"The history of the earth (so geologists tell us) has been punctuated by great catastrophes which apparently wiped out entire categories of life forms. But only one echoes down in the words and stories of a dozen different races. We don’t have a universal story that begins, 'And then the weather began to grow VERY, VERY COLD.' But at some point during the living, storytelling memory of the human race, water threatened man’s fragile hold on the earth. The historian cannot ignore the Great Flood; it is the closest thing to a universal story that the human race possesses." (Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Ancient World 10-11, emphasis added)
There is a Sumerian version of the flood story, where Utnapishtim (also known as Ziusudra) is warned in a dream by the god Ea, and he escapes in a boat with his family and some animals when “the gods of the abyss rose up … [and] the land was smashed as a cup / water poured over the people as the tides of battle” (11).
There is a Babylonian version, the “Poem of Atrahasis,” where Atrahasis, a wise king, is warned of the flood, builds a boat, but is only able to save a few of his subjects, which grieves him.
Of course, there’s the Genesis account of the flood and Noah.
In China, “a treacherous warleader tears a rent in the sky’s canopy and water rushes through, covering the whole earth and drowning everyone.” A “noble queen” and a few warriors are the only ones who survive on a mountaintop.
In India, a fish warns King Manu to build a boat. When the waters rise, he climbs into it and is the only one to survive.
On the other side of the globe, the Mayans tell of 400 men who survived a flood by becoming fish. After the flood, these 400 celebrate, become drunk, and ascend to heaven to become the Pleiades.
In Peru, when a man asks his llama why he doesn’t eat, the llama warns the man that a flood is coming in five days. So the man climbs a high mountain, survives, and repopulates the earth.
So what do all these stories tell us? Bauer suggests at least a bare outline of events that we can assume to be true. “Water flooded man’s world; and someone suspected, before the flood crashed down, that disaster was on its way” (14).