Yesterday I discussed a strange claim that the Nephilim were actually the woolly mammoths of the Ice Age. Today I’d like to take a look at a slightly different claim that tried to tie the Nephilim to the Ice Age. Our piece today comes from The Presbyterian Quarterly in 1895, and it concerns what was then the controversial discovery of Neanderthals. Religious types had some difficulty trying to understand where the Neanderthal would fall in the biblical framework, and they feared that it would provide too much support for the idea of evolution.
A man named James A. Lyon was a Presbyterian minister who tried to thread the needle between evolutionary theory and belief. A year after Darwin published his Origin of Species, Lyon created a professorship in “Natural Science in Connection with Revealed Religion” at Columbia Seminary in South Carolina, while Lyon himself became a professor of “Mental and Moral Science” at the University of Mississippi. While Lyon fell heavily on the side of belief, his son, of the same name, followed in his father’s footsteps but pushed toward the scientific side. The younger Lyon was a professor of physics and astronomy at Southwestern Presbyterian University and an elder in his church. His friends described him as devoted to the Christian faith, and the Tennessee Academy of Sciences praised his piety in his 1915 obituary.
In 1895, the younger Lyon wrote a review of Canadian geologist J. William Dawson’s book on The Meeting Place of Geology and History praising the geologist’s Christian stand against evolutionary theory. In the review, Lyon claimed that there were no human remains before the Pleistocene and nothing in the fossil record “tending to prove or even suggest evolution from the lower animals.” He then tried to explain the known fossils of the time in Biblical terms. The “Caustadt” fossil referenced below is what we today know as the Neanderthal, while the “Truchère” was a name assigned to a motley assortment of random bones:
This pleistocene period seems to have been one of extensive continents, greatly exceeding present limits, mild climate, an abundant fauna and flora. Many gigantic mammals, now extinct, abounded, such as the mammoth and woolly rhinoceros, besides others of modern species. Of man, three different types can be made out, which may be called: (1), The “Cro-Magnon”; (2), The “Canstadt”; (3), The “Truchère.” The first of these were very large and powerful, almost gigantic, having strong frames and large skulls, but probably semi-savage and nomadic. They were probably a mixed race, derived from the other two. The Canstadt type is both smaller and of lower order. The third, of Truchère, while smaller than the Cro-Magnon, was probably of a higher and more civilized type. There seems a suggestive parallelism between these three types and the Cainites, the Sethites, and the “mighty men” or Nephilim, who arose from a mixture of the other two, as recorded in the Book of Genesis.
While Lyon was commenting on Dawson, it’s worth looking at Dawson’s own words, which show that Lyon was highlighting for his readers a claim that the Canadian author had made in passing:
The reader, reflecting on what he has learned from history, may be disposed here to ask, Must we suppose Adam to have been one of these Turanian men, like the ‘Old Man of Cro-magnon’? In answer, I would say that there is no good reason to regard the first man as having resembled a Greek Apollo or an Adonis. He was probably of sterner and more muscular mould. But he was probably more akin to the more delicate and refined race represented by the solitary skull of Truchère, while the gigantic palæocosmic men of the European caves are more likely to have been representatives of that terrible and powerful race who filled the antediluvian world with violence, and who reappear in postdiluvian times as the Anakim and traditional giants, who constitute a feature in the early history of so many countries. Perhaps nothing is more curious in the revelations as to the most ancient cave men than that they confirm the old belief that there were ‘giants in those days.’ At the same time we must bear in mind that the more diminutive race which survived must have existed previously in some part of the world, and must have furnished the survivors of the succeeding subsidence…
It’s kind of weird that more than 120 years later, we haven’t really advanced much from this argument in the world of fringe history, though few would claim Cro-Magnons as Nephilim today, though some creationists have tried to make Neanderthals into them. While mainstream science pretty much disagrees with all of the above, Graham Hancock’s whole shtick is that the Nephilim were actually Pleistocene supermen who died out when the continents were devastated by a great Flood that accounts for the rising sea levels and shrunken continents of our age.
While the passages above testify to the Biblical framework Dawson and Lyon operated in (not to mention their bias in suggesting that modern Europeans descend from the most delicate and graceful of the fossil humans), Dawson’s full argument is a wonder on its own, extrapolating from skull shape the veracity of Holy Writ. Recognizing that human skulls have not evolved in size since the Pleistocene, Dawson concluded, on the basis of racist beliefs that Native Americans and brown peoples the world over are uncivilized monsters, that there had once been a lost and perfect human paradise!
But, mute though they may be as to the details of their lives, the man of Cro-magnon and his contemporaries are eloquent of one great truth, in which they coincide with the Americans and with the primitive men of all the early ages. They tell us that primitive man had the same high cerebral organisation which he possesses now, and, we may infer, the same high intellectual and moral nature, fitting him for communion with God and headship over the lower world. They indicate also, like the mound-builders, who preceded the North American Indian, that man’s earlier state was the best—that he had been a high and noble creature before he became a savage. It is not conceivable that their high development of brain and mind could have spontaneously engrafted itself on a mere brutal and savage life. These gifts must be remnants of a noble organisation degraded by moral evil. They thus justify the tradition of a Golden and Edenic Age, and mutely protest against the philosophy of progressive development as applied to man, while they bear witness to the similarity in all important characters of the oldest prehistoric men with that variety of our species which is at the present day at once the most widely extended and the most primitive in its manners and usages.
In short, Dawson argued that evolution is false because humans, especially non-white ones, are sinful.
The more interesting issue here is how the scientific effort to understand human origins ended up being shaped by a bit of sophistry meant to minimize the role of the Enochian Watchers. The text of Genesis 6:1-4 about the Sons of God mating with the daughters of men is ambiguous, but the oldest interpretations read it as the chronicle of Fallen Angels who mated with human women in contravention of God’s law. However, by the first century CE or a little before, Fallen Angels were out of vogue and a new interpretation, rendering the Sons of God as the descendants of the godly Seth and the daughters of men as the offspring of sinful Cain, took hold. (Flavius Josephus, writing around 94 CE, has parts of both versions.) This added a layer of genetic sin that transferred the blame for the giants to the slutty temptresses rather than the previously evil but now blameless Sons of God. This fit rather nicely into the anti-woman bias of the era, but the two different views never sat well together, with some writers arguing for evil angels corrupting the women and others blaming sinful women for corrupting the holy Sethites. The details matter not; instead, what matters is that Protestants inherited the Sethite version, and it influenced both their understanding of Genesis and their efforts to apply the Bible to geology and paleontology. Imagine what we would have gotten had Dawson and Lyon believed in Fallen Angels instead of Sethites as the fathers of the Nephilim.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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