What was the world like before the hunter-gatherers started to settle down? Christians tend to give little thought to this idea because they assume that the timeframe between Eden and civilization was very brief. But what if it was not?
I am aware that some of the ideas we present here might be a little controversial, so allow me a brief disclaimer. This is not a rejection of the literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis. There is no archaeological evidence to prove or disprove the literal interpretation of the Genesis record.
All the same, a literal reading of the Genesis record may allow for different interpretations. There is no reason to assume that the original audience of Genesis would have understood Adam and Eve to be literal individuals. The potential for alternative interpretations does exist and we are remiss not to explore them.
Consider for a moment what we know about hunter-gatherers in the ancient world.
- They live in broad ranges with very low population densities
- They live off the land, consuming whatever is available to them
- If they live in an environment with sufficient, available produce they generally make it their staple, supplemented with some hunting.
It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see Adam and Eve in the role of hunter-gatherers. They would be idealized templates for the hunter-gather, but they can be considered hunter-gatherers nonetheless. It is not hard to see them as possibly historical figures, nor is it any more difficult to see them as archetypes. They present us with a glimpse into the beginning of the end of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers in southwest Asia.
What Did Adam and Eve Eat?
Adam and Eve live off the land – which YHWH has designed to provide for them. They apparently have no need to consume animal flesh for protein. We can assume one of two things – either the need for protein was born from original sin (the theology-centric perspective) or they got their protein from pulses that grew wild. We know from archeological research that the naturally occurring flora of southwest Asia included lentils and other pulses, beside the prevalent cereal crops.
What is absent from the staple diet of the early settled inhabitants of southwest Asia is, ironically in this case, fruit. We know that there were wild apples, grapes, and figs in the region but they were among the last plants to be domesticated – some were not domesticated until the Middle Ages. This does not mean that the archetypical hunter-gatherers would not have eaten them, simply that the complexity of domesticating fruit trees did not present a necessary challenge to them. They allowed them to run wild.
Plants of the Field
One of the most interesting passages in the Adam and Eve cycle appears early in it.
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— [Genesis 2:5-6, ESV]
Why is this so interesting? Some people take this to indicate that man was created before vegetation, but that is a modern, critical reading. The phrase “there was no man to work the ground” is a clue. This passage points to the era of hunter-gatherers. The “plant of the field” and “bush of the field” are not inclusive of all vegetation. They indicate domesticated plants. The words for plant and bush could apply to wild or domesticated crops, but the Hebrew word translated as field is sadeh – a cultivated field. It is the qualifier that makes them domesticated.
So what we are reading is a reference to pre-domestication. Adam and Eve are archetypes of hunter-gatherers living off the land without cultivating it.
This ties into what we have already discussed about Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer of the land, just as his father, Adam was cursed to be. They are the domesticators of the cereal and pulse crops necessary to sustain established existence.
The Trees of the Garden
The most famous thing about Adam and Eve is that they ate fruit from a forbidden tree. Let’s leave aside the issue of the fruit and sin for the moment and just consider this from a historical perspective.
Trees require massive amounts of water, which is found either in regions with extensive drainage systems or areas under irrigation. Southwest Asia, as far back as 10,000 BCE, was not an immensely well-irrigated area. Trees would have grown near rivers.
In fact, Genesis 2 makes it clear that the Garden was in the east of Eden and given the geographical references in the same chapter, Eden was what we know today as the Middle East or southwest Asia. So, the Garden is a reference to the fertility of this region and the trees are an indication that the region was close to rivers.
We have hunter-gatherers living in a region they (or their near descendants) consider a garden. The word for garden itself has altered meaning because of its appearance here, but it is a very old word and probably means a region of self-sustaining fertility.
These hunter-gatherers prosper in the garden, but ultimately they are cast out of it. They leave the Garden and wonder to the east – again, mentioned in the Genesis record (Gen 4:24). Once expelled, they no longer eat from the trees but become “tillers of the ground” which means they cultivate the “bush of the field” and “plant of the field” rather than trees.
This is precisely what we find in archaeological digs in the region. The earliest farmers cultivated wheat and pulses, but no fruit. They ate fruit from time to time when they encountered it in the wild, but did not domesticate it. Even the grape was not domesticated until 3500-3000 BCE, after wheat and lentils.
Why Make Archetypes from the Hunter-Gatherers
The biggest question mark surrounding this idea of Adam and Eve as early hunter-gatherers is why the ancient cultures would have needed to produce such an archetype. (The absurdity of the story actually might suggest its historicity, at least in some ways. More on this later, but suffice to say that often the more illogical something in the Bible is, the more likely it passed down to us relatively unaltered.)
In reading the narratives that follow, it is clear that the “civilized” men who produced Genesis lived in a culture that longed for the simplicity of their ancient hunter-gatherer past. As hunter-gatherers, they were closer to YHWH than people seem to be able to get in their societies. These recollections make Adam and Eve the ideals of harmony with Creator and creation. The same may still be true today. People still talk about how much closer to God they feel when they are surrounded by nature.
Once again, I want to remind the reader that this is not a denial of the existence of actual people named Adam and Eve or a rejection of the idea that they were divinely created. It is simply a consideration that the Adam and Eve cycle also encompasses the modern archaeological research of the Neolithic-Bronze Age horizon.