3,000-Year-Old Babylonian Tablet Telling Story of Noah's Ark Is "Earliest Ever Example" Of Fake News, Scholar Claims

Riddles uttered by a "trickster god" and enshrined in Ancient Babylonian text been described as possibly the "earliest ever example of fake news" by a researcher at the University of Cambridge in the U.K..

Markings in the Gilgamesh ("Flood") Tablet shows the god Ea duped humankind through simple wordplay based on the manipulation of phonetics.

"Ea tricks humanity by spreading fake news," Martin Worthington, a fellow of St John's College, University of Cambridge, said in a statement.

"He tells the Babylonian Noah, known as Uta–napishti, to promise his people that food will rain from the sky if they help him build the ark."

11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh
The 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh may contain one of the earliest examples of fake news, says scholar. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty

The 3,000-year-old Flood Tablet is the eleventh tablet in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The ancient artifact created a sensation when it was discovered in 1872 by Assyriologist George Smith because it reveals striking similarities to the story of Noah and his ark.

According to The British Museum, the tablet tells the story of Utnapishtim (a Babylonian Noah) who the god Ea told to build a boat to save himself and his family. Utnapishtim does he is told and fills the boat with animals, as per Ea's wishes.

When the project is completed and the door to the boat closed, the rains begin, creating floods that wipe away the rest of humanity.

Ea's duplicity can be traced to nine lines in the text, says Worthington, an Assyriologist with specialisms in grammar, literature and medicine.

"What the people don't realize is that Ea's nine-line message is a trick: it is a sequence of sounds that can be understood in radically different ways, like English 'ice cream' and 'I scream,'" Worthington explained.

Like "ice cream" and "I scream," Ea's words have multiple meanings that are phonetically the same. While a more optimistic reading might interpret Ea's comments as a promise of plentiful food to come, other more pessimistic readings could decipher his words as a flood warning.

The lines in the flood story, written in Babylonian are:

ina šēr(-)kukkī

ina lilâti ušaznanakkunūši šamūt kibāti

The first, more positive, translation goes as follows:

At dawn there will be kukku-cakes,

in the evening he will rain down upon you a shower of wheat.

But equally, it could have darker connotations. In a second reading, it could be translated as follows:

By means of incantations,

by means of wind-demons, he will rain down upon you rain as thick as (grains of) wheat.

Or, alternatively:

At dawn, he will rain down upon you darkness,

(then) in (this) pre-nocturnal twilight he will rain down upon you rain as thick as (grains of) wheat.

"With this early episode, set in mythological time, the manipulation of information and language has begun. It may be the earliest ever example of fake news," said Worthington, who discusses his hypotheses in a new book, Ea's Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood Story.

Explaining Ea's motivating for lying—or spreading fake news—Worthington said: "Babylonian gods only survive because people feed them. If humanity had been wiped out, the gods would have starved. The god Ea manipulates language and misleads people into doing his will because it serves his self-interest. Modern parallels are legion!"

"Fake news" may have been around since ancient times but it's been getting more exposure of late, receiving "Collins Dictionary Word of the Year" in 2017 after use of the phrase shot up 365 percent on the previous year.

According to a poll published by Pew Research in July 2019, one in two Americans say fake news is a very big problem for the U.S.—a much larger percentage than those who say the same about racism (40 percent), illegal immigration (38 percent), terrorism (34 percent) or sexism (26 percent). A greater number (68 percent) say fake news affects the public's trust in government institutions.

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