.

Edward B. Tylor, in his "Researches into the Early History of Mankind," states (p. 339) that: "In the Old World the Tortoise Myth belongs especially to India, and the idea is developed there in a variety of forms. The Tortoise that upholds the earth is called in Sanskrit Kûrmaraja, 'King of the Tortoises,' and it is said that the Hindoos believe to this day that the world rests upon its back. Sometimes the snake, Sesha, bears the world on its head, or an elephant carries it upon its back, and both snake and elephant are themselves supported by the great tortoise. The earth, rescued from the deluge which destroys mankind, is set up with the snake that bears it resting on the floating tortoise, and a deluge is again to pour over the face of the earth when the world-tortoise, sinking under its load, goes down into the great waters."

The creation myths of the aborigines assume the preexistence of matter and of living beings, which differ from present beings chiefly in the possession of grotesque characteristics and supernatural powers. Such a being, for example, is the Alaskan Indians' Black Crow, which is represented as incubating a human mask, or the Iroquois' Great Hare, floating on his raft and causing other animals to dive and bring up a grain of sand, which becomes the continent.

Many of the Indian stories of creation are childish or fantastic, and in their setting reach little beyond the tepee and the hunting ground. The creator of the object whose explanation is sought is usually some animal or bird of supernatural power or some superhuman creature of impossible attributes. Many of the myths remind us of the stories which spring spontaneously from children in the game of "Tell-me-stories."

Some of the myths seem to justify the belief that in the American Indian we have an example of suspended race progresses similar to arrested mental development in the individual. These Indians seem to show a lower mental plane than that shown by the oldest legends recorded in ancient history, although some of the oldest, as, for example, the Tortoise theory, seem little superior to the Indian myths. In others, such as the legend which states that "the self-existent lord with a thought created the waters and deposited in them a seed which became a golden egg, in which egg he himself is born as Brahma, the progenitor of the worlds," the grotesqueness is coupled with a conception of deity. Still others, such as a hymn in the Rig Veda (x. 129) which begins, "There then was neither Aught nor Naught," endeavor to reach back to a time when nothing existed and to seek to derive something from nothing.

As the myths of the American Indians appear to belong to an earlier stage of development than that which produced the Hindoo's theory of the earth they seem to be of very early origin. The beliefs underlying the legends embodied in the Rig Veda must have gained credence before that book was written and therefore before 1500 B.C.; hence the Hindoo beliefs, and perhaps also the American Indian's legends, seem to have been developed before the poetical conceptions of the early Greeks had crystallized into the hero-stories which every schoolboy is familiar with, and before the Babylonian accounts of creation had evolved into the still more dignified Mosaic account. The possibility of the ancient origin of the American Indian myths is strengthened by the evidence coming rapidly to light that the American continent has been inhabited from very ancient time.


The language in which some of the Stories in Stone are written. These fossil shells from rocks of middle Tertiary age in eastern Virginia are the remains of clams and snails that lived in the shallow water of a Miocene sea. When the mollusks died their shells were buried in the silt on the sea bottom. In time this silt became stone.


Looking back into the cavern over the top of the ice. The three persons in the foreground are standing at the foot of the ice wall, which is 50 feet long and 14 feet high. The man above is standing on the great mass of ice, which extends back 30 feet and then slopes gently downward toward the back of the cave. The irregular masses in the foreground are rocks from the collapsed roof. Photograph by Willis T. Lee.

An early story of creation is inscribed in cuneiform characters on tablets found in the ruins of Nineveh. The translation states that "Long ago, when the heavens above had not been named and the earth beneath had no name and only Apsu (the Ocean), the primeval, who begot them, and Tiamat, Confusion, who bore them both, existed . . . then were created all the gods." The story proceeds with a somewhat lengthy account of strife among the gods and the creation of lightning and storm for use in battle. One god finally triumphs over the others and proceeds to create the earth and sky.

On other tablets excavated at Nippur,1 said to be older than 1200 B.C. and possibly written before 2000 B.C., the origin of the human race is described. A time before the existence of the earth is pictured; the creation of man, his misfortunes, his prosperity, and his rise to supremacy all are described.

1Barton, G. A., Am. Philos. Soc. Proc., Vol. 56, pp. 275-280, 1917.

Early Beliefs

The legends of the Greeks and other ancient peoples, as well as those of the modern aborigines, ascribed natural phenomena to their hero-gods. In the mind of the ancients it thundered when Thor threw his hammer, sunlight was the effulgence of the sun god, the storm at sea was caused by the wrath of Neptune, and the volcano resulted from the fire in the forge of Vulcan.

The ancient Hebrews in like manner ascribed all natural phenomena directly to their god, but as they acknowledged only one deity, they explained phenomena that were unfavorable to their happiness as due to his wrath, and those that were favorable to their happiness to his beneficence. Neither they nor their contemporaries recognized fixed laws of nature. Every event was attributed directly to deity. Apparently the Greeks saw no incongruity in the tale of Hercules splitting a mountain, nor the Hebrews in Joshua causing the sun and moon to stand still; nor yet, in a flood that submerged all lands.

Although some of the Hebrew writers were shrewd observers of the things about them they used their observation not in constructing a natural philosophy but in impressing upon their hearers their belief in the personal presence of deity. Of an earthquake they said "He looketh on the earth and it trembleth"; or "The mountains quake at Him and the hills melt." Of a volcanic disaster they wrote "Jehovah rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Jehovah out of heaven."

In Christian nations the Mosaic account of creation was for many centuries regarded as history. It was accepted as revelation and therefore as final and indisputable. By some it still is so regarded.

But in time men began to question the foundations of the so-called authoritative statements. The idea that the earth is flat and is the center of the universe was overthrown by Copernicus (1473-1543) when he enunciated his theory. Men in ever-increasing numbers, not satisfied with the brief statement that "God created," are busy trying to determine the agencies employed in creation and the succession of events.

Medieval Opinions

Descartes, in a paper published in 1644, expressed the belief that the earth and planets were originally glowing masses like the sun. Leibnitz (1646-1716) accepted this theory and added much toward developing a conception of a globe that was at one time fluid.

These more advanced ideas did not escape unchallenged. In 1681 Thomas Burnet published a "Sacred Theory of the Earth," which made a strong impression, although it contains a fanciful notion of the earth's structure. The author maintains that up to the time of the Deluge the earth had enjoyed perpetual spring, but that the wickedness of mankind led to a catastrophe in which the sun's rays split open the crust of the earth, which was crushed like an egg, allowing a supposed central abyss of waters to rush out.

William Whiston became still more explicit. In his "New Theory of the Earth" (1696) he demonstrated to his own satisfaction with mathematical exactness that Noah's flood was caused on November 18, 2349 B.C., when the tail of a comet passed over the equator and caused a downpour of rain at the same time that the earth was broken open and the "internal abyss" poured forth water to inundate the land.

Buffon (1707-1788) went so far as to regard the earth and planets as parts of the mass of the sun shaken off by the shock of a comet whereby the "impulse of rotation and of revolution in the same general plane was communicated to them."

It may be of interest to note in this connection that comets have proved to be quite harmless things. The earth has passed through the tail of a comet on several occasions without our knowing anything about it, except for the assurance of the astronomers. On the other hand, it may perhaps be of interest to recall that more than a century after Buffon a theory of the origin of the earth was promulgated that attributes to a passing star an influence similar to that of Buffon's comet.

It is worthy of note still further that Buffon originated the idea of solving the problem of planetary evolution by the laws of mechanics. In his history of the earth he boldly extends the "six days of creation" into six long periods, each having a duration of thousands of years.

Nebular Hypothesis

Buffon was closely followed by the philosopher Kant (1724-1804) who crystallized the most advanced thought of his time and developed many of the ideas grouped together as the familiar nebular hypothesis of our own day. These ideas were adopted in part by the French mathematician Laplace (1749-1827) and expanded by him into the form commonly known as the Laplacian or Nebular Hypothesis.

This hypothesis was in harmony with most of the facts known a century ago, and although Laplace himself put little emphasis on the hypothesis, it seemed to offer a satisfactory explanation of the origin of the solar system, and its author's eminence in other departments of learning gave it an initial impulse which it may not have deserved. However, many modern geologists and astronomers hesitate to discard it now, even though it proves to be out of harmony with some recent discoveries and is not in accord with certain mathematically demonstrated laws. A newer explanation, called the planetesimal theory (or hypothesis, for some would assign it to this lower rank), has been developed in its place, which takes cognizance of known laws and seems to harmonize with them. The newer theory has only begun to win its way, and some believe that it will never wholly replace the nebular theory of Laplace.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 31-Dec-2009