Look at a world map. Except for the uninhabited poles, every continent on planet Earth has several Flood Myths. And this stems back thousands of years, effectively as far back as we have recorded history. Even Australia’s Aborigines tribes speak of a deluge. The Indian subcontinent has its fair share. Africa? Yep. So do Europeans and the British islands. North, Central and South Americas have a gang of flood accounts too. China is no different. By the way, as a point of interest the word for “boat” in Chinese is made up of the characters for “vessel,” “eight” and “mouths/persons.” Funny thing is, the first boat mentioned in Genesis is the vessel of Noah’s Ark with a total of 8 mouths on board.
And of course all the Middle East empires are riddled with Flood stories. Although there are differences between these worldwide accounts of a deluge, there is also a remarkable similarity. There is always a massive flooding that kills all or most of humanity. There is almost always a boat of some sort and a hero (or heroes) that survive(s) the epic tragedy. If you’ve ever played the telephone game you can appreciate how distortion sets in when you pass a story along. If Noah’s flood story is historical, it would make sense that as humanity repopulated and migrated they would have passed along the account of the deluge and errors would have settled in over time.
WHEN DID THE FLOOD OCCUR?
Are there any clues as to the timing of a massive flood wiping out all or most of humanity?
Clues yes. Exact dates? No.
Biblical records (especially Old Testament passages) are filled with precise and long lists of ancestral lines. Sometimes these are lists of leaders and their families that were involved in particular events (like in Nehemiah’s record of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall). At other times they are straight forward family lines. Many Christian scholars have attempted to use the family lineages to determine exactly when biblical events occurred.
Back in 1650, Irish archbishop James Ussher, used the biblical genealogies to detail a timeline for all the events in the Bible. According to Ussher’s chronology, Adam and Eve were created in the year 4,004 BC. In order to conclude this he worked backwards from Abraham using the list of ancestors given in Genesis 5 and 11. Yet, is this the only way of interpreting biblical usage of genealogies? After all, when we say “my dad was ____ and his dad was ____” we are talking about single generation gaps. Is this always how we should read the biblical genealogical lists?
The short answer is: no.
When the bible says “____ was the father of ____” we have to keep in mind that the Hebrew has no specific word to define whether someone is a father, grandfather, great grandfather, etc. The word “ab” is used in all instances. Likewise “ben” is used for son, grandson or great grandson. In other words, in some cases we may not be dealing with single generation gaps, but ancestral leaps. Jesus said that the Jews had “Abraham as your father,” yet he had been dead for 2,000 years. Another example is that Matthew starts his Gospel with “Jesus, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Obviously a shortened (or telescoped) account of Jesus’ ancestry.
Often when we compare the same ancestral lines from two different sections of the Bible we see that some lists are abbreviated to highlight only the figures they felt were important. For example, Matthew 1:8 says that Jehoram is the “father” of Uzziah. Yet if we look at 2 Chronicles 22:1, 22:11 and 24:27 we see that Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah come between Jehoram and Uzziah.
Another example is 1 Chronicles 6:3-15 which contains the descendants of Aaron all the way down to Jehozadak. Yet Ezra chapter 7 lists Ezra’s own genealogy going back to Aaron and we see that the 1 Chronicles’ list contains 22 names compared to Ezra’ 16 names for the same genealogy. Making Ezra no more than 70% complete.
Further, if you compare the lists in Ruth, 1 Chronicles 2, Matthew 1 and Luke 3. From these we see another stark example of how biblical genealogies are typically abbreviated. The genealogy of David in Ruth and 1 Chronicles has ten names from Perez to David. The remaining 2 genealogies (Matt and Luke) also have these 10 names but also include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah as the “direct” ancestors of Perez to round out the genealogy to 14 names (a commonly used number in Jewish ancestral lists). However, the time between Abraham and David spans more than 1,000 years. Far too much time to be accounted for by only a 13 member direct father-to-son list. This makes the genealogy only about 20 to 50% complete.
Now that we have firmly established how regularly Old Testament ancestral lists were purposely abbreviated we can look at the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies and tackle a different problem. Because the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies are structured in such a way as to imply single generation gaps, many interpreters hesitate to view these ancestral lists as abbreviated. The formula for Genesis 5 and 11’s ancestry is:
“When _______ was ______ years old, he became the father of _______.”
Yet, this would put only a few thousand years between Adam (creation of man) and Abraham. We can safely place Abraham about 1,200 years before King David’s life time of approximately 1,000 B.C. so the first humans would have emerged well before 6,000 years ago. Unfortunately, there is no doubt that the modern human species emerged no later than 40 to 50,000 years ago (and perhaps as long as 100,000 years ago or more). And 6,000 years ago humans had already migrated to every continent on Earth.
So what is one to do?
Well, let us look at our options. Remember that the term “father” in the Hebrew can simply mean “ancestor,” and that it is the rule — not the exception — for biblical genealogies to be abbreviated and incomplete. A possible interpretation of the Genesis 5 and 11 ancestral lists would be to view them as stating at what age the father birthed the son whose family line eventually ended up giving us the next name in the list. Let us look at Shelah and his “son” (or great great great grandson) Eber using this interpretation:
By using this type of “lengthening” of the Genesis genealogies we can solve the problem of having Noah only a thousand years before Abraham. Remember that a similar style of genealogy exists in Exodus 6:16-20 to delineate Moses and Aaron’s ancestors. The list states that Levi has a son named Kohath who in turn has a son named Amram. Amram then has Moses and Aaron. Seems straightforward. And just like in the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies, we are told the ages at which each of the ancestors of Moses died. Yet, as the diagram below shows, this “direct” father-to-son list has to have been abbreviated and cannot be complete.
Moses would have been born 350 years after Jacob and his sons arrived in Egypt. Levi was already fully grown and so the 350 years cannot be accounted for by just two of his sons. So here we see that even if a genealogy is similar to the Genesis 5 and 11 style it is not necessarily exhaustive.
At this point we have to admit that we cannot directly calculate the timing of either Adam’s creation or Noah’s Flood based solely on the biblical genealogies. It is time therefore to dip into anthropology for some clues.
Using genetics, paleontology and archaeology, we try and piece together clues regarding human origins. Where did the human race get its start? When? What were they like? These are the questions grasped at by anthropologists and the Christian thinker needs to know the basics of the landscape.
Markers in human DNA can uncover details about our human history that go back earlier than our written records. Keep in mind that not all genetic studies have high degrees of accuracy or certainty. Unlike radiometric decay rates in atoms, DNA mutations are not occurring on a strict, systematic timeline. Environmental pressures (famine, drought, etc), disease and other factors can increase or slow down the changes seen in human genetics in a random, unpredictable way. So determining how many times a line of DNA has been replicated is not without its large error margins and educated guess work. However, what gene studies are quite good for is to trace the movement of human migration. Using DNA markers we can fairly accurately conclude where people groups last split off from and so draw a picture map of where and when human populations migrated.
Mitochondrial DNA & Mitochondrial Eve
Mitochondria inside our cells have their own chunks of DNA that are almost exclusively passed on by the mother to children (of either sex). Geneticists have been therefore able to estimate the date of the first female’s appearance to about 157,000 ± 40,000 years ago (1). This means that the actual appearance of what is called “mitochondrial Eve” could be as early as 197,000 years ago or as late as 117,000 years ago. We have an 80,000 year error margin according to the latest estimate. Earlier estimates placed “mitochondrial Eve” at 300,000 years ago. So you can appreciate the lack of precision involved in dating mitochondrial DNA and therefore placing the first female human on the historical timeline is based on an estimate of how fast or slow mutations occurred over tens of thousands of years. Something which is not directly observable or provable.
Y-chromosomes and Y-chromosomal Adam
Being a biological woman your mom only has the XX sex genes so if you are a dude, you can only thank your dad for that Y chromosome. As a result of the male-only history of this Y shaped DNA, researchers have been seeking to find a date for what they call “Y-chromosomal Adam.” That is, the first ever human male. Some of the more recent studies estimate his arrival around 142,000 ± 16,000 and between 101,000 and 115,000 years ago, respectively (2). Which harmonizes with the estimated dates of mitochondrial Eve. Yet the mutation rates for both these first humans is based heavily on theories and not strictly on observable mechanisms. Several factors effect mutations in the genes and the wide variety of estimates for Adam (some have placed him at the 500,000 and 210,000 year marks!) show the instability of the DNA dating construct. The similarity between mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam are in part due to using the same estimates on molecular mutation rates and applying them to both DNA regions.
Most paleontologists working on human remains work with teeth and skull fragments. Long bones also typically come in fragments. Most sites provide specimens that are less than 20% complete. But when skulls are 50% or more complete, we can get a clue as to where on the hominid spectrum they belong. We know that if a brain case is too small, or a brow ridge too big and a protruding jaw too huge and a face too flat, we are not dealing with what is commonly referred to as anatomically modern humans (i.e.: homo sapien sapiens).
As straight forward as this seems, skull reconstruction is not without its guess work as almost never do we have a complete skull specimen. Further complicating this process is that often, little knowledge exist of their body plans. Remember that many earlier hominid fossils of the australopithecines (human-like hominid that is not in our Genus on the taxonomy chart) had its remains placed in enough different positions that it remained controversial whether or not it walked upright or on all fours. Also, some marsupial remains are so dog-like that they have been misidentified in the past. Yet they are not even in the same Order (again, the taxonomy chart) as canines (e.g.: kangaroos are marsupials). Their physiology is drasctically different even if their body plan is similar.
Yet, some skulls are very similar to modern humans and the landscape of the findings should be known. (the following descriptions of skull findings are abbreviated from BioLogos’s website):
Excavated in 1967 at the Omo Kibish site in southern Ethiopia, it has been dated between 120,000 to 130,000 years ago using uranium/thorium dating. Another more recent date assigned to it is 195,000 ago by argon/argon dating (McDougall, Brown, & Fleagle, 2005). Note the large variation in dating (60,000 or more years) and the picture placed here. The bronze colored patches are the recreations of the actual remains whereas the blue/gray portions forming most of the face and frontal skull represent guesswork on the part of those reconstructing the specimen.
The Israeli sites of Skhul and Qafzeh were excavated in the early 1930s. About 10 individuals are believed to be involved in this find (remember the rule: piles of fragments needed to be ordered and reconstructed). From Biologos: “Three skulls (IV, V and IX) from Skhul are complete enough to study and show a mixed pattern of relationships. Electron Paramagnetic Resonance dates of between 100 and 110 thousand years before the present (ky BP) have been established for the habitation layers at this site.”
So, as you can see, there is still some tenuous aspects to determining if these skulls are indeed those of modern human beings and if so, what dates to attribute to them. However, there is a consistency to placing them in the 100,000 to 200,000 year hash marks. Combine this with the similar range arrived at with molecular anthropology and we have some noteworthy convergence from two different and unrelated disciplines. Yet do not forget the flaws, error margins and uncertainties of both dating the fossils and estimating the age of human DNA.
By digging up artifacts such as tools, utensils, drawings and clothes, scientists can determine when human activity began in earnest. As of today, the phenomenon known by secular anthropologists as the “Cultural Big Bang” is dated to about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Europe and the middle east show a huge and sudden appearance of the type of artifacts that can only come from the type of mind that is unique to humans. Musical instruments, weapons, currency, jewelry, art and other manufactured goods are not attributable to any other hominid or member of the Animal Kingdom. Considering the biblical genealogies and the approximate limit to which they can be stretched back, this is a comfortable match between the archaeology and Scriptural records.
In the past few years a series of caves in South African were found to contain artifacts that show modern human activity and abilities. Ostrich eggs with engravings on them, rocks with engravings, shells apparently punctured to thread them into a necklace and microlith blades obviously sharpened to form arrow or spear points were the more stark findings in these caves (see below).
Recently, the dating of the sediment layers in the caves that accompany the artifacts in question place their age between 71,000 and 55,000 years ago (3). Radioluminescence dating was used to achieve these numbers. Unlike radiocarbon or other atomic decay dating methods, radioluminescence is the least trustworthy. Because heat or light exposure resets the “clock” for radioluminescence techniques, the effectiveness of this method is far below that of carbon dating or argon/argon dating. Yet the same range of dates were found in several caves by different teams of researchers, therefore these findings cannot be easily brushed aside.
Considering that the bulk of archaeological evidence for the presence of modern human intelligence goes back to at least 50,000 years in Europe and Africa, it would be safe to place a possible thumb on this as the approximate origin of humanity’s appearance outside of Mesopotamia AFTER the Flood. Fossil evidence and genetic studies do open up the potential for going back twice as far. But personally, due to the biblical genealogies and the date of the “Cultural Big Bang,” I am more comfortable with the 40,000 to 55,000 years ago time stamp.
The error margins (80,000 years), wildly varying estimated time ranges (sometimes by 200,000 years or more) and theory-ladden aspects of genetic dating need to be kept in check before we are overawed by molecular anthropology’s educated guesses. Further, the fragmentary nature of older fossil finds and the wide ranges in dates given to the same fossils by different researchers also weaken the impact of paleontological claims on human origin dates. Yet there is a trend in those fields towards the earlier — that is, much older — dates for anatomically modern humans’ origins.
Personally, I feel we are in a “wait-and-see” period in the realm of concluding how the biblical, archeological, paleontological and genetic records stack up together. Currently, the bulk of the archeological evidence fits comfortably with the possible ranges of the biblical genealogies. It is the fossil and genetic records with push the dates back uncomfortably far. Yet it is precisely these same disciplines who are on the shakier ground in terms of precision.
SO, WHEN DID NOAH’S FLOOD OCCUR?
If we combine the biblical and archeological records for now, we have the appearance of human activity in South African as early as 55,000 years ago (assuming the lower range of the estimate by radioluminescence). In the second installment of this series I will present the case that Noah’s Flood was regional to the Mesopotamian Basin and therefore would not cover the south of the African continent or Europe. So the 55,000 year date would be after the Flood and the consequent migration. In order to formulate my estimate I will take into account that the biblical genealogies are split approximately as follows:
We see that as we step backwards in time, the successive sections of the genealogies cover greater time frames using fewer and fewer names. Even if you are a Young Earther, you have to admit that between Abraham and David there are a mere 12 names mentioned for a millennia of time. Whereas there is the same amount of time between David and Christ but through Mary’s lineage we have 41 names. Meaning that the older lists of names in the genealogical records were abbreviated much more than the more recent ones. Also take into consideration that from Adam to Noah, the average life span was in the 800 year range. Eight times those of Abraham’s time and onwards. So the ancestral list would automatically stretch out 8 times more from Adam to Noah, and then slowly back to modern standards between Shem and Abraham.
Based on these factors and the overwhelming evidence of the archeological records I make a tenuous and trembling attempt at an estimate that Noah’s Flood occurred between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. I am only holding this estimate loosely and will revisit it as evidence unfolds in the world of sound anthropology.
Another possibility is that the populations found in Africa and Europe were sparred from the Flood and are direct descendants of Adam instead of Noah’s repopulation efforts. This would require us to view the “world” that was flooded as strictly “Noah’s world” in the Mesopotamian basin. Yet I am uncomfortable with broad reinterpretations such as these. If it were to be found palatable, it would bring the date of the Flood closer to our times and require the biblical genealogies to go back only to about 50,000 years for Adam (instead of my proposed 80-90,000 years.
In the end, let us apprehend the fullness of sound knowledge. In God’s Word and in God’s world. And let us prayerfully and patiently await God’s unfolding of His mysteries…
See our PART 2 on the “where” of the biblical deluge.
(1) Fu et al., “A Revised Timescale for Human Evolution”: advanced on-line, 10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.044.
(2) Fulvio Cruciani et al., “A Revised Root for the Human Y Chromosomal Phylogenetic Tree: The Origin of Patrilineal Diversity in Africa,” The American Journal of Human Genetics 88 (May 19, 2011): 814–18; Wei Wei et al., “A Calibrated Human Y-Chromosomal Phylogeny Based on Resequencing,” Genome Research 23 (February 2013): 388–95.
(3) Kyle S. Brown et al., “An Early and Enduring Advanced Technology Originating 71,000 Years Ago in South Africa,” Nature 491, no. 7425 (November 22, 2012): 590–93.