Life before Adam?

Continuing his series on science and the Bible, David Instone-Brewer takes a closer look at what Genesis reveals about the origins of humankind.

In 2010, geneticists finally found proof that modern humans didn’t descend from a single couple a few thousand years ago. Ancient Europeans had, in fact, bred with Neanderthals from whom we inherited certain genes for our immune system.

This, and other fascinating findings, has caused some people to doubt the Bible. Instead, we can use these discoveries to augment the information included in it.  

Careful readers of early Genesis are left with a whole range of questions about Adam, Eve and the origin of humanity: Why? Where? When? How? What? and Who?  

That first question, Why did God create humans? is the only one from the list above that is answered clearly in the first book of the Bible. God wanted to have a relationship with humans. Genesis only provides a loose answer to the other questions; we’ll take a closer look at those now.

WHERE WAS EDEN?

Genesis encourages us to ask this question because it tells us that  Eden was surrounded by four rivers (Genesis 2:10-14). Geographers can only identify the Tigris and Euphrates for certain: they meet in southeast Turkey. No one has yet found a perfect garden there, but what should we expect if its only gardener was expelled!

WHEN WAS ADAM CREATED?  

Biblical chronology is less clear than it first appears, because ‘to be a father’ in Hebrew means the same as ‘to be an ancestor’ (see 2 Samuel 9:7, where the same word means ‘father’ and ‘grandfather’). So although Genesis 5 lists Noah’s nine most famous ancestors, we can’t be certain about the family tree.  

HOW DID GOD MAKE MAN?  

The Bible tells us only that God made Adam from dust (Genesis 2:7). It doesn’t say how long that took; he could have created Adam in an instant or over millions of years. There are many interpretations of time in Genesis 1, for example six consecutive periods, six consecutive days or six sample days in the life of the earth. The text doesn’t tell us enough to be certain.  

However, Genesis makes it clear that God made humans different from animals, giving humankind complex speech (in 2:20 Adam named all the animals) and spirituality (in 2:7 God breathed his spirit into him).  

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN ADAM SINNED?  

Romans says that Adam’s sin brought death (Romans 5:12-15), but doesn’t tell us how it spread to other people. Genesis gives us some clues about this, saying that there were two special trees in Eden: a tree of life; and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  

As long as Adam ate from the first he would stay alive, but if he ate from the second, God said he would die (Genesis 2:17). Adam did eat from the tree of knowledge and was expelled from Eden. This meant he was no longer able to eat from the tree of life, so he became mortal and died many years later.  

WHO WAS THIS ‘FIRST ADAM’?  

Was he the physical ancestor of all humans? Or was he a representative human who failed a test? In Romans 5, Paul said that Jesus was a second Adam, who – unlike the first Adam – passed every test and became the forerunner of all those who follow him. He added that ‘death spread to all men because all sinned’ (v12, ESV); because of what each of us does, not because we inherited something from Adam.  

Some conclude from this that Adam wasn’t our ancestor but our representative, just as Jesus was. Adam failed the test for us all, just as Jesus was sinless for us all. However, the Bible doesn’t tell us enough to be certain about this interpretation.    

WAS ADAM A REPRESENTATIVE HUMAN WHO FAILED A TEST? 

ONE MAN, MULTIPLE ORIGINS  

If you ask geneticists and paleoanthropologists about the origins of humankind they will ask you which origin you mean. One origin occurred 400,000 years ago, when our hominid ancestors living in East Africa split up. One group travelled through Europe and became the Neanderthals, while another group became Denisovans in Asia, and those that remained in Africa became Cro-Magnons (modern humans).  

Another origin occurred approximately 40,000 years ago, when Cro-Magnons left Africa, where they bred with Neanderthals in Europe and Denisovans in Asia. From about this time they played musical instruments, produced art and began to bury their dead with grave goods and flowers. Perhaps this was when our spiritual nature originated.  

I think that 10,000 BC could be a more significant point of origin. This was when some wild wheat near Mount Karaca in Turkey suffered a potentially fatal mutation. It lost the mechanism to drop its ripened seeds, so it couldn’t reproduce. However, for humans this was perfect because they could harvest it without all the seeds dropping off, so they planted the seeds themselves.  

Modern crops can be traced  back to this single time and place. (Archaeologists have now found a sophisticated temple site nearby, Göbekli Tepe, which is much older than any previously discovered city.) Interestingly, Mount Karaca is between the heads of the Tigris and Euphrates, where Genesis locates Eden.  

THREE ORIGINS IN GENESIS?  

Perhaps Genesis tells us about all three origins at once. Adam is portrayed as the father of all nations, like the ancestor of these three branches of hominids 400,000 years ago. God transformed him into a spiritual human by breathing his spirit into him. And we read about a time when humanity had intelligence, language, abundant food and time to think – like those who discovered agricultural wheat − and that’s when God tested us to see if we wanted to follow good or to learn evil.  

So, perhaps this is what happened: a few thousand years ago, God picked a literal individual, Adam, and ‘cloned’ a wife for him to start a perfect and eternal race of humans. God secluded them from all harm and bad influences in Eden, and gave them life-extending food. But Adam and Eve failed a simple test (as we all would have done), which resulted in them having to leave Eden.  

Their children didn’t need to commit incest; they simply mixed with other groups of mortal humans outside Eden, who passed on the useful Neanderthal genes we inherited. Of course, we can’t be sure of this theory as the Bible doesn’t give enough away.  

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.



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