Adam, Eve, and the Hominid Fossil Record


Adam, Eve, and the Hominid Fossil Record

Gustave Doré (1832-1883) "Adam and Eve Driven from the Garden"Picture below right: Gustave Doré (1832-1883) "Adam and Eve Driven from the Garden"

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

362. The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolical language when it affirms that "then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." [Genesis 2:7] Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.

369. Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other, in their respective beings as man and woman. "Being man" or "being woman" is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator. [cf. Genesis 2:7,22] Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity "in the image of God." In their "being-man" and "being-woman," they reflect the Creator's wisdom and goodness.

375. The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original "state of holiness and justice." [cf. Council of Trent (1546): DS 1511] This grace of original holiness was "to share in....divine life." [cf. Vatican II LG 2]

based on the books Perspectives on an Evolving Creation edited by Keith Miller, and Origin of the Human Species by Dennis Bonnette

God speaks to us in two main ways: through the Bible and through God's natural, created order. Each of these "words" of God must be interpreted. Theologians, hermeneuticians, and exegetes interpret the Bible. Scientists interpret God's workings in nature. Both theologians and scientists make mistakes, change their minds, and even occasionally perpetrate falsehoods for the sake of their own reputations. Let us turn to the question of how paleoanthropological findings of the hominids (e.g. Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, Homo erectus, Neandertals, Homo sapiens, etc) relate to the biblical account of human origins.

It will be easier to relate the Bible to the fossil record if we consider that the Bible was written before the modern age, before the rise of modern science, and thus is not a science textbook. The great Catholic astronomer Galileo affirmed that the Bible teaches us "how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." He did not believe that the Bible was written to teach us science lessons about the stars or planets (or for that matter, paleontology). Rather, the Bible is God's story, a record of God's dealings with a chosen people (the Hebrews), and how Jesus Christ arose from those people to accomplish God's purposes in the world. Thus we should read Genesis not as a natural history or science lesson but as God's Sacred Story of how he wishes to relate to us, how we should relate to each other, and to the rest of creation.

Rather than set the Bible against science and paleontology, it is more biblical to seek to harmonize these two ways of knowing, since the same God of the Bible is also the God of nature. We need to embrace a worldview that remains true, both to responsible interpretations of the Bible and also to our present scientific knowledge of the world. For example, an instantaneous creation implies an event, but evolution implies a gradual process. We can note that the Bible does not specify whether creation was an event or a process. Each created animal was to reproduce "after its kind" (Gen 1:11, 12, 21, 24, 25, etc). Some biblical scholars have suggested that the "kinds" in Genesis refer to species, immutable and unchangeable. However, reproducing after their kinds would not rule out the transformation of these kinds over a long period of time. These types of explanations illustrate how we might seek to harmonize our current knowledge of the Bible with our current knowledge of the fossil record.

Adam, Eve, and Human Origins

How might we explain theologically the fact that some early fossil populations do not resemble modern apes OR modern humans? We should not call these pre-human since most were not human ancestors. Like modern humans, these hominids used stone tools, walked bi-pedally, and had a human-like tooth structure. Unlike modern humans, they had small braincases, greater arm/leg length ratios, and relatively simple cultural practices. It may be a bit egotistical to imagine that all God's activities in the world have been for the exclusive benefit of humans. Did these hominid forms perhaps represent creations for God's own delight, forms that went extinct for unknown reasons, terminal branches on God's complex tree of life?

Genesis tells us that the eternal, transcendent, and immanent God is other than his creation, not identical with it. Humans share a created-ness with stars, giraffes, fungi, and granite rocks, yet they are given a special status in this creation. They had a "god-ness" (a spiritual soul) and the capacity to enjoy, love, and communicate with God. When did this human-ness, this god-ness, appear?

The fossil record gives no indication that humans appeared suddenly. Rather it suggests continuity between pre-human and human physical forms. Most paleoanthropologists would probably say that humans became human through a process of growing intelligence and cultural development. The fossil and genetic records suggest that Homo sapiens originated about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago with a modern skeleton. In contrast, Genesis sets Adam and his immediate descendants in a much more recent farming culture. This farming family already possessed a relatively advanced culture including animal and plant domestication. Cain worked the soil and offered to God his fruits of the field. Abel offered the fat parts of the firstborn and of his flock of sheep (Gen 4:2-4, 20). Archeologists trace the beginnings of plant cultivation to 7,500 to 7,000 B.C. with domestication of cattle and sheep appearing soon after. When Cain left home, he built a "city" (Gen 4:17). However, no cities or even villages appear in the archaeological record until about 9,000 B.C. There are also references to sophisticated musical instruments and iron tools (Genesis 4:21-22).

All these cultural activities correspond to the Neolithic cultural period, a period when these features did not appear suddenly but through a long process or what anthropologists call "cultural evolution." The implications of this: If plant and animal domestication were first established around 7,500 B.C., and if Cain and Abel were a farmer and shepherd, respectively, then Cain and Abel must have lived about 7,500 B.C. Adam himself seems to have been a Neolithic man, since his task was to work and take care of the garden, and to name the livestock (Gen 2:15-19). From the fossil record, however, it is clear that humans originated long before the Neolithic period. When then, is the paleoanthropology of Adam and Eve? Were Adam and Eve not the first humans? Were they not historical persons?

Scenario One: "Ex Nihilo"

We can sketch out three possible scenarios that seek to harmonize the paleontological record with the biblical account. Each scenario carries with it certain strengths and weaknesses. First, the Ex nihilo scenario paints Adam and Eve as recent historical persons, created ex nihilo (out of nothing) with no ancestors, human or otherwise. All present-day humans would have descended from this Near Eastern pair in the span of 9,500 years.

A major objection to this scenario is that recent mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests that all humans have descended from an ancestral population living in Africa (or the Levant) about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Ex nihilo, then, would imply that some humans did not descend from Adam. Furthermore, Ex nihilo suggests an abrupt change, a lack of continuity with what has gone before, a change we cannot observe in the fossil line of hominids. We do see a transition to anatomically modern humans (about 100,000 years ago) but it does not seem abrupt. If Adam lived at the time of the Neolithic, how should we classify these pre-Adamic forms so abundant in the fossil record? If they walked like humans, worked like humans, and worshipped like humans, were they not human? Did they not have god-ness, spiritual souls?

Ironically, if we attempt to preserve the literal Ex nihilo scenario that all modern humans descend from a recent, historical Adam, we are forced to abandon a literal interpretation of large portions of Genesis 4. This is because a literal reading of Genesis 4 informs us that Adam and Eve's family lived in the Neolithic, 30,000 years after the archaeological appearance of religion and human culture! A relatively recent Ex nihilo creation for Adam seems to discount all the archaeological evidence for human form, culture, and spirituality before the relatively recent beginnings of plant and animal domestication.

Scenario Two: Like Father, Like Son

In the Like Father, Like Son scenario, Genesis 1 and 2 are not two different versions of the same event, but one continuous story. As soon as God began His creative work in the world, Satan began his corrupting work. Because of Satan's activity in the world, humans chose from the very beginning to depart from God's way. In this scenario, biblical history chronicles God's continuing attempt to redeem a Satan-blighted world. By this account, God brought order out of chaos and created all things, including the first humans (described in Genesis 1 only as "male" and "female"). Humans were unique because they bore God's image (Gen 1:27). They possessed language, free will, responsibility, abstract thinking, logic, creativity, planning, tools, dominion over creatures, and the ability to enter into a personal faith relationship with God.

Genesis 2 and 3 continue that story, relating the account of a later, specific pair of humans: Adam and Eve. Here begins one of God's many initiatives to redeem the fallen world. Adam and Eve were historical persons, but not the first sinners and not the first humans. They were earthy, created of the dust of the earth (they came from the earthly line of fallen humanity). But they received a new spirit because God wished to counteract the Satan-blighted creation. They were unique in that God took them out from sinful humanity, placed them in a perfect environment, and commanded them to care for the garden and to avoid the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." But, like their fathers and mothers before them, they willfully chose disobedience instead of righteousness and eternal life. They had no one to blame for their choice but themselves since they lived in a perfect environment.

They were representatives of the whole human race in sinning, in the same sense that Christ is representative for the whole human race in redeeming. It is not necessary for us all to be biological descendents of Christ for Christ to redeem us. Why is it necessary for us all to be biologically descended from Adam for him to represent us? If this scenario seems a bit ad hoc on the part of God, consider other surprising initiatives of God: providing animal sacrifice for sin, calling out the Hebrew nation, and ultimately, sending the Hebrew God-child who would redeem humanity.

Although Like Father, Like Son can be harmonized with current scientific evidence, and although Genesis 2 certainly seems to be much more than a mere retelling of Genesis 1, there is a problem with it. The text seems to be referring to the time when humans were first created, since "the man became a living being" (Gen 2:7). If this was a first human creation, we are left with the anomaly that the paleontological record demonstrates that other "humans" existed long before Adam and Eve's Neolithic period. If humans existed before Adam and Eve, however, it is odd that Genesis does not discuss how these earlier humans fell into sin.

Scenario Three: Early Origin

A third scenario, Early Origin, envisions Adam and Eve living about 40,000 years ago, in the time of the Upper Paleolithic cultural explosion when culture "took off" and when Homo sapiens began to fashion much more sophisticated stone tools and began to practice ritual burial of the dead. The writer of Genesis is describing an actual historical event -- the creation of the first creatures who were fully human. Adam and Eve were the first to have fully human brains. They enjoyed a diverse cultural repertoire, built up over a millennia of cultural evolution.

Thus, they were the first Homo sapiens to have the "hardware" and the cultural "software" to be God-conscious, to receive God's spirit and relate to God. They were given the opportunity to be in full fellowship with God, but they chose to disobey and live apart from God. They "fell" and they suffered as a result. Of course, pain, suffering, and death existed in the world long before Adam and Eve since Satan was active from the beginning of creation. Animals were carnivorous ("the lions roar for their prey..." Psalm 104:21). Natural disasters occurred. Hominids suffered pain also, although perhaps they did not reflect on it, were not fully self-conscious of it. But there was no human sin in the world until Adam and Eve since they were the first truly human beings to consciously go against God's commands (Rom 5:12).

Objection: Animal Death Before the Fall

Here a common theological objection comes up. For the early "concordists" (those who tried to harmonize science with a literal interpretation of Scripture) the principal point of contact between geology and the biblical story of creation was the fact that the earth was much older than 6,000 years: thus they had to confront the crucial theological problem of explaining the existence of animal death before the Fall of Adam. This very issue is still at the heart of young-earth Creationism today, motivating its adherents perhaps more than any other issue to reject old-Earth interpretations of Genesis.

Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) served as the first president of the Association of American Geologists, a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences, and wrote several classic textbooks such as Elementary Geology (reprinted 30 times after the first edition of 1840) and The Religion of Geology, his most complete statement of natural theology. Hitchcock dealt with this "death before sin" objection forthrightly in a fascinating section entitled "Connection Between Geology and Natural and Revealed Religion" in Elementary Geology and his comments are especially interesting.

"Not only geology," he noted, "but zoology and comparative anatomy, teach us that death among the inferior animals did not result from the Fall of Man, but from the original constitution given them by their Creator. One large class of animals, the carnivores, have organs expressly intended for destroying other classes for food." Even herbivores "must have destroyed a multitude of insects, of which several species inhabit almost every species of plant," not to mention the destruction of "millions of animalcula [microscopic organisms], which abound in many of the fluids which animals drink, and even in the air which they breathe."

"In short," he added (almost prophetically, if one thinks of "scientific creationists" today), "death could not be excluded from the world, without an entire change in the constitution and course of nature; and such a change we have no reason to suppose, from the Mosaic [Genesis] account, took place when man fell." (See Hitchcock, Elementary Geology, 8th edition [1847], p. 299ff)

Furthermore, on biblical grounds alone one might have to allow animal death before the Fall. Not only does Romans 5:12 explicitly limit the scope of death to humanity; unless Adam himself had seen death, how could the threat of death for disobedience have real force? Therefore, Hitchcock believed that the Fall introduced humans to spiritual death, not animals to physical death.

Catholic Teaching on Adam and Eve

I would like to discuss briefly three Catholic teachings on Adam and Eve that seem to conflict with evolutionary science: the special creation of man, the unity of the human race, and the preternatural gifts of integrity and bodily immortality.

In the 1950 papal encyclical Humani Generis (Concerning Some False Opinions Which Threaten to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine), Pope Pius XII stated that we may speculate on bodily evolution, if we leave unquestioned the human soul's direct, immediate creation (Denz 2327). Provided that God directly create the human spiritual soul, we may read the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission's teaching on the "special creation of man" to mean that the human body's material origin took place through some form of evolution.

The "unity of the human race" implies the doctrine of monogenism, that Adam and Eve are the first parents of the entire human race. Ludwig Ott maintains: "The teaching of the unity of the human race is not, indeed, a dogma, but it is a necessary presupposition of the dogma of Original Sin and Redemption" (Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, page 96). This teaching follows because Original Sin "is the result of a sin committed, in actual historical fact, by an individual man named Adam, and it is a quality native to all of us, only because it had been handed down by descent from him" (Denz 2328). The Council of Trent's Decree defines that Original Sin "is communicated to all men by propagation not by imitation." The unity also means the entire human race takes its origin from Adam and Eve, our first parents, who were an actually existing individual pair of human beings, male and female, from whom we are all descended through natural generation.

St. Augustine notes that the attendant "preternatural gift of immortality" should be understood as the possibility of not dying, rather than as being the impossibility of dying (Ott, 104). The gift of immortality does not contradict every physical substance's potential corruptibility, its composition of matter and form. The possible immortality of our first parents in no way opposes the dictum, "every man is mortal." This famed syllogistic axiom merely states the potentially corruptible character of human hylemorphic nature. Ott maintains that the associated gift of impassibility means "the possibility of remaining free from suffering" (Ott, 104). The preternatural gifts of integrity and immortality seem to violate early humans' natural condition. We do not easily control our passions, nor do we possess bodily immortality. But the proper ordering of elements in human nature that constitutes the gift of integrity is nature's perfection, not its contradiction. So too, immortality, the possibility of not dying, entails the possibility of continued life. Life is the first act and perfection of any living nature, not its contradiction.

From the standpoint of intrinsic finality, the proof that such gifts were praeter-natural is the dismal fact that they have been lost. If they were natural properties flowing from human nature, we could never have lost them. The preternatural gifts of integrity and immortality are beyond human nature. They represent simply the ultimate natural perfection of human nature, awaiting eschatological realization. Predictably, the fossil record gives no evidence of such gifts. Still, revelation presents no intellectual scandal if it maintains our first parents possessed them.

Further, evolutionary science sees the broad picture of human origins taking place over a time-frame measured in hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years. It cannot focus on events affecting a single pair of humans at a given point in time. Anthropological data and theories are so general that they cannot oppose particular facts about an Adam and Eve, unless even the broad trends of such data are shown to oppose such particulars' possibilities. Speculation based upon present data can, at best, indicate the nature and activities of early humans, pointing to largely undefined populations and imprecise time periods. It cannot address with precision the conditions of existence of a single pair of humans at a particular, distant-past time. It cannot exclude, a priori, the possibility of miraculous divine intervention whose reality falls entirely outside the fossil record.

Back to Early Origin scenario

The ecological and cultural environment described in Genesis 1-4 would represent not the historical environment of Adam and Eve (who date to 40,000 years ago or more), but rather that of the writer of Genesis. It is an environment that his readers would have understood perfectly since it pictures a familiar culture with its kinship relationships, plant and animal husbandry, and small towns. Yet the writer paints the garden as a perfect world, emphasizing that Adam and Eve had no excuse for their disobedience of God. This Early Origin scenario preserves the historicity of Adam and Eve and sets them at a point in time that harmonizes better with the archeological data.

A weakness of Early Origin may be that it does not adequately explain the curse that God pronounced on the ground because of Adam (but neither do the other two scenarios since it seems the ground was cursed long before humans came along). Perhaps the meaning is that the food quest would become more difficult, and Adam would have to sweat harder against the reluctant soil, outside of the beautiful garden (Gen 3:17-19). Second, Early Origin may not fully explain the origin of human pain and suffering. However, note that Genesis 3:16 indicates not that Eve would be the first woman to suffer pain in childbearing but that her pain would be increased. In short, Adam and Eve would have to live as humans must live today.

When Did Hominids First Get Spirit?

In any scenario, the question still remains: When did hominids first receive spirit, or God-consciousness? God "forms the spirit of man within him" (Zech 12:1). Since spirits do not fossilize, we must examine indirect archaeological evidence that might indicate "spirit-ness" in hominids. Paleontologists formerly argued that Neandertals behaved in "spiritual" ways since their burials occur in various sites as early as 90,000 years ago (Tabun, Israel). They argued that Neandertals buried their dead in groups, often in a flexed, sleeping position. The analysis of fossil pollen associated with these burials suggested that the bodies were covered with shrubs and sprinkled with bachelor buttons and hollyhock flowers (the Shanindar site). They practiced tool-making and hunting and left assemblages of artifacts, such as burials of cave bear skulls, that seemed to indicate the practice of religious ritual. At least this was the traditional interpretation. Why would Neandertals bury their dead rather than abandon them as animals do? Why were adults and children apparently buried close together -- were these family groups? Did these acts indicate some idea of the survival of the person, or part of the person, after death? Did these pre-sapiens hominids have a spirit with the capacity to relate to God? Their actions certainly seem to indicate spirituality or a religious sense.

However, re-analysis of the data has raised some doubts about whether these burials indicate religion, and even whether they are burials! For instance, the fossil pollen was not confined to the area of the burials; it was found all around the site. Recently, anthropologists have questioned the scientific interpretation of these burials. At Shanindar not only was the fossil pollen found in the graves; it was found throughout the cave where the burials were located. Perhaps the flowers were not intentionally put in the graves. This reinterpretation of the Neandertal burials is partly due to the RAO (Recent African Origin) model. This model sees modern humans as a different species from Neandertal; thus the need to "de-humanize" Neandertal and question interpretations that suggest that Neandertals practiced religious behavior.

In general, eliminating religious interpretations of Neandertal culture clears the way for a more recent origin of human spirituality, making it more likely that humans received spirit at the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic. Klein argues that with the coming of the U.P., true art appeared, along with religious ritual and distinct tool traditions (Klein, "Archeology of Modern Human Origins"). Does this explosion of technology and cultural sensitivity in the U.P. indicate a beginning of God-consciousness? Certainly, these individuals seem to be acting in ways that modern humans might act. On the basis of present archaeological and paleontological evidence, perhaps humans got spirit in the Upper Paleolithic.

Conclusion

We have discussed the evidence for fossil hominid evolution and related it to the biblical account of human origins. This evidence suggests a strong, unbroken sequence of forms from Ardipithecus to Australopithecus to Homo sapiens. Although it cannot be proven, the simplest conclusion is that the later forms were descended from the earlier ones. We see a similar continuity in the artifacts that hominids made. The simple Acheulian tool-making cultures of one million years ago give way to the complex cultures of the U.P., where distinct tool-making traditions emerge, and where symbolic representation, art, and ritualistic burials become ever more sophisticated and more frequent. These developments suggest that certainly by the time of the U.P., humans had a God-consciousness; they had spirit.

Whichever scenario of origins Christians embrace, we can agree that God is the Creator of all and that humans are unique because they partake of God's spirit. Adam and Eve demonstrated complementary roles and both had a moral responsibility to God. We learn from them that we must take responsibility for our own actions. Adam and Eve's tragic story explains how humans trangress God's commands, become conscious of their own sin, and despair of measuring up to God's standards. Their failure reminds us that we all fall short of God's purpose and will for us (Rom 3:23). Just as a cuddly lion cub inevitably grows up to be a ferocious hunter, precious little human babies grow up to express their inherent sinful human nature. God's loving response to Adam and Eve (clothing them, protecting them, providing a promise) gives us a confidence that God will also respond to our own condition with love and forgiveness. In this view, Genesis 1-3 helps us to understand human godliness, human uniqueness, human moral responsibility, human failure, and God's loving response to that failure. We ourselves are in Adam and Eve, not only in their Fall, but also in their great potential in God. This is the meaning of Genesis.

It is illogical and unbiblical to create a false dichotomy between what the fossil record tells us and what the Bible tells us. In the end, there is only one story, God's story, written in His Word and His Works. Through paleoanthropology, humans can trace the finger of God's works in the world. The God who conceived the universe and spoke it into being is the same God who sustains all its laws and guides all its transformative and emerging processes, including the process of hominid evolution.

based on the books Perspectives on an Evolving Creation edited by Keith Miller, and Origin of the Human Species by Dennis Bonnette


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