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April 06, 2004

Back to Adam

In my previous post on Adam and Eve, I set about trying to establish the historicity of this foundational myth of Western culture and civilization, arguing that it was "a true story, that tells the invention of agriculture, which brought slavery into the world" -- and that as such it was suitable for inclusion in the world history curriculum of our nation's elementary public schools. I didn't get as many objections from GNXP readers on this score as I was expecting, particularly in light of my suggestion that it was suitable for elementary school children. So let me say what I think the major weakness in my argument is, so far: it is lacking in empirical support. I supplied a metaphorical interpretation of the story, which, however persuasive as a piece of rhetoric (and let's admit, it was persuasive) does not set it apart from a thousand other fanciful readings of the text, supplied by theologians, psychologists, self-help gurus, lay preachers, and the certifiably insane. For my argument to be taken seriously, I am going to have to establish it on empirical grounds, in the form of a falsifiable proposition, which either is or is not supported by the bulk of the historical evidence that is relevant to the question.

Or to break it down further, if I am going to convince a majority of people of reasonable intelligence -- including, eventually, a majority of justices in various courts of law -- of the validity of this interpretation, there are three things I have got to accomplish:

First, I will have to show that there is in fact a highly improbable historical coincidence here that stands in need of explanation. This comes down, in my judgment, to supplying the evidence to support my contention that the first conquest in history actually did occur somewhere in Mesopotamia in the early 4th millennium BCE, which is where the story in Genesis is set. I'll come back to this question in a moment.

My second task is to show there is a plausible possibility that the story of Adam and Eve, assuming it did originate in the 4th millennium BCE, could have survived intact in oral tradition for roughly three thousand years, before being reduced to writing (which, scholars believe, occurred sometime around 1000 BCE). This turns out to be the easiest of my three tasks, surprisingly, so let me dispose of it quickly.

Prof. Glyn Daniel -- the same University of Cambridge archeologist whom I cited previously for his coinage of the term sinoecism, denoting "the union of two or more independent villages under a single head" -- has also documented the survival of a more-than-three-thousand-year-old oral tradition in the Hindu religion, transmitting what later turned out to be accurate descriptions of the people, cities, and arts of northern India at the time of the Aryan invasion in the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. The information was contained in the sacred Aryan hymns of the Brahmin caste, which, according to Prof. Daniel, were not written down until the 18th century A.D. during the time of British rule in India. For more than a hundred years after that they remained the only written clue that there had ever been a civilization in India prior to the Aryan arrival; and, indeed, it wasn't until the 20th century that the remains of the first cities of the so-called Harrapan civilization were uncovered by archeologists, at which point the essential accuracy of the information in the hymns was confirmed.

Well, it is a simple matter to argue that if happened once, then it could happen twice. Nor is it perhaps entirely a matter of coincidence that in both cases we are dealing with sacred literature. The major difference is that whereas the Indian tradition contains miscellaneous data about the physical appearance, wealth, arts, etc., of a forgotten civilization, the Adam and Eve material takes the memorably artful form of what (I think most everyone would agree) is one of the most charming folktales in world literature. If anything, the story of Adam and Eve would seem to be better calculated to survive the ravages of time and the hazards of oral transmission. So unless Prof. Daniel can be shown to have been mistaken as to when the Vedic hymns were first written down, I rest this part of my case.

The third task I have to accomplish is more difficult; indeed, on its face, it would seem close to impossible. Somehow or other, using only evidence that is internal to the document itself, I have got to establish an empirical link between the text as we have it in Genesis, and a specific historical event which may (or may not) have occurred in Mesopotamia sometime in the early 4th millennium BCE. What makes this an especially difficult thing to do, is the fact that the only two obvious connections -- the references to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the genealogies in Genesis which link Adam to later historical figures -- are neither of them part of the story of Adam and Eve proper. The river references, in particular, occur in a passage which has quite obviously been interpolated into the original body of the text well after it had been reduced to writing. The abrupt change in style is only too apparent -- even in translation, and to the untutored eye -- to come to any other conclusion. So we might as well dispense with that evidence right off the bat.

A similar view can be taken with regard to the genealogical tables in Genesis that link Adam to Abraham, even though these genealogies are the means by which the Jewish calendar has traditionally been reckoned; to say nothing of the fact that they are also the basis on which Bishop Butler made his famous calculation of the day of Creation as occurring in the year 4004 BCE. Granted, it is not altogether beside the point that the West Semitic tribes who roamed southwest Asia in ancient times, were known for the importance they attached to their genealogies (see, e.g., George Roux). But even so, any relevance that these genealogies may have, bears a lot more on the credence we can place in the integrity and continuity of Semitic oral tradition, than on the dating of the time of composition of the story itself. For that reason I don't intend to make any further use of them.

Well, then, at this point, if I were a betting man and knew nothing more about it, I would be inclined to say that the odds were pretty slim of my being able to persuade a majority of GNXP regulars -- an intelligent and skeptical bunch, if ever there was one -- that I have been able to successfully surmount this third and final challenge. On the other hand, knowing what I do (or think I do), if there is anyone out there on the web who would be willing to give me ten-to-one odds, then I just might make an exception in this particular case, and risk a few of my (wife's) hard earned dollars on a serious wager, if only to make a point. Godless, would you hold the money?

But enough of such tactics. It is time to get back to task number one: fixing the time and the place of the first conquest in history. Has anyone ever had the temerity to actually propose the site of such a momentous, world-shattering event? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, within certain broad limits, one man has; his name was Gordon Childe, and he is generally regarded (by his colleagues at any rate) to have been the greatest interpretive archeologist in the history of that discipline. (He was the guy, for example, who originally formulated the concepts of the Neolithic and the Urban revolutions.) In middle of the last century, in a general survey of the archeological record as it then existed, Childe drew attention to the stratigraphic evidence at some sites in northern Mesopotamia where two cultures met: below were the broken shards and other material debris associated with the Halafian culture, known for the unusual beauty and refinement of its pottery ware. Above were the remains of a much less sophisticated culture known as the Ubaid. Childe pointed to something unusual about this particular stratigraphic boundary: whereas normally one culture gave way to another completely, indicating the total replacement of one people by another, in this case the Halafian culture did not disappear, but continued to exist along side of, and in intermixture with, a much smaller amount of Ubaidian material. Childe interpreted this, along with the introduction of certain Ubaidian features in local architecture and building styles, as evidence that a conquest had taken place, with a relatively small number of Ubaidians controlling a larger population of Halafians. Unfortunately Childe's hypothesis has never been confirmed nor disconfirmed, owing to a dearth of new archeological digs in Iraq, caused by the unfavorable political situation. In particular, no one has yet discovered any Ubaid burials at those sites, which, if they could be shown to contain weapons or other royal insignia, would be strong evidence in favor of Childe's claim.

But no matter. Even if we cannot establish Childe's hypothesis at present, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence which indicate that the first conquests in history occurred somewhere in the general vicinity -- ie, in northern Mesopotamia, sometime in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE -- though it might have been a little later in the Ubaid period, or even later in the early Uruk. We see it not only in the multiple appearance of walled cities around this time, but also in the abundant imagery of warfare and captivity -- including large-scale scenes of corporal punishment being administered to civilians -- found on the cylinder seals that start showing up in the archeological record in northern Mesopotamia. (Some good pictures can be found here.)

To avoid confusion, readers need to keep in mind that while Sumer, or southern Mesopotamia, is famous as the locus of the first fully developed civilization in history, there is reason to believe that the first conquests in history actually occurred slightly to the north of Sumer, in which case the development of Sumer itself can be understood as one of those defensive reactions I described in my previous post, occasioned by threats of conquest which were perceived to be coming from Sumer's neighbors to the north. This would help explain, for example, why in the earliest Sumerian written records there are references to town councils and other relatively egalitarian social institutions; in time, however, the requirements of defense, including the maintenance of full-time professional armies, caused the collective security states in the south to become virtually indistinguishable from the more aggressive military states, to the north, and in the case of the peasantry, completely indistinguishable.

Two minor notes: because Mesopotamian developments were a couple of hundred years ahead of similar developments in Egypt, and given the extensive cultural contacts that are known to have existed between these two regions from the earliest periods on, it is generally assumed that the direction of causation ran from east to west and not the other way; in other words, the Egyptians may have gotten the idea of conquest from the Mesopotamians. It is likewise possible that the civilization which arose slightly later than Sumer and Egypt in the Indus Valley was in response to observations of what happened in Sumer and beyond, which could have been communicated via trade contacts that ran up through the Persian Gulf. This might explain the relative egalitarian features of the so-called Harrapan civilization, for example (if, indeed, those features prove to be genuine). Harrapan civilization, in other words, might be understood as an example of a voluntary defensive formation that did not succumb to internal corruption at the hands of its military elites, because it was not subject to relentless military pressure from overland assault, the way Sumer was. But eventually, of course, this peaceful civilization (if such it was) fell like all the rest, at the hands of Aryan invaders from the north.


I have now reached the point where I cannot put off much longer my third and final task. Readers may choose not to believe me, therefore, when I say I have no wish to keep any of you in suspense. But in fairness, I think I ought to wait at least a few days to see if anybody out there on the web is going to take me up on my wager. Like everybody else who contributes to this blog, I've never earned a penny for my thoughts; it would be nice for a change -- at least my wife would think so -- if I could show a little something for all those countless years she's had to put up with me reading my books and staring off into space. On the other hand, if I should lose this bet . . . well, let's just hope she doesn't ask for a divorce; because, truth to tell, I can't live without her, and she knows it full well.

(to be continued, with one final installment)

Posted by lukelea at 09:57 PM