“For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19
Over the last year or so I have been engaged in a search into the mystery of human origins. I’ve always been skeptical of young-earth creationism (YEC), but I’ve also been skeptical of the purely materialistic version of human origins promoted by the theory of evolution. For me as a Christian the tricky problem is how to balance the spiritual truths embedded in the book of Genesis with the historical truths regarding human origins that have been discovered through science, especially since the Human Genome Project was completed back in 2003. Yes, it is through recent discoveries in the dynamic realm of genetic research that I have been compelled to embrace a much more wide-open perspective of who we are, and where we come from!
The genetic evidence coming from the field of paleo-anthropology suggests that Homo Sapiens first lived in Africa over 150,000 years ago, and then began to migrate in various groups out of Africa starting between 125,000 to 60,000 years ago. The evidence for this comes from studying mitochondrial DNA from populations in various regions. The generational history and migrational path of these haplogroups has been traced by scientists and it all points back to Africa.
After coming out of Africa modern humans mixed with Neanderthals in Europe and with Denisovans in Asia. Evidence for these genetic interactions shows up in modern human DNA. Europeans carry Neanderthal DNA, while some East Asians carry Denisovan DNA, whereas most modern Africans (whose ancestors never left Africa) carry neither. Neanderthals and Denisovans are both extinct hominin species closely related to ours. Hominins all possess 23 chromosomes, whereas other primates have 24. Evolutionists theorize that long ago there was a genetic mutation in certain primates that caused two chromosomes to bond into one, which caused the birth of the hominins. But was this caused purely by chance, or was this chromosomal bonding the intentional goal of an intelligent designer?
The study of ancient DNA (paleo-genomics) has been working hand in hand with paleo-anthropology and paleo-archaeology. None of these fields provides any evidence that the human species passed through a “genetic bottleneck” in our recent past that would correspond with Adam and Eve being the first and only human couple 6000 years ago, or Noah and his family being the only remaining human family some years later after an alleged global catastrophe.
Regarding Adam and Eve, these discoveries have caused me to re-think the purpose of the Biblical story. I certainly don’t reject it, and I still believe that it contains essential spiritual truth, but I no longer believe it is a literal account of the first human couple. Were they even historical? Perhaps they were, but even the text itself leaves room for an interpretation in which they are neither the first Homo Sapiens nor the only Homo Sapiens alive on the earth when they were created. Furthermore, if Adam and Eve were truly historical it must then be asked if they were truly human! What kind of Homo Sapiens lives for over 900 years? Evidence from human fossils dating back tens of thousands of years suggests that the lifespan of Homo Sapiens has been consistently around 40-50 years. There is no evidence for the YEC argument that earlier humans possessed a DNA that was much more pure, allowing “pre-flood humans” to live much longer. In my Rising Stars essay I state that if they are historical then perhaps Adam and Eve should be viewed more closely akin to fallen angels than to Homo Sapiens.
Regarding the Genesis flood, it is clear from ancient history and archaeology (for instance, see the Sumerian King List) that a devastating flood did strike the Near East in ancient times that must have forced human civilization in the region to reset. The Septuagint chronology of Genesis places the flood at c.3500 BC, at which time a devastating local flood may have struck the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain. On a larger scale perhaps the Genesis flood could be describing the catastrophic Black Sea flood of c.5600 BC as argued by Christian historian Ian Wilson. Going even further back it could even be related to catastrophes associated with the Younger Dryas mini-ice age that lasted from c.11,000 to 10,000 BC. In either case the scientific evidence supports only a regional catastrophe during these times, because human society elsewhere around the globe (populations in Africa, North America, Australia, etc.) continued on without interruption as normal.
The best scientific evidence for a truly global genetic bottleneck can be found only if we go back to the Toba supervolcano erruption in Indonesia c.70,000 years ago. This massive eruption was a global catastrophe and the genetic data provides corroborative evidence that the global human population at this time was reduced to as few as 2000 individuals. Regardless of the true impact of this event, modern genetic science has proven that there is absolutely no possibility that all human life on the globe was reduced to a population of only eight at any time after modern humans first emigrated out of Africa.
I realize that for many fundamentalists and Young Earth Creationists (YECs) the Bible is an all-or-nothing document. Either you must accept all of it as true in their own narrow sense of being literally and historically accurate (such as we expect from modern news reporting), or you must reject all of it. I simply refuse to agree with this ideological all-or-nothing ultimatum. As in the story of Creation, the story of the Flood contains essential spiritual value and should not be rejected wholesale when some of the details are shown to be mythical rather than historical.
These days I am much more interested in the anthropology and culture of early human civilizations than I am in arguing whether or not the early chapters of Genesis are accurate history that can be dated by the Bible itself. For instance, in Genesis after Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden of Eden and start their family we find that Cain and Abel are engaged in agriculture and herding. This speaks of the Neolithic Revolution that has been scientifically documented and dated beginning c.10,000 BC (near the end of the Younger Dryas). The domestication of herd animals and the domestication of wheat and barley both occurred around the same time in eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, a region near the historical location of Eden. (See the map below where dates are in years Before Present – BP).
The Cain and Abel account in Genesis is hugely significant because it also speaks of religious practice (sacrifice), human violence (murder), and the foundation of human civilization in the modern sense by way of Cain building the first city (Gen. 4:17). When we look at modern findings in archaeology we find that the Neolithic advances of herding and farming led to the first villages and cities being established and then to the invention of pottery for food storage. The emergence of pottery and its significance in archaeology has led the experts to define the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Period (10000-6500 BC) as opposed to the Pottery Neolithic Period (6500-4000 BC) in the fertile crescent.
In the PPNA period we find a number of major sites that have been uncovered and studied by archaeologists. One of them is Gobekli Tepe in southeast Turkey that is firmly dated to 9500 BC. Referred to as “the oldest known human-made place of worship,” it may have been built by migrant hunter-gatherers because on the site there is no evidence of any permanent housing. The site includes at least twenty circles of over 200 carved stone pillars, some weighing over 20 tons. Author Andrew Collins has written an interesting book on this subject, tying it in with his research into the location of the Garden of Eden and his theory on the identity of the biblical Watchers.
Later in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Period the human inhabitants of southern Turkey did establish permanent residences. One of them was the settlement known as Catalhoyuk that was inhabited from c.7500 to 5700 BC. According to wikipedia, “It is the largest and best-preserved Neolithic site found to date” and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. At its height this early city may have held up to ten thousand inhabitants. It is well-known for its female figurines (early deifications of Eve?), for the horned bull heads mounted on walls in some of the residences, and for the many murals painted over the white plastered walls throughout the site. The specific religious beliefs of the cultures associated with both Gobekli Tepe and Catalhoyuk remain hotly debated, but it is clear that they were spiritual peoples whose sacred imagery was handed down to later cultures.
In the ancient Near East near the end of the Neolithic Period, in contrast to the apparent widespread equality of social status at Catalhoyuk, we find the emergence of hierarchical command structures in the form of kingships and priesthoods. Debt-based commercial economies also appear (See Graeber’s Debt: The First Five Thousand Years), and along with that comes human slavery and standing armies. According to my own research this volatile mix of urbanization, hierarchy, violence, commerce, and debt, all came to a head in the first truly datable biblical historical event recorded in Genesis 11:1-9.
In my previous research I have shown (chapters 6-8) that the enigmatic Tower of Babel event occurred in southern Mesopotamia at the end of the period defined by archaeologists as the “Uruk Expansion” that is dated to c.3700-3100 BC (see also Dating History’s First Superpower). In the aftermath of Babel we find that human history truly begins because at this time writing first emerges in ancient Sumer. It is the first culture to document their understanding of human origins, human destiny, and their relationship with the gods! Of all the ancient accounts, theirs is the one that most closely parallels the early chapters of Genesis, although from an opposing theological point of view (see chapters 3-4).
It is interesting to chart early human history from the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic Period, into the early farmers and shepherds of the Neolithic Period, and then on into the early urban civilizations of ancient Sumer and dynastic Egypt, but my attention always seems to get drawn back to the mysterious story of Adam and Eve, the forbidden fruit, and the event that brought separation between God and Man according to the Bible. What was it that caused this great spiritual rift? And why was this “original sin” connected with acquiring knowledge, resulting in their eyes being opened (Gen. 3:7)? Christians who believe in evolution, such as N. T. Wright, Peter Enns, Rene Girard, etc., do not look at “original sin” as an event, but rather as the evolutionary process of early hominin self-awareness. Essentially they believe that once human intelligence evolved to a certain point then God began to hold Homo Sapiens accountable for their actions. This is perhaps the easiest way for most Christians to believe in a completely materialistic and unsupernatural view of human origins (original creation) while at the same time claim belief in the entirely unmaterialistic and supernatural account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (the firstfruits of the New Creation). However, even as I recognize and appreciate the new things that science has taught us about human origins I still have a problem with the materialistic ideology of evolution that is driving these discoveries. I simply believe that there is more to the story!
What if “original sin” was in fact an event rather than a long drawn out process guided merely by chance and natural selection? What if the story of Genesis 2-3 holds deeper clues embedded within its own symbolism? What if Eden was a literal place at the dawn of the Neolithic era? No, I do not believe in a literal tree and a literal forbidden fruit, but that is because I use the end of the book (Revelation 21-22) to help me interpret the beginning of the book. The Tree of Life is simply a symbolic representation of the family of God!
Opposed to this spiritual Tree of eternal Life, modern geneticists have recently developed their own “Tree of Life” which documents the genetic relationship between all living species from the beginning of evolutionary history:
Yet how can this be described as a “Tree of Life” when all of the creatures included within it are destined to suffer biological death? I would argue that what you see above is more properly named the “Tree of Death.” This is precisely the Tree that Jesus Christ came and died to rescue us from! Death is the last enemy that Christ conquers, allowing those attached to Him (the true Tree of Life) to live forever.
This brings us back to Genesis and to the fact that there were two special trees in the Garden. Adam and Eve lived because they had access to eat of the true Tree of Life, but death entered into them after they ate of that other tree. In a previous essay I put forth the possibility that the two trees perhaps represent two separate lines of ancestry: one earthly and biological and one spiritual and eternal. Perhaps Genesis is telling us that from heaven’s perspective Homo Sapiens is indeed born from the dust of the earth and related to the cycle of birth and death of the biological realm (Genesis 1), but at a certain point in our distant past (Genesis 3) the spiritual was somehow united with the biological and the ancestry of two trees became united in one new open-eyed being!
What this means is that evolutionists have indeed been discovering accurate information, but it is information that only explains the biological part of the human race. The key to uncovering the whole truth of human origins, and the key to uncovering our potential destiny as eternal spiritual beings, far beyond any technological singularity imagined by transhumanists, is to seek out and discover the true Tree of Life!
Peter D. Goodgame
November 28, 2015
—For access to a number of key articles on the subject of human origins that I have been collecting over the past year check out my Flipboard collection at https://flipboard.com/@pdgoodgame/human-origins-h27m33sly