Adam, Eve, and the Hominid Fossil Record
Adam, Eve, and the Hominid Fossil Record
Picture below right: Gustave Dore (1832-1883) "Adam and Eve Driven from the Garden"
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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