The oldest known sin

Phil Whittall reminds us that

we are stewards and caretakers of the earth. It’s the height of arrogance to think that a generation can destroy, consume the world and leave future generations to deal with the consequences.

Indeed! But a recent BBC article shows that human beings have been destroying their environment for at least 43,000 years, when our ancestors caused the extinction of many of the large animals of Tasmania. (Well, actually these early Tasmanians are probably the ancestors of no one alive today as ironically their distinct race has now become extinct, much more recently when we British allowed it so that we could use their island as a prison.) So the oldest known sin is not that of the proverbial “oldest profession”. It might be idolatry, but the earliest undisputed images of religious significance are somewhat later, from the Upper Palaeolithic. So it seems quite likely that the oldest human sin for which there is now any evidence is causing environmental change and the extinction of species.

These extinctions in Tasmania are by no means uncharacteristic. Rather they are among the earliest examples in what is known as the Quaternary Extinction Event, which has involved the loss of the vast majority of the large mammal genera in North and South America and Australia, as well as a significant number in Eurasia including the mammoth. Many reptiles and flightless birds have also died out. Such extinctions have continued into quite recent times, with the loss of birds such as the dodo.

The causes of these extinctions are controversial. But in very many cases there is a clear link in time to the arrival of the first humans. The new evidence from Tasmania confirms this link in time there also. It seems highly probable that in most if not all of these cases the species were hunted to extinction by humans.

Sadly this extinction event is continuing. Some of the surviving large land mammals are under threat from human activities, although now more from loss of habitat than from hunting. Meanwhile fish and marine mammals are now being hunted in unsustainable ways which put them in serious danger of extinction.

Does this have any theological significance? Can this historical evidence of the first sin be related to the biblical account of the first sin, Adam and Eve taking the apple, and the consequent Fall?

First of all, in accepting datings as old as this I have effectively rejected the young earth creationist position that no events happened more than 6,000 or perhaps 10,000 years ago. My position is to accept that the accounts given by scientists of ancient events are broadly accurate, although their explanations of these events may not be. (I use “event” here in a very broad sense of anything that has happened in the past.) I am more or less what is called a theistic evolutionist, but my account here is also compatible with ancient earth creationism. I don’t need to go into this in detail here.

On any explanation of the past there must have been a time when humans first became conscious and spiritually aware, whether this happened gradually through evolutionary processes (although I don’t think evolutionists have offered any convincing explanations of this one) or in some sudden way. If we accept that animals do not have the capacity of choosing to sin but humans do, there must have been a first man or woman to have this capacity, and there must have been a first man or woman, no earlier but possibly much later, who actually did choose to sin. In this sense there must actually have been an Adam or an Eve.

And the new evidence from the BBC suggests that that first sin must have taken place at least 43,000 years ago, as by that period humans were already showing selfishness and disobedience by hunting their prey to extinction – interestingly something which is very rare among animals, except for introduced species for which humans are so often responsible.

Sin is common to all humans, including aboriginal Australians and Tasmanians who were almost completely isolated from other human populations for up to 50,000 years before the late 17th century. This strongly suggests that this first sin predates that period of isolation. According to some scientists, the worldwide dispersal of modern humans followed a “great leap forward” to behavioural modernity which took place about 50,000 years ago, probably in their original homeland of Africa. Perhaps what scientists call a leap forward is much the same as what theologians call the Fall.

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