The Storegga tsunami may have wiped out Stone Age humans 8,000 years ago

The Storegga tsunami may have wiped out Stone Age humans 8,000 years ago

A landslide near Norway caused a tsunami 8,000 years ago, sending huge waves across the North Sea and beyond.
Rainer Lesniewski/iStock via Getty Images Plus

  • Tsunamis rarely hit Britain, but one occurred 8,200 years ago.
  • The researchers wanted to know how the giant waves affected the Stone Age population.
  • They found that a tsunami could cause a large population decline.

About 8,200 years ago, an underwater landslide known as the Storegga landslide near Norway caused a tsunami that swept across parts of northern Europe.

Around the same time, there was a huge decline in Britain’s population.

Researchers from the University of York and the University of Leeds investigated whether the disaster caused the population decline or whether other factors played a role.

“The suggested population decline occurred immediately after the Storegga tsunami,” Patrick Sharrocks, lead author of the paper detailing the study, told Business Insider via email. “However, the cold period coincided with the tsunami, so it was unclear which event had the greater impact.”

Researchers set up computer simulations of how far tsunami waves can reach land.

The researchers came to this conclusion based on their results A tsunami could have wiped out a significant portion of the population in Northumberland, Howick, in northern England.

They recently published their findings in the peer-reviewed Journal of Quaternary Science.

65-foot waves hit the Shetland Islands

When landslides triggered giant waves, they had far-reaching effects. Evidence of the Storegga tsunami has been found in Norway, England, Denmark, Greenland and Scotland, including the Scottish islands.

Waves around the UK mainland can reach heights of 10-20 feet. Off the coast of Scotland, the narrow valleys of the Shetland Islands magnify the effects, causing waves of more than 65 feet to inundate land.

There are no written records of the disaster. Instead, the story is in the sediment deposits from lakes, lagoons, and other bodies of water formed during the tsunami. The wave eroded sediments from the land, but also brought more from the sea.

Although these layers are different, they are often eroded by time and human activity. However, they can give scientists clues about how far inland the wave traveled and how often similar events occur.

Present-day Howick, England, site of tsunami 8,000 years ago.
Marc Guitard/Getty Images

Maybe the giant waves didn’t reach Howick at all. The site has sediment that appears to be the result of a sudden event. However, it is coarser than the finer sand found elsewhere attributed to the Storegga waves.

“Further sediment studies at Howick could determine whether or not tsunami deposits were produced at this location,” Sharrocks said.

A population not prepared for a tsunami

Tsunamis are rare in the British Isles. According to the study, the Mesolithic population probably never lived before the Storegga landslide.

Researchers hypothesize that drawn sea A wave that preceded the giant wave may have pulled people into the water to collect closed shellfish.

If this had happened, the tsunami could have drowned a significant part of the population. Destruction of resources such as hazelnut trees could also lead to starvation among survivors.

Digital models “can reconstruct the Storga Tsunami, but can never fully represent past events,” Sharrocks said. The event happened so long ago that there was much uncertainty about the relative position, topography, and elevation of sea level at the time.

According to the researchers’ models, if the tsunami had only hit at high tide, it would have affected Howick.

In another paper from 2021, researchers he suggested the tsunami may have destroyed evidence of human settlement in Norway, England and other regions. But they also noted that “very few archaeological sites remain with direct evidence of tsunami deposits,” making it difficult to assess “how catastrophic this event was for coastal communities.”

Future British tsunamis

For years, scientists thought the Storegga tsunami was a unique event. But recent research has revealed that tsunamis hit Shetland between 5,000 and 1,500 years ago.

This frequency means that no one else is involved.

“This means that the threat, the risk, is much more serious than we previously thought,” Dave Tappin of the British Geological Survey told the BBC in 2018.

This is why it is important to understand past, even prehistoric, disasters.

“Scaling and estimating similar precursor events can help predict where, when and how large future events may be in a given area,” Sharrocks said.

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