Monday, 10 February 2014

800,000 footprints discovered in Norfolk, UK

Via the ABC:

Footprints left by ancient humans 800,000 years ago have been found in Britain, the earliest evidence of such markings outside Africa. 
Researchers discovered the footprints, which were left by both adults and children, in ancient estuary mud at Happisburgh in Norfolk in eastern England. 
The only older footprints found so far are at Laetoli in Tanzania, at about 3.5 million years old, and at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya at about 1.5 million years, researchers said. 
"This is an extraordinarily rare discovery," Nick Ashton of the British Museum, who led the research team, said. 
The find came at an archaeological site that has yielded several previous discoveries of stone tools and fossil bones, including mammoth remains. 
The researchers found the prints at low tide when waves washed away much of the beach sand to expose the silt below. 
"At first we weren't sure what we were seeing but as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, perhaps human footprints, and that we needed to record the surface as quickly as possible before the sea eroded it away," Dr Ashton said. 
The group of early humans that left the footprints appeared to have consisted of at least one male and several smaller people believed to be females and youngsters, the researchers said. 
"They are clearly a family group rather than a hunting party," Dr Ashton said.

Footprints from  Norfolk. Image source: British Museum

As anatomically modern human fossils are dated no earlier than 195,000 years ago, these footprints area not from Homo sapiens, and most likely come from an earlier species, Homo antecessor. Yet again we have more evidence that human-like creatures predated the earliest possible date for a historical Adam. [1] 

Evolution denialism of course is theological in nature, with the alleged scientific difficulties dredged up to provide a scientific veneer to camouflage the sectarian justification for denying evolution. The main theological reason for evolution denialism is that it destroys original sin, which is contingent on the entire human race descending exclusively from Adam and Eve in order to inherit the guilt and consequence of Adam's sin. [2] Protecting monogenism is arguably the main reason for rejecting evolution, but as evangelical scholar Davis young observed, even if we argue that the human fossils (and by human, I am broadly lumping most of the members of the genus Homo together as some evolution denialists do) owe their origin to special creation, there are still major problems for Original Sin:
What intrigues me, however, is that most evangelical Christians seem to be unaware that a rejection of the idea of human evolution and an insistence on a non-evolutionary creation of the human race do not thereby adequately protect biblical anthropology from possible erosion. Even on the presumption of the special creation of humanity there is other scientific evidence that has the potential for affecting our understanding of the doctrine of original sin...Christian scholars in general and theologians in particular seem poorly informed about the pertinent extra-biblical evidence and its implications for Christian theology.  [3]
Young correctly notes that there are three possible conservative readings of the data:

1. Recent creation of Adam and monogenism
2. Recent creation of Adam and polygenism
3. Ancient creation of Adam and monogenism

The first option is immediately ruled out by the scientific evidence as the fossil evidence for anatomically modern man predates the earliest possible date for Adam by around 180,000 years. To this one can add the fact that there is no evidence of a razor-sharp genetic bottleneck as one would expect from universal human descent from two people created 6000 years ago.

The third option runs into problems because any attempt to place Gen 4 in history makes it impossible to locate it any earlier than around 10,000 years ago given that animal and plant domestication took place in the ANE around this time. Attempts to make the Adam of Gen 4 different from the Adam of Gen 1-3 are decidedly forced, to say the least. 

The third option is consistent with the scientific evidence, and given that Gen 4 alludes to the existence of human beings other than Adam's immediate family, is actually easier to reconcile with the Biblical data than the fundamentalist reading, as anyone who has ever been asked by a perceptive 8 year old where Cain obtained his wife will attest.

The main problem with the third option is theological. Young notes three problems with this view:
First, some biblical texts imply that Adam and Eve were the first biological ancestors of the race, and proponents need to provide convincing alternative exegeses of such texts. For example, Acts 17:26 speaks of God having made all nations from one. Though Adam is not specifically named in that text, conservatives have traditionally interpreted the text as referring to Adam. Does the text allow for having all humans biologically descended from "one" who pre-dated a representative Adam? In Genesis 3:20 Eve is called the mother of all living. The text has traditionally been interpreted by conservatives to teach that Eve is the biological ancestor of all humans. But does it teach that any more than it teaches that she is the biological ancestor of all living things? Is Eve perhaps the mother of the living in the sense in which Jabal was the father of cattlemen and Jubal was the father of all who make music?
Second, proponents of this position need to convince us on biblical grounds that biological inheritance is not a necessary component of the biblical view of original sin. And, if it is decided that transmission is essential, is it necessary that our fallen nature be inherited directly from only one person? Is it legitimate to argue, assuming the imputation of Adam's sin to all his contemporaries and all subsequent humanity, that a sinful nature would be transmitted to their descendants from all of Adam's contemporaries once they were declared sinners?
A third theological problem concerns the status of those anatomically modern humans who lived prior to Adam. If God entered into a new relationship with humans around 10,000 years ago through a representative, Adam, then would it not follow that the pre-Adamic humans were not image-bearers of God? But then what do we make of the intimations of religious belief from ancient art and burials? Is it legitimate to consider Adam serving as a representative for those who preceded him in the same sense that Christ represented people who lived before his time? Can humans be image-bearers of God before the new relationship was established? And if Adam's predecessors are constituted sinners retroactively by virtue of Adam's rebellion, then were they also actual sinners? And if actual sinners, would there not have been an earlier fall? Otherwise would not God have created them as sinners in a sinful condition? There is much to work out for proponents of this second approach.
As Young says, there is much for proponents of this option to consider, and I am never going to insist that my approach is a complete, final solution. However, at least two of Young's problems are readily solved. The reference to Acts 17:26 is not the clobber text that evolution denialists think it is. The verse does not say that God made the world from one man or from one blood. What it says, as recent translations note is that God made from one every nation of the earth. One can just as readily say that this is evidence that all humans come from the same species, as opposed to a crude form of polygenism which argued for separate ancestry for Greeks and barbarians.

It is critical to remember that this address was given to  Greeks who did not share Paul's OT background, so any reference to Adam would have gone completely over their heads. A careful examination of Paul's address confirms that he was not making any overt Biblical allusions, but was making free reference to Greek writers:
  • "…though he is not far from each one of us" alludes to ‘With him, with Zeus, are filled all paths we tread, and all the marts of men; Filled, too, the sea, and every creek and bay’ from ‘Phaenomena', the work of  4th century BCE Greek astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus
  • "…for in him we live and move and have our being" is a quote from 'Cretica', the work of Epimenides of Knossos, from the 6th century BCE
  • "…for we too are his offspring" quotes from 'Phaenomena', the 3rd century BCE work of Aratus
Paul's aim is not to prove that every human being descends from Adam, but rather to disabuse the Greeks of the idea that Greeks had separate ancestry from the barbarians, and that all were ultimately of one racial stock. Echoes of this can be seen in Galatians 3 where Paul emphasises that national distinctions are irrelevant as all are one in Christ. This unity of Jew and gentile does not demand universal descent from a single man, but a recognition that all are ultimately of the same stock. 

The second point - the need for universal human descent to inherit Original Sin presupposes that Original Sin is a Biblical theology, and there is strong evidence that this is not the case. A careful examination of the pre-Augustinian Christian literature shows that Original Sin as formulated by Augustine was alien to these writers. Furthermore, the interpretation of Romans 5:12 which reads "in whom all have sinned" is based on the flawed Old Latin. Catholic theologian Jack Mahoney notes that:
Augustine and others, including the council fathers at Trent, relying on the Old Latin translation, took [eph’ hō] mean in Latin in quo, or “in whom,” with the clear implication that everyone had sinned in Adam. Most exegetes today understand this phrase as using the common Greek preposition epi to imply succession rather than inclusion, thus giving the meaning “since when” all have sinned rather than “in whom” all have sinned. We must conclude that if this is the original Pauline meaning, it removes from divine revelation any reference to Adam’s descendants being incorporated in solidarity “in him” (in quo), and as a result it dispenses with the conclusion that the whole of succeeding humanity has been condemned en masse as a sort of “condemned mass in Adam,” as Augustine and others explained. [4]
As Original Sin owes much to Augustine and his use of the flawed Old Latin text of Romans 5v12, and little to Pauline theology, this objection to Young's second option vanished. 

Ideally, this should not be news for us as our community has traditionally rejected Original Sin, and the idea that physical death was introduced into the world only after Adam's sin. John Thomas, writing in 1855 noted that the fact of death and decay as a natural part of creation was...
"...implied in the placing of the earth in such a position with respect to the sun, moon, and stars, that there should be a diversity of seasons, &.c. Thus, fall and winter, seasons of decay and death, were institutions existing before the Fall; and presented to Adam and Eve phenomena illustrative of the existence in the physical system of a principle of corruption, the extent of which, however, they might not have been fully apprized of… 
"Death and corruption, then, with reproduction, the characteristic of spring and summer, is the fundamental law of the physical system of the Six Days. Adam and Eve, and all the other animals born of the earth with themselves, would have died and gone to corruption, if there had been no transgression, provided that there had been no further interference with the physical system than Moses records in his history of the Six Day." [5]

We are well placed then theologically to avoid the sort of problems that are wracking the Evangelical world, and it is a source of no little frustration to see many in our community ignore this fact.


1. Animal and plant domestication in the ancient Near East dates back no earlier than around 10,000 years ago. For those who argue that the events in Genesis 4 can be correlated with the history of the ANE, this means that Gen 4, which refers to domesticated animals and plants cannot date back earlier than 10,000 years. 
2. There are good theological reasons for rejecting Original Sin. As Jack Mahoney notes, "[The council of] Trent’s insistence that Adam’s original sin was transmitted among all subsequent human beings by propagation, or by generation, rather than simply by imitation (which Pelagius was considered to have maintained) was clearly due more to the theological polemic of Saint Augustine against Pelagius and his supporters than to Paul’s writing centuries earlier. The Council of Trent’s teaching on original sin (DS 1512) appealed to the sixth-century Second Council of Orange, which itself drew explicitly on Augustine’s views on original sin, including his quotation and his understanding of what he considered Paul’s in quo and what he considered its implications (DS 371–72; Catechism no. 406)" See "Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration" (2011: Georgetown University Press)
3. Young, DA "The Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race Revisited" Christian Scholar's Review (1995) 24:380-396
4. Mahoney J "Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration" (2011: Georgetown University Press)
5. Thomas J ‘Our Terrestrial System Before the Fall’, The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come (1855) 5:159