Creation: Chapter 3

The Creation of Humanity

The first distinctly human descendant of the ape family was Homo habilis, who not only had acquired an upright stature that allowed the hands to be used creatively in the making of tools suitable for hunting but also had a large and complex enough brain to allow reflective thought and language. The transition to Homo erectus emphasized these features: it had a larger brain and was able to make simple stone tools. It had more meat in its diet than the other members of the primate order, meat providing a concentrated source of protein and other nutrients far in excess of plants and vegetables. The means of acquiring food were those of hunting and gathering, and the sharing of food brought in its train increasingly complex social interactions. This method of hunting and gathering has been a permanent feature of the biological evolution of the human species from Homo habilis and Homo erectus to early Homo sapiens, and even to some groups of modern humans. The "Bushmen" of the Kalahari Desert (their proper name is !Kung San, the exclamation mark denoting the peculiar clicks and glottal stops of their strange and difficult language) have pursued this way of life up to the present, but are being weaned to the static agricultural way by the local government to suit its own purposes. There is evidence that Homo erectus also mastered the use of fire. It is possible that even these primitive humans had a ritual associated with the death of a member of the group.

In due course Homo erectus was supplanted by Homo sapiens, our own species with its large brain and characteristic cranial features (a forehead that does not slope backwards, unemphatic eye-brow ridges, and an unprotruding flat face with a prominent chin). An early representative was Neanderthal man (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), whose skull retained some primitive features but with a rather larger brain than that of modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, who saw the light of day some 40,000 years ago. Neanderthal man lived between just over 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. His tool-making capacity was quite advanced, and there is clear archaeological evidence of ritual burials which testify to a feeling of awe for the spiritual dimension of life. There was a warm interglacial phase between 130,000 and 70,000 years ago, and then followed the last ice age between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago. Neanderthal man lived during the first part of this ice age; his stocky frame was probably helpful in gaining food during this hard time, but then he was supplanted by our own sub-species Homo sapiens sapiens, less hardy but better equipped mentally. When one considers the evolution of man, it would seem that mutations may have taken place in localized populations, and the subsequent dominance was the result of interbreeding as well as natural selection.

Homo sapiens sapiens revealed amazing artistic skill soon after his emergence as the dominant human representative. An amazing array of prehistoric, palaeolithic art has been discovered on the walls of various caves in south-west France and north Spain; it has been dated between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago, and its excellence made experts doubt the honesty of the discoverers of the material, who were accused of fraudulently employing modern artists. On the bare walls were painted animals of lifelike vividness: horses, bison and oxen predominated, but other species were also present. With the exception of a few cave paintings in Africa, the human form was sparsely depicted, and birds and fish were also seldom found. In one famous cave in France under the foothills of the Pyrenees two moulded clay bison were found propped up in the middle of a low, round chamber. This sculpture is about 15,000 years old. The significance of all this cave art is debatable, but the consensus of opinion favours the idea of a ritual observance with spiritual overtones. It is certain that the caves, especially their deeper recesses where the most spectacular examples of art are to be found, are painfully inaccessible, especially with the primitive candle illumination available to the people of that time.

Although the human form was seldom depicted in paintings, there are rather rudimentary engravings of people in one site in western France, and statuettes of the female form are also well known. These so-called Venuses have prominent bulbous breasts and buttocks, but there is little attempt at depicting facial features or lower limbs. It may be that a taboo forbade a too-close depiction of the person, whose soul was inviolate. Just as our name is strangely precious, so that we do not divulge it except under social pressure - and the name of God is unmentionable, for then we should be able to control the Deity - so also may have been the physical form of the individual in those far-off days.

It was about 10,000 years ago that the crucial change in life-style occurred among our ancestors: from the previous nomadic hunting and gathering there evolved a more static agricultural existence. Now there was a cultivation of crops, especially cereals, and the taming and domestication of animals rather than their indiscriminate slaughter to assuage the needs of the present moment. In fact, there is some archaeological evidence of the use of animals in the previous period of the later ice age, but nevertheless the transition to a stable agricultural economy was remarkably sudden and universal; only the Australian Aborigines and the North American Indians persisted with the traditional hunting and gathering up to two centuries ago, and now this way of life is very rare except among the !Kung San whom we have already considered.

The cause of the "agricultural revolution" is uncertain. Amongst possible factors are the warming up of the climate after the ice age, the increase in human population, mental progress in the individuals themselves, and social interdependence. What is certain is the speed at which the human harnessed the local resources for his own ends. Scattered communities grew to form small towns, and the development of trade grew out of the individual talents of respective members. It is reckoned that the first great agricultural surge occurred in the "fertile crescent' area of the Middle East that extends in an arc spanning Israel, Jordan and Syria to the west, Turkey to the north, and Iran to the east. This occurred about 10,000 years ago, and was followed by a similar surge in China about 7,000 years ago and in Mesoamerica (especially Mexico) some 5,000 years ago. At this time there was also advanced maize agriculture in parts of South America, especially Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Those people who lived in coastal areas also thrived on the fish of the neighbouring sea.

The essential feature of this period of human evolution was a progressive exploitation of the natural resources. Man no longer merely gathered his daily requirements as he moved on to his next abode; he now made the earth work for him as he domesticated cattle and grew crops. The static mode of life enabled him to think about things other than immediate survival, which his superior intellect had to a large extent guaranteed. He now became an owner, a proprietor, who had to learn the secrets of stewardship, a subject which we thousands of years later are starting to take seriously as the world's resources slowly crumble in the hands of a selfish, predatory humanity. In this respect it is chastening to reflect that acquisitiveness was foreign to the way of life of the groups who hunted and gathered for their existence. What they had obtained was for all to share. After the agricultural revolution the emphasis was on saving, and with it a less openhanded attitude to other people. The static life-style saw the birth of towns, cities, city-states, and finally discrete countries. Concern for one's immediate family circle extended to civic responsibility and national loyalty. The reverse side of this loyalty to one's own fellows has been antagonism to those apart from one.

It is unusual for severe intraspecies assaults to occur in the animal kingdom. Where the means of life of one member are threatened by another there is a display of ferocity sufficient to deter the intruder: the signal, as it were, averts the execution of the message. Even where a fight does occur, the hurt is usually mild. Animals confined and restricted in human custody may show less restrained ferocity when challenged by a fellow member, one of the many sad reflections on the way that man's greed can subvert the natural order of moderation. "Nature, red in tooth and claw", lamented Alfred Tennyson in In Memoriam, but in fact the demands made by one animal on another are limited.

The situation is seen also in the hunting and gathering activities of our ancestors before agricultural life came into its own. When the human became a landowner he became increasingly covetous, and the more he acquired, the more he had to defend from the onslaughts of his fellow creatures as well as those of other animals and the natural environment with its storms and droughts.

Friezes and boundary stones found in Peru and Babylon depict armed men and mutilated soldiers. It has been estimated by prehistorians that it was not until the development of the temple towns, about 7,000 years ago, that there is evidence of inflicted death and warfare. It is evident that the human tendency to violence which we all now can appreciate only too well is a cultural acquisition rather than a genetic mutation.

One's mind goes back to the Genesis story once more. When Adam and Eve lived in the primeval paradise God had prepared for them there was no lust, greed or hatred. They had what they wanted but never looked for an excess. But once their personal horizons were extended by the "prince of this world", they were only too aware of their deficiency, seen primarily in a lack of clothing to conceal their genital organs. Their knowledge excluded them from that paradise, and they were sent on their way by God to taste the full rigors of an earthly existence encompassed by toil, pain and mortality. And yet there was hope of a time when the woman's seed would contend with the devil as the evil one contended with that progeny for the mastery of their souls. The battle was to be a spiritual one, for now our allegorical ancestors had truly come of age. In a visionary way the transition of man from a nomadic life of hunting and gathering to one of settled agriculture could be seen as an historic counterpart of the inspired creation story of the Bible and the effects of a disobedience that seems to be an inevitable part of progress to true self-knowledge.

All this is in no way to imply that the primitive hunting and gathering mode of life is preferable to stable agricultural work. Far from it, there seems little doubt that a settled mode of life is a mark of progress inasmuch as it affords time for the individual to contemplate the natural order in tranquil security. The end-result is the creation of a civilization, an advanced stage of social development in which the individual can actualize his full human potential in scientific research, artistic creativity and spiritual aspiration. The Platonic triad of ultimate values that lead us to the spiritual knowledge of God are truth, beauty and goodness (or love in the Christian evaluation). In their pursuit we move beyond the self-seeking ego, losing our very selves in the process, to find our true home in the eternity whose nature is the Deity. And yet the self that is apparently lost is in fact merely eclipsed, so that when we find it once more, it is transfigured into something of the glory of God.

This is the apogee of the creative process, and it is in fellowship with our fellow creatures that its peak is attained, for it is nothing until it is shared unconditionally with all around us. It seems clear that only a fixed society anchored to the earth in confident dependence can aspire to the heights of mortal endeavour. But, as we have already seen, such a society can also descend to the depths of moral degradation in the pursuance of its own material ends to the detriment of all other considerations. Truly the way to heaven has also to traverse hell, ultimately with the purpose of transfiguring it.

The earliest civilizations seem to have arisen in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. The historical period itself started some 5,000 years ago, and coincided with the Early Bronze Age. It was then that proper writing was fashioned; the Great Pyramids in Egypt were roughly contemporaneous with the Sumerian and Akkadian civilization in Mesopotamia. The Middle Bronze Age, about 3,500 to 4,000 years ago, saw a Sumerian revival in Mesopotamia followed by the first Babylonian dynasty. Abraham arrived in Canaan about 3,850 years ago, and Joseph and his brothers lived in Egypt some 150 years later. The Late Bronze Age, some 3,500 to 3,200 years ago, saw the Exodus of Jews from Egypt towards its close with the ministry of Moses and the proclamation of the Law at Mount Sinai.

The first Iron Age stretched from 3,200 to 2,900 years ago, and was peopled in Palestine by the Judges, Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon. The second Iron Age ended about 2,600 years ago, and saw the dissolution of the alliance between Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel, the tragic moral decline of both kingdoms culminating in the Assyrian deportation of the inhabitants of Israel and the Babylonian deportation of those of Judah over a hundred years later. The return of the Babylonian exiles some seventy years later marked the birth of a mature Judaism that was to be the foundation of Christianity 500 years later and of Islam some 600 years after this.

The beginning of modern civilization as we know it was roughly contemporaneous with the period of Judean exile in Babylon, for at about the same time there was a remarkable efflorescence of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment in Greece, Persia, India, and China. This was to be the foundation of Eurasian supremacy in the world of thought and action. The period around 2,500 years ago had seen the witness of Israel's (using the term in a collective context to include both kingdoms) greatest prophets whose message had been committed to writing, starting with Amos and reaching its peak in the work of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. More or less contemporaneously there was the ministry of Zoroaster in Persia (his birth dates are usually given as 628-551 BC), while in India the Hindu genius blazed forth in the Upanishads, the earliest of which were probably written about 600 BC. The date of the Bhagavad Gita is not known for certain, but it was probably written a few hundred years after the Upanishads. The founder of Jainism, Mahavira, probably died in 468 BC, while Siddhartha, of the family called Gautama, who was to become a supreme Buddha was born in 563 BC and died over eighty years later.

In China there were the complementary spiritual teachers Lao-tzu, who was born in 604 BC and was a principal teacher of Taoism, and K'ung Fu-tse (Confucius) whose dates are 551-479 BC. In Greece the Athenian civilisation reached its height under Pericles about 470 BC, and its decline was witnessed by Socrates (469-399 BC). His better known pupil Plato (429-347 BC) forms a peak of mystical philosophy, as his equally important pupil Aristotle (384-322 BC) turned away from the mysticism of his master to embark upon a more rationalistic investigation of the world with its human, animal and physical constituents, in the process initiating scientific methodology which was subsequently to guide western, and ultimately world, thought.

This period, from 2,800 to 2,300 years ago, has been called by Karl Jaspers the Axial Era of the world, when humans for the first time simultaneously in Greece, India and China questioned the traditional pattern of life. It was, at least figuratively speaking, a mutation in the human consciousness, though whether there was a corresponding change in the brain's structure as well as function we cannot tell. It is of interest that Jaspers did not include the Hebrew contribution or mention Zoroaster, who influenced the Jewish exiles in Babylon and their successors quite considerably (and through them both Christianity and Islam). Perhaps they are best to be seen as representing the ongoing tradition, quietly but steadily rendered more spiritual, on which Hellenic civilization was to have its most enduring effect as it penetrated the world under the aegis of Jesus and Muhammad.

The story of civilization in America is somewhat different, and deserves a special reflection if only because it is usually barely remembered under the welter of later European ideologies. It seems that the American continent was not inhabited by the human before the Homo sapiens stage of development, and man's arrival in the Americas was between 25,000 and 30,000 years ago. The first to arrive were migrant hunters of mongoloid race who entered from Asia by crossing the Bering Straits. These during the ice ages formed a land link with the Aleutian Islands between Siberia and Alaska, from where they moved on through Canada. It is probable that the ice at the foot of the Canadian Rockies blocked this passage for over 10,000 years, and that the main migration occurred between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. Nevertheless, there is evidence based on radiocarbon dating that the human occupied the Andean area of South America as early as 22,000 years ago, perhaps pioneers of the later, more significant, groups. As we have already noted, the great agricultural surge in America took place some 5,000 years ago, especially in Mexico and the western parts of South America, notably Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador as well as north-west Argentina and the northern part of Chile.

In Mexico the Mayan civilization gradually evolved, later to disintegrate and be replaced by the more advanced Aztecs. The precursors of the Peruvian Incas seem to have been a mixed group of people, but the Chimu seem to have had the greatest impact on the Inca civilization. There was also a Chibcha nation in Colombia, less developed than either the Aztecs or the Incas; there was agriculture, weaving and some trade. The decorative arts in their temples and princely houses as in their ornaments were established elements of their society. Administration was crude, and the religion primitive.

The Aztecs and Incas were decidedly more advanced; a highly centralized, totalitarian administration was noteworthy, and the state of agriculture, architecture, astronomy and also mathematics was surprisingly evolved. The decorative arts were well practised, but neither Aztec nor Inca had developed a system of writing. However, they were able to keep records, the Aztecs with images and some vocal sounds, and the Incas with a skein of different-coloured threads knitted in various ways. There were also some attempts at musical production. Religion was of great importance; it was dark and gruesome, especially with the Aztecs, who practised wholesale human sacrifice. The Incas seem to have been less advanced in their civilization as regards architecture; on the other hand, their religion was less preoccupied with death and was not disfigured by human sacrifice. The absence of a writing skill meant that the "literature" was oral and passed on through the generations. It was only with the Spanish conquests that fragments of recitations were written down. They include prayers, hymns, narrative poems and dramas, love poems and songs. They have a clarity and beauty of expression and feeling. A considerable spiritual "literature" has thus been preserved, and some of it has strongly mystical overtones. There was also a considerable army with fine fighting potential.

What is certain is the inability of either the Aztecs or the Incas to withstand the onslaught of the Spanish invaders, Hernan Cortez conquering Mexico in 1519 and Francisco Pizarro Peru in 1532. The predatory Europeans acted with such callous disregard for the subject people that little was left of the civilisations the conquerors found. The indigenous religions were summarily replaced by an extreme Spanish Catholicism that paid scant respect for the insights of the regional population. However, it has always been the genius of Catholicism to take into its wide compass aspects of local customs (as it did centuries before when it recognized December 25th, the birthday of the Invincible Sun in the Greek mystery-religions, as the day of Jesus's birth).

This eclecticism is especially valuable in our contemporary situation where all the religions are brought close together in a contracting world (due to the ease of travel, the media of mass communication and movements of populations migrating from one part of the world to another). They are all defending their traditional insights against the onslaught of secular ideologies that would reduce spiritual understanding to the level of mere economics or psychology if they had their way. As Jesus would have put it, "He who is not against us is on our side" (Mark 9:40). In this instance a man outside the apostolate was found exorcizing in the name of Christ. It has to be balanced with the contrary dictum, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters" (Matthew 12:30). The matter is one of values, for not everyone who acknowledges Christ in words will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the Father's will (Matthew 7:21). Anyone whose heart is set in the right direction is in fellowship with the Son even if he cannot identify him by name. On the other hand, the Church has been at some periods of its history party to terrible cruelty and injustice in the name of Christ; in the end its own power has been forfeited by this treachery.

It is evident, as has already been said, that the indigenous American civilizations were no match for the European one introduced so categorically by the Spanish invaders. Taking the long view, this course of events has proved right: Christianity for all its failings is a higher insight into the nature of God than were the native religions, just as modern science for all its aberrations is a better way to health and understanding the world in which we live than were the ancient philosophies.

And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:
The old order, changeth, yielding place to new,
and God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

This oft-quoted passage from The Passing of Arthur sequence of The Idylls of the King by Tennyson is indeed wise provided we do not cast the old order derisively aside. It has a habit of reasserting itself if it is not treated with reverence and given its place both in history and in the tenor of our lives. The Christian priest, for instance, when he rehearses the events of the Last Supper in the course of celebrating the Eucharist, should also remember with thanksgiving the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery that Jesus and his disciples were also recalling on that fateful night.

All the aboriginal inhabitants of the New World are called Amerindians, the latter part of the name commemorating Columbus' misidentification of the Caribbean islands, where he made his first landings, with the Indies of Asia. It is of anthropological interest that the people were indeed of Asian origin, though not of Indian stock. Though the Spanish conquerors behaved with great brutality, it is arguable whether their cruelty was worse than that of the other colonial powers, despite the obloquy frequently levelled against them. At least many of the indigenous people survived - which is more than can be said of some other victims of European imperialism, for instance the Indians of North America - and indeed today form a predominant racial element in a number of Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Peru. They have become the beneficiaries of the Spanish civilization that was to adorn that part of America for three centuries and then be incorporated into the various countries as they attained independence.

Chapter 4
Back to Index