On Friday’s episode of Ancient Aliens, the ancient astronaut theorists inadvertently brought up an interesting issue, and one that they, typical for them, failed to consider in any detailed way. The ancient astronaut theorists became momentarily interested in the question of pre-Adamite races and whether the Biblical account of creation tells the entire story. This question is interesting, but not for what it says about aliens. Spoiler alert: It’s tied to Victorian-era racism.
The interesting part of the story is that Jews and Christians condemned the idea that there were any races that lived before Adam from the start, right down to the modern era and the need to justify white supremacy. At that point, of course thousands of years of tradition flew out the window. Before that, things were very different…
Theophilus of Antioch was the first to dispute the claim, writing in his Apology to Autolycus around 170 CE that Plato and Apollonius the Egyptian (Apollonius Dyscolus) were wrong to count tens of thousands of years from the Flood to the modern era, the latter counting 153,075 years (3.16). (This number might be the “15 myriads and a little more” attributed to Berossus by Alexander Polyhistor.) Therefore, he denied that anyone lived before the Biblical timeframe.
Augustine’s City of God is another good example of this, and a most interesting one. In Book 12, chapter 9, Augustine tells about the fall of the Angels, i.e. the myth of the Watchers, and in the very next chapter, 10, condemns the Greeks and Romans for proposing that the human race was as old as the earth. He even relates an echo of Berossus’s Babylonian astrology of periodic destruction by fire and flood in attributing to the Greeks and Romans the belief in the periodic destruction of humanity by the same. Augustine, however, wasn’t really arguing against a claim of pre-Adamic races; rather, he argued that the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans were wrong in their chronologies, and all of world history happened within 6,000 years. In chapter 11 he also condemns the many worlds hypothesis, effectively denying the existence of aliens.
By the time of Islam a few centuries later, there was a more developed mythology of pre-Adamite people, at least in popular lore, which continued some of the pagan beliefs condemned by the Church fathers and syncretized with Abrahamic teachings to greater or lesser extents. The Filahât al-Nabâtiyyah (Nabataean Agriculture) of Ibn Wahshiyya (c. 904 CE) made reference to the existence of pre-Adamic people, a claim attributed to the Sabians, who were famous among the Arabs for their hybrid of paganism, Hermeticism, and Abrahamic legends. The Jewish philosophers who reported this from Ibn Wahshiyya’s book dismissed it as the product of ignorance. In the Akhbar al-zaman, written sometime after the Filahât al-Nabâtiyyah we find a version of the pre-Adamic claim in which traditional creationism and pagan history have been reconciled by making the pre-Adamic races non-human, but instead semi-human djinn who were a failure Allah sent Iblis (the Devil) to destroy to make room for Adam. Thus was an ancient dispute over when the first human was created turned into separate creations of different species.
In Europe, few took pre-Adamic races seriously until white supremacists figured out how to make it racist. The process started with the French Millenarian philosopher Isaac La Peyrère, who invented the modern pre-Adamite hypothesis at the very late date of 1655, and justified it from medieval sources like Maimonides, whom I will discuss below. In his book Prae-Adamitae he argued that Adam could not have sinned unless there was a law to sin against; therefore, there were people to whom that law applied, a separate creation. He adduced that Cain must have taken a wife from, and built a city for, those people in Genesis 4. For his trouble, his book was publicly condemned and burned as heretical. He was imprisoned until he recanted.
The book’s claims saw some popularity in the Enlightenment as an explicit challenge to religion, but pre-Adamic claims saw their greatest popularity in the nineteenth century, when pre-Adamic races offered a semi-biblical way to be more racist, particularly in the United States, the hotbed of pre-Adamic theorizing. Thus, racists like physician Charles Caldwell, physician Samuel G. Morton, and surgeon Josiah C. Nott all argued that the white race was the only race descended from Adam, and thus capable of salvation in the eyes of the Lord. The other races, but especially the Black, were separate and inferior creations. Buckner H. Payne and Charles Carroll declared Blacks to be pre-Adamite “beasts” who were stowed in the Ark with the other animals. Carroll denied Blacks had souls since pre-Adamites wouldn’t have had any before God invented them for the white Adam and his kin. Even those who accepted the theory of evolution got in on the game: Alexander Winchell said Blacks were too inferior to have ever evolved into something like Adam; therefore, only God could have directed evolution to produce the white race.
Isabel Duncan took it a step further and argued that the pre-Adamic race became angels and demons, based on the fall of the angels from Genesis 6—inadvertently restoring the claim’s origins in the same milieu that gave us the Watchers myth.
Even some Christian scholars, long opposed to pre-Adamic races, embraced the idea in order to reconcile Mosaic chronology with new geological discoveries, and they naturally traced the sinful race of Cain—the corrupt “daughters of men” who felled the Sons of God in Genesis 6:4—to miscegenation between Cain and some non-white woman from the land of Nod. Michael Barkun discussed this in his 1996 book Religion and the Racist Right.
At this point, does it surprise anyone that Ancient Aliens stumbled into using another Victorian racist ideology as though it were a shocking alien revelation? Now, to be fair, the version of pre-Adamism Ancient Aliens uses is more from the occult tradition, which (surprisingly) is based in a much less racist version proposed in the 1860s by the Native American occultist Paschal Beverly Randolph, who argued for a 100,000-year-old pre-Adamite civilization in which the ancient men were a high culture, not beasts of the field. This version fed into the esoteric-occult stream, leading to Immanuel Velikovsky’s adoption of pre-Adamism in In the Beginning, where he argues for periodic devastation of human civilization. In that same book he suggests ancient astronauts might have been the pre-Adamite people, and that they are also the Nephilim.
Now, if you want to see how all of this connects to my developing Grand Theory of Stupid Archaeology, let’s take a look at Velikovsky’s source. In an early chapter of In the Beginning, on the “Pre-Adamite Age,” Velikovsky attributes knowledge of this lost civilization to “the medieval Arab scholar Abubacer” (i.e., Abubaker). Velikovsky arrived at this knowledge secondhand, learning of it from a reference in the Tower of Babel (1679) of Athanasius Kircher, who was actually citing the twelfth century man known as Ibn Tufail, whose first names were Abu Bakr. According to Ibn Tufail, the Sabians—yes, them again—said Adam had parents who birthed him and that he had left the Moon before he descended to India. (It isn’t clear to me that Velikovsky’s translation is correct in taking the text as referring to a literal residence on the Moon itself rather than a city of the Moon or the Heaven of the Moon or something like that.) The claim, as weird as it sounds, is probably a conflation of Abrahamic mythology with Hindu mythology.
The Sabians were the same people that Abu Ma‘shar claimed linked Hermes to the construction of Egyptian monuments to preserve science before the Flood—a story in turn derived from Enoch’s Pillars of Wisdom and, of course, the myth of the Sons of God/Watchers from Genesis 6:4, the cornerstone of nearly all stupid archaeology. As I mentioned, based on the alleged lunar connection, in the passage on the Nephilim Velikovsky suggests they may be space aliens.
Anyway, here is how Velikovsky translates the passage on Adam’s lunar adventure:
They [the Sabaeans] say that Adam was born from male and female, just like the rest of mankind, but they honored him greatly, and said that he had come from the Moon, that he was the prophet and apostle of the Moon, and that he had exhorted the nations that they should serve the Moon. . . . They also related about Adam that when he had left the Moon and proceeded from the area of India towards Babylonia, that he brought many wonders with him.
Here is what the Latin of Kircher, quoting Ibn Tufail, says literally on pages 134-135 of the 1679 edition of Turris Babel (3.3.1):
The whole nation of the Sabians believe in the antiquity of the world (or, what is the same thing, its eternal nature), for heaven is the same as God, according to their opinion. And they say that the first man Adam was born of a male and a female, like the rest of men, but they (the Sabians) honored him much, they said, because he departed from the Moon, was a prophet and apostle of the Moon, preached to the people that they should serve the Moon, and composed books on the cultivation of the land. The even say that Seth held the opinion that his father was in the service of the Moon. They even tell of Adam that when he had departed from the Moon and proceeded from the region [literal: climate] of India to the region of Babylon, he brought many wonders with him, including a golden tree with growing branches and leaves, and a stone tree whose leaves were evergreen and could not be burned by fire. And they say that ten thousand men could be protected under the shadow of this tree, and the height of the tree itself resembled the stature of a man. He also brought with him two leaves, each of which covered two men. In truth, their purpose in speaking of the first man Adam, and of the men who were under his jurisdiction, was to establish their belief in the antiquity of the world, and that which comes forth from this belief: that the heavens and the stars are gods.
Kircher called the story a “ridiculous fable,” but it wasn’t unique to Ibn Tufail. A nearly identical version of the story appears in the Jewish writer Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed 3.29, written at nearly the same time as Ibn Tufail’s book, and coming right after and right before a reference to Ibn Wahshiyya’s Nabataean Agriculture, which it is implied is the source for Maimonides, and presumably also Ibn Tufail. That book has never been translated into English, and I have no idea whether the passage is found therein, not that it matters, but the secondary literature makes plain that the passage is in that book somewhere.
The point is that the text implies that the “Moon” was not meant as a place but as a person; Kircher capitalizes Luna, meaning the moon goddess, rather than the heavenly orb; Maimonides confirms this reading, saying that Adam had been “sent by the moon.” (It probably reflects the city of Harran, believed to be the home of the Moon god.) Velikovsky erred due to an illusion of translation in Kircher’s rendering of the Arabic into Latin. Either way, if Ancient Aliens knew they were stealing from Velikovksy they might have cited this as evidence that humans came from the moon, so it’s probably a good thing they didn’t know that.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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