Science Ch.19 - When and Where Did Adam Live?

Paleoanthropologists trace humans back three million years, so where does Adam fit in? Details in the text of Genesis reveal some intriguing possibilities that correspond with what archaeologists and geneticists have discovered.


It’s easy to interpret the account of Adam and Eve as a representative story or a foundation myth.1 These are plausible interpretations that I wouldn’t rule out, but I believe it is worth seeing how far we can get by assuming that the narrative describes actual events. The language used in Genesis has been constrained by the limitations of ancient vocabulary, and the account omits a lot of details that we, but not the author, are interested in. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t think about how it might fit in with what we have found in nature. As careful readers of early Genesis, we are left with a whole range of questions about Adam and Eve: Why did God make human beings? Where was Eden? How did God make Adam? What was Eve made from? and When did it all happen? Let’s see how the narrative might fit in with what we have found in nature.

       The only one of these questions that Genesis is concerned to answer is why God created human beings. The implied answer is that he wanted to have a relationship with us – as illustrated by the way he went for a stroll in Eden to talk with Adam (Gen 3:8). Of course, this leads to all kinds of supplementary questions such as why God would give us freedom, knowing the inevitable trouble that he would have to sort out. After all, he is complete in himself and doesn’t need us. Genesis doesn’t answer that question, but perhaps those of us who are parents know that the frustration – and even pain – that comes hand in hand with having children is more than worth it.

       With regard to the remaining questions, we have to turn to various other sources of knowledge to find possible answers because the Bible isn’t concerned with these topics and provides very scant information.

5-minute summary

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Where was Eden?

Since we are attempting to interpret the Bible as a straightforward narrative, asking where Eden was should be treated as a worthwhile question. And Genesis encourages us to ask it because it names four nearby rivers (Gen 2:10-14). Geographers can only identify the Tigris and Euphrates for certain: they both start in eastern Turkey and end in southern Iraq. No one has yet found a perfect garden in either location, but what should we expect if its gardeners were expelled?

       Throughout the centuries, the inhabitants of the area bounded by the southern end of the Tigris and Euphrates would have said that their land was the original Eden: it was full of waterways, copious wildlife, and a great variety of plants. But in the 1990s the occupants rebelled against Saddam Hussein, and in revenge he drained their land by diverting rivers. The soil was quickly ruined by a buildup of salt, which killed the vegetation and wildlife. However, the Eden Again project has started to reverse this ecological disaster.2

       A better guess for Eden’s location is the northern origin of these two rivers, near the Karacadag Mountains, where agriculture was invented about 10,500 years ago. (This also happens to be near Göbekli Tepe – a sophisticated religious monument five thousand years older than the pyramids or Stonehenge.3) Agriculture started with a mutation in a species of grass that prevented its seed falling to the ground when it matured. Normally a plant with this mutation would have died out, because if the seed stays on the plant, it can’t germinate in the ground. But someone realized they would no longer have to pick up individual mature seeds off the soil if they grew this variety. Instead, they could reap the plants and thresh them to make the grains fall off in a heap, then plant a few to grow the next crop. This was a wonderful convergence of human intelligence and an otherwise useless mutation. Every grain of wheat now grown in the world can be traced to this mutation, which occurred about 8000 BC on that mountainside at the northern origin of the Tigris and Euphrates – that is, at the location that the Bible describes for Eden. Is this a coincidence?

What were Adam and Eve made from?

Genesis is clear that God made human beings into something different from animals. After making Adam from dust, God breathed into him, and this is presumably when Adam gained a spirit, unlike all other animals, which merely have a soul (Gen 2:7).4 The spirit that God put inside Adam wasn’t the Holy Spirit, but our human spirit, and it transformed Adam from what we might call a “human animal” into what we can call a “human being.”5

       Adam was made from dust (Gen 2:7).6 This sounds special, but the Bible later describes God making all of us the same way: “you molded me like clay”; “all [people] come from dust” (Job 10:9; Eccl 3:20). Since we are all made of “dust” – that is, of matter – like Adam, when Genesis uses that same phrase to describe the way that Adam was made, this may imply that he was made like us, by means of parents.

       Eve was made in a completely different way from Adam – we read that God used a “rib” from Adam (Gen 2:21-23). Three verses describe this – almost as much as each “day” in Genesis 1 – so this was clearly a significant event. The Hebrew tsela usually means “side” but can mean “rib,” and that makes sense in this context. Our lowest ribs are floating – that is, they don’t reach to the sternum at the front – and removing one would have no consequences. Actually, a small proportion of humans have an extra, thirteenth rib, and if Adam had this, it certainly wouldn’t have been missed.7

       As usual, the text doesn’t tell us about the process itself, because teaching how things were done wasn’t its objective. It just says, “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh,” then he “made a woman from the rib … and he brought her to the man.” The first part sounds rather like an operation – a rib being extracted under anesthetic. The next part sounds like cloning. Of course, it could not have been straightforward cloning, because that would result in a male. In order to make a female, the Y chromosome had to be discarded and the X chromosome doubled. Also, when we make a clone today, we induce a cell to become an egg, which divides into a blastocyst and then forms a fetus. If God followed this process when he made Eve, Adam would have had to sleep for several years while she grew to adulthood. This was possible, of course – though presumably God could have used faster cloning techniques.

       But why was Eve made this way? Why didn’t God simply use the same method he had used to create Adam? The different way in which God formed her is an important clue about what made Adam special. Presumably, whatever this special thing was, it had to be passed on to Eve because, as Adam said, she was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” If the account was written today, Adam would no doubt say, “She shares my DNA” – and it would seem that this is what was special about Adam. God had developed an individual with the exact DNA that he wanted, and then made a feminized clone from Adam’s genes to make sure that the traits he wanted were passed on.

       Perhaps these specific genetic traits included the ability to interact with a spirit. In an earlier chapter,8 I compared the brain to a computer and the human spirit to a router that can access the spiritual “internet.” In this analogy, I said that the brain needed facilities akin to a keyboard by which it could interact with this spirit. In animals that lack a spirit, such as an ape, which is very similar to a human, there is no need for this “keyboard” facility. This is the facility that Adam had and none of the nonhuman animals had: it enabled his brain to interact with the spirit that God gave him. In other words, Adam would have been that individual who finally, after billions of years of development, had the specific brain adaptation necessary to interact on a spiritual level with God.

       Genesis presents Adam as the conclusion and reason for God creating the universe – to make someone who could share his love. So God put him somewhere he could be safe, with a tree to feed him supplements that enabled him to live forever.9 And then God set about replicating Adam’s DNA, first by making a feminized clone and then letting them reproduce sexually – by the method built into creation. Their offspring would inherit this same ability to interact with their human spirit.

When did Adam and Eve live?

Bible chronology isn’t straightforward, because the Hebrew for “father” and the verb “to father” can also mean “to be a grandfather” or “ancestor” (e.g., 2 Sam 9:7, where the same word means both “father” and “grandfather”). So although Genesis 5 lists Noah’s nine most famous ancestors, we have no idea how many generations came between each of them. If you read this as if it were written in English – that is, that they all simply “fathered” the next person – Adam would have been born about 4000 BC. In the seventeenth century, Bishop James Ussher calculated his birth date as 4004 BC, and this was repeated so often in the margins of printed Bibles that it became accepted as fact. The Bible text itself, however, doesn’t give us specific dating.

       In order to pinpoint the time, we need to identify something that might be preserved in the archaeological or genetic record that indicates when human animals become human beings. The traits we might expect a spirit to give humans, such as concepts of prayer, worship, empathy, and cooperation, aren’t things that can be seen by an archaeologist or geneticist – until those humans build something such as an altar. So perhaps this change will coincide with something else that we can detect. If it occurred first in just one or two people, we are not looking for something that transformed the whole human population at once; we are searching for a change that gradually spread through its offspring and conferred enough advantage to cause everyone who lacked this ability to gradually die out.

       Perhaps this change is indicated by the capability of human speech. This ability is due to a small genetic change that slowly spread throughout the population. It conferred a significant advantage so that all living humans today share it, which means that all those without it have died out. This change took place in the gene FOXP2 sometime before five hundred thousand years ago. Geneticists discovered its importance when investigating a few individuals with mutations in this gene, which caused a severe speech impediment and an inability to understand grammar. It also has several other functions, including lengthening brain dendrites to enable faster learning.10

       Although this is a promising theory, things are never quite so simple. This change in FOXP2 occurred before the first exodus from Africa of individuals who became Neanderthals and Denisovans in Europe and Asia, respectively, while the ancestors of modern humans stayed in Africa for thousands of years before they followed them.11 This means that these other groups who preceded modern humans also had the ability to speak.12 So speech itself does not mark the change conferred to Adam.

       The so-called mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam both lived about 150,000 years ago,13 so could they be the Bible’s Adam and Eve? These titles are rather misleading because they don’t refer to a single person from whom all humans descended but merely the person from whom the DNA of all living people descended, without taking into account the DNA of families that have died out.14 If the flood was global, the Y-chromosome Adam would be Noah, because this method only looks for a common genetic ancestor and not for the true ancestor of all the people.

       Perhaps a better indicator for the change from human animals to human beings is the sudden increase in brain size that came with the human version of gene MCPH1, which arrived about forty thousand years ago. The role of this gene is clear when it goes wrong and causes the terrible condition of microcephaly.15 This isn’t the only gene that determines intelligence, but it looks like this one sets humans apart. This human version of gene MCPH1 arrived at the same time that Cro-Magnons (another name for modern humans) left Africa and started spreading through Asia and Europe.16 They met Neanderthals and Denisovans along the way, and sometimes interbred, but these prehuman groups soon died out.

       We have found the first musical instruments – hollow bones with holes, like a flute – from about this same time, alongside which archaeologists found the earliest “Venus figurine”, small figures usually shaped as pregnant or recently pregnant females.17 Personalized burials also started at this time, with grave goods, which may have been believed to help the deceased in the afterlife.18

       Some of these advances have been previously linked with Neanderthals, as well as with the modern humans that succeeded them. One early study found evidence of Neanderthals putting flowers in one grave, though this is now widely discounted, and claims about Neanderthal art are also uncertain.19 They certainly buried their dead sometimes, but this may merely have been to stop the corpses smelling and attracting wild animals to their area. It seems, therefore, that the more spiritual aspects of life, such as concerns about the afterlife, music, and art, were specifically linked with humans from about forty thousand years ago.

       At about twenty thousand years ago, there was another less dramatic but perhaps more significant revolution – in cave paintings. Before then, art all over the world, from France to Borneo, consisted of pictures of animals. After this date, artists all over the world started including images of humans in their pictures – but the reason for this change is unknown.20 I sometimes wonder how we would know if an AI has become conscious, and I think that we would suspect this if it attempted a self-portrait. In the same way, something occurred about twenty thousand years ago that suddenly made humans look not only at those things outside their group but also at themselves. They became literally self-conscious.

       This simplified summary of the many stages in humanity’s complex history shows how difficult it is to pinpoint the time when God breathed his spirit into that single man. The new insights and abilities that this brought would have been likely to spread quickly throughout the population (as we’ll explore in the next chapter). Adam’s descendants were a completely new type of human that we have called “human beings” (because no other term currently exists) to distinguish them from “human animals” (who no longer exist). As well as having a spirit that enabled them to be aware of God, they could empathize with each other more deeply. This would make cooperation better and communities more successful. Colonies of these new human beings were also united by their newfound spiritual insights, which gave them a purpose and a reason to work with each other even if this meant personal sacrifice.

       Spotting this change in the records of archaeology or genetics may not be possible, especially as Genesis does not tell us what to look for. The best guess we have come up with is the development of artistry about forty thousand years ago, or self-conscious art about twenty thousand years ago. Even if Genesis intended to state the specific change that occurred, Moses and his contemporaries didn’t have the language for concepts such as genetic inheritance, development of species, or millions of years. Nevertheless, Genesis does succeed in teaching the essential truths: that God was in charge and that he did all this so that we can come to know him. God is concerned that we should at least know what the original plan was, and also the happy ending: that he didn’t abandon the human race when Adam failed.

Summary


• Eden may be near the origin of wheat in the Karacadag Mountains and the oldest temple in Göbekli Tepe.
• Eve could be a feminized clone from Adam’s DNA.
• They had the FOXP2 and MCPH1 genes for language and the extra ability to communicate spiritually.
• Proposal: Adam may have lived twenty thousand years ago, when humans started displaying self-conscious artistry.

1^ Unlike most chapters, this one and the next frequently refer back to previous chapters in its section, so you’ll have an easier time if you read them first.
2^ See Iraq Foundation, “Draft Report Physical Characteristics of Mesopotamian Marshlands of Southern Iraq,” January 2003 (tinyurl.com/EdenAgainIraq).
3^ See Asle Rønning, “On the Track of the World’s First Farmer,” Science Nordic, January 31, 2012 (tinyurl.com/FirstFarmer).
4^ See chap. 16, “Animals Have Souls in the Bible,” and chap. 17, “What Does the Human Spirit Do?”
5^ See chap. 18, “Adam’s Apple in Literal Language.”
6^ See chap. 15, “Made from Dust, Like Adam.”
7^ See J. F. G. M. Costa, J. Brito, A. Costa, F. Caseiro-Alves, and A. Bernardes, “Normal Variants in the Chest: Mimickers of Disease,” European Society of Radiology (tinyurl.com/RibChanges).
8^ See chap. 17, “What Does the Human Spirit Do?”
9^ See chap. 18, “Adam’s Apple in Literal Language.”
10^ See Wikipedia, “FOXP2” (tinyurl.com/WikiFOXP2).
11^ See “The Age of Homo Sapiens,” Atlas of Human Evolution (tinyurl.com/HumanSpread).
12^ See Philip Lieberman, “Language Did Not Spring Forth 100,000 Years Ago,” PLoS Biology 13 (February 2015) (tinyurl.com/NonHumanSpeech). On Denisovans, see Wikipedia, “Denisovan” (tinyurl.com/WikiDenisovans).
13^ See Ewen Callaway, “Genetic Adam and Eve Did Not Live Too Far Apart in Time,” Nature, August 6, 2013 (tinyurl.com/AdamEveGenetic).
14^ See Wikipedia, “Mitochondrial Eve” (tinyurl.com/EveMito).
15^ See Wikipedia, “Microcephalin” (tinyurl.com/Microcephalin).
16^ See K. Kris Hurst, “Why Don’t We Call Them Cro-Magnon Anymore?,” ThoughtCo, January 17, 2018, (tinyurl.com/NotCroMagnon).
17^ See “Earliest Musical Instruments Date Back 42000 Years,” Sci News, May 25, 2012 (tinyurl.com/FirstMusic); Wikipedia, “Venus of Hohle Fels” (tinyurl.com/VenusHF).
18^ See Wikipedia “Burial” (tinyurl.com/WikiBurial).
19^ See Wikipedia, “Shanidar Cave” (tinyurl.com/ShanidarCave); Jeffrey D. Sommer, “The Shanidar IV ‘Flower Burial’: A Re-evaluation of Neanderthal Burial Ritual,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9 (1999): 127-29 (tinyurl.com/NeanderthalBurial); Robert Gargett, “Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neanderthal Burial,” Current Anthropology 30, no. 2 (April 1989) (tinyurl.com/GargettGrave); Maxine Aubert, Adam Brumm, and Jillian Huntley, “Early Dates for ‘Neanderthal Cave Art’ May Be Wrong,” Journal of Human Evolution 125 (2018): 215-17 (tinyurl.com/NeanderthalArt).
20^ See Brian Handwerk, “World’s Oldest-Known Figurative Paintings Discovered in Borneo Cave,” Smithsonian, November 7, 2018 (tinyurl.com/OldestPaintings).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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