Who Committed Original Sin?

Anthony Zimmerman
Titled in Fidelity: Original Sin: When Did it Happen?
Fidelity, February 1988
Reproduced with Permission

Father Zimmerman is director of the Japan Family Life Association in Tokyo

[N.B. For later developments of the theme of this article, see two of the books listed in Contents of this home page: Evolution and the Sin in Eden,and The Primeval Revelation in Myths and in Genesis.]

The learned Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) calculated from the chronology of events recorded in the Bible that creation occurred in the year 4004 B.C., which would be 5991 years ago today. His system of chronology was printed in many editions of the Bible (see "Ussher" in the Encyclopedia Britannica). This precise interpreted date was accepted by many scientists well into the 18th century, and by the general public even into the 19th century, but today devout Christian people find this too short a time for the earth's history. Pope Pius XII, in Humani Generis (1950), has freed us from the need of reading Genesis as though it were a history or science textbook. All of what is written in the Bible is inspired and is true, of course, but we should not read into it what is not really there.

Four Rivers

More recently we see an attempt to date the story of the Garden of Eden, and even to locate the four rivers mentioned in the Bible. An article in the Smithsonian tells about the studies of Dr. Juris Zarins, who believes that the Garden of Eden lies now under the waters of the Persian Gulf. A Landsat photo image shows the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates at the head of the Gulf. In addition, the Karun River is shown to be flowing in from the north, and a fossil river from the south The interpretation that the present Karun is the Gihon and the fossil Batin is the Pison of Genesis (Gen. 2:10-14), is very tantalizing and may very well be true.

Shall we date original sin, then, in accordance with the data connected with the geology of the Persian Gulf? No, very definitely not. We Catholics, who believe in the Magisterium of the Church, have another set of tools by which we can set up a far more ancient chronological framework for the event of original sin. The story of the Garden of Eden under the Persian Gulf is far too recent for our time scale.

To date original sin, we humans must search for our roots, going all the way back to the very first origin of our present Homo Sapiens race, which now populates the world. We have to converge on that ancient time when there were only two of us (or, at most, an original enclosed population with its own isolated genetic pool, from whom we all descended). And that was very, very long ago. It was not a mere 10,000 years ago, but at least 80,000, or maybe even 400,000 years ago.

According to a recent Newsweek cover story, "scientists claim to have found our common ancestor - a woman who lived 200,000 years ago and left resilient genes that are carried by all of mankind." These same scientists are - reluctantly albeit - calling this woman Eve.

The most controversial implication of the geneticists' work is that modern humans didn't slowly and inexorably evolve in different parts of the world, as many anthropologists believed. The evolution from archaic to modern Homo sapiens seems to have occurred in only one place, Eve's family.

The Garden of Eden in the Bible is dated, because gardens were not planted by humans - humans didn't know anything about gardens - until about 10,000 years ago. So the Eden symbolism in which the original story was dressed by the Genesis redactors can't be more than 10,000 years old. Genesis also mentions domestic animals: "Then God commanded, 'Let the earth produce all kinds of animal life: domestic and wild, large and small"' (Gen. 1:24). But we know again, that man did not domesticate animals until about 10,000 years ago. Cain was a farmer and Abel a shepherd (Gen. 4:2), so that story is dated. Tubal Cain "made all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron" (Gen. 4:22), but we know that real bronze is dated to about 3000 B.C. and iron is believed to have been developed in the second millennium B.C. (see "Bronze" and "Iron" in the Encyclopedia Britannica).

The redactors of Genesis - the book whose form was probably finalized during the Babylonian Exile (587-538 B.C.) - wrote down eternal truths about our salvation, dressing them in delightful and profoundly significant symbols, including also folklore and myth. Abraham, who came from Ur of Chaldea, would have heard the ancient stories about Eden from his people, and that may have been 1200 years before the adapted version found its way into Genesis. The Israelites who lived in Palestine must also have heard stories from their neighbors "to the East" about the ancient Paradise. But the inspired authors wrote in their own style and according to their purposes dressed the basic truths of salvation in symbols.

The Core of the Creation Story

The core of the creation story, and of the story of original sin, perhaps had an unbroken tradition also among the Israelites which goes back to the beginning. Adam and Eve told their children, and they passed on the information to their children, down through the generations. When different peoples lost contact with each other and lived in new surroundings, they remembered the ancient truths still, but dressed them in local color which the people could understand more easily. That is why we can still hear various versions of the creation story from other peoples besides the Israelites. We shall hear more about this in the pages which follow: stories told by food - gatherer primitives.

Let us take up the thread, then, to see where the story of original sin really originated. It must have originated with the primal couple who committed the sin, who then told their children, who told theirchildren again, and so on down the line. Who were these original people? When did they live, and where? Church teachings concerning original sin provide us with precious clues to aid us in reconstructing a broad chronological framework within which the sin is located.

Adult Responsibility

First of all, we know that the ancestors who committed this sin are human adults in the sense that they are persons whom God holds to be responsible for their action. Trent explicitly states that these ancestors transgressed against God's commandment and by this sin lost the original holiness and justice in which they had been constituted (cf. Trent, Fifth Session 1546, Canon 1; DS 1511; ND 508). If they sinned mortally, as they surely did, they must have had an adult sense of responsibility. They were not mere children or minors, whom God and society would judge to be immature, not yet fully responsible. Our clue, then, will be signs in the fossil record which indicate that man could think and act as an adult human being, that is, with a sense of adult responsibility.

More specifically, we look for signs that man could speak a language adequately to qualify him for the Eden events. The reason for this is the fact that we cannot communicate with other people adequately unless we speak a language which qualifies to express our thoughts and to make our communications mutually meaningful. Adam and Eve must have spoken a language, one that adults use to convey adult thoughts, in order to understand their duties in Eden. It would not suffice if God provided them with infused knowledge only, an infused revelation which cannot be communicated to the race linguistically. Paul "was snatched up to Paradise to hear words which cannot be uttered, words which no man may speak" (2 Cor. 12:4); but such was not the kind of revelation which Adam needed so that he could teach the race about the first Covenant of Eden.

In fact, we seem to need linguistic ability even to think properly, We think with words, phrases, in linguistic patterns, to steady our otherwise fleeting thoughts. Therefore we seek a clue in the fossil record which indicates linguistic ability. In other words, we should not look for our Adam and Eve until adequate human speech organs were in place.

Transmitted by Propagation

Neither should we look for our Adam and Eve after our present race was already scattered over the earth. Trent states that our first ancestors transmitted to all mankind the sin which is the death of the soul (Canon 2). And this sin is transmitted by propagation, not by mere imitation (Canon 3). Therefore we need not look for our Adam and Eve either before humans could speak a language adequately, or after the members of our race fanned out over the globe. The sin was committed in Eden by our ancestors, who then generated the race which is now on this earth. Whatever other hominids existed elsewhere, they are now extinct and only our race survives to this day.

We can examine the doctrine of Trent in its inverse position to express its truth in a positive way: if original sin is transmitted to all of us by way of propagation, then original holiness and justice should also have been transmitted to us by way of propagation. That must have been God's original plan. We too were supposed to be born constituted in holiness and justice, and live our lives on this earth, without sinning. That makes us think that our natural environment is the same before and after original sin. What changed is not the world around us, but our inner spirit.

So we look for an unbroken continuity in cosmic events. If there was summer and winter before original sin - and the natural sciences tell us that this earth has been rotating around the sun long before original sin - then God must have intended that we live in a world with summers and winters. Eden, too, must have had summers and winters if it was located outside of the tropics. If the earth's plates moved before original sin, causing earthquakes and volcanoes, then God must have intended that we live in holiness and justice also when cosmic events cause stress. Life for our original ancestors would have been lived in pretty much the same environments as we live in today. And the human condition would have been pretty much the same, except for sin.

The Big Difference

It was sin which made the big difference in the lives of our race. Originally our race was constituted in holiness and justice and was provided with instructions by God about how to live on this earth in order to merit eternal life in heaven. Genesis gives us that beautiful symbol of the tree that gives life, the sign of God's presence among men, the symbol of the original community's most central value:

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, and there he put the man he had formed.... In the middle of the garden stood the tree that gives life and the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad [or: knowledge of everything] (Gen. 2:8,9).

That tree which gives life - the symbol of God's presence, the symbol of life - giving grace - should have been the focus and central point of the lives of the original Edenites. They should have lived in obedience to God's commandments with the help of His grace. Their children should have done the same, down through the generations into our day. Keeping the commandments should have been the prime endeavor of the Edenite community. Each should have strengthened the others in this endeavor, and parents should have educated their children to live the pattern of the life of grace, in obedience to God's revelation. But our ancestors broke that original covenant. When and where did this happen?

Homo Sapiens in Europe

Cro-Magnon people, members of our Homo sapiensrace, were doing impressive works of art in caves of Spain and southern France from about 30,000 years ago. The art shows skill in making anatomical observations, is vigorous and well executed (see illustrations in National Geographic,November 1985). The people themselves had a fine physique, tall, straight, with high domed skulls and a well-defined chin (De Beer, 93).

Homo Sapienswas on the Russian plains 24,000 years ago. He was making rope pottery in Japan 24,000 years ago (Barnouw, 167). He traveled to the Americas,probably via a land corridor between Siberia and Alaska. During the maximum period of the Wisconsin glacier age, around 18,000 years ago, the sea level is estimated to have dropped 300 feet as the water was locked into the glaciers, leaving a wide land corridor for them to cross over on foot (Barnouw, 164). They moved across to the east and down to the south. We find their traces in California, Mexico, and South America, and even as far as Tierra del Fuego where hunters lived 12,000 years ago.

According to carbon datings, Homosapiens was in Europe at least 33,000 to 34,000 years ago (Lieberman, 320). Did he perhaps wander to Europe from somewhere else, and displace Neanderthal man who had been in Europe before him? We find Homo sapiensskulls earlier, in the Skhul caves on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Palestine, probably 35,000 to 40,000 years old (Weiss-Mann, 375). Did our race begin in Palestine after all?

We have no real reason to say so. Hunters and food gatherers, believed to have come from Asia, were in Australia "at least 38,000 years ago" (report in L'Osservatore Romano,weekly English edition, 22 September 1986, p. 6). That would predate the Palestine Skhul skulls. He must have possessed considerable technological skill if he could cross the seas from Asia to travel to Australia. That makes his Asian stay more than 60,000 years ago. So our line of ancestry stretches away into the dim past.

Lifestyle of Our Ancestors

It was only 10,000 years ago that man began to cultivate crops and keep herds. How did he live before that time? He must have lived as a hunter and food gatherer, much as isolated groups of primitives have been living right up to the present day. Some aboriginals are still with us and can tell us all about it. One of my confreres, Father Martin Gusinde, S.V.D., an anthropologist, went to live with one of the tribes in Tierra del Fuego, and he has a remarkable story to tell about the initiation rites which he endured successfully. Fr. Gusinde tells how it was:

Time and again the old master pointed to the source of these admonitions, as he explained: "All that takes place in these ceremonies is not the invention of the Yamana themselves. It comes from Watauinewa[name for the highest deity], who made them known to our ancestors and also prescribed ciekhous.We act exactly according to his instructions, for he watches closely. So, observe all these admonitions and suggestions. To neglect these duties will bring early death. Watauinewawatches carefully to see whether you obey and observe. This is his will [Gusinde, 101].

Ciekhouswas the ceremony of initiation, an intense training time lasting for some months, during which the younger members of the tribe were instructed and prepared to enter adult life. Father Gusinde was permitted to attend the instructions, and thus adopted into the tribe. Father Gusinde continues:

When the youths, after many weeks of training, are released from ciekhous,they are mentally and spiritually far better prepared for life than many elsewhere in the world after a college education. To really learn the interior of these people one must undergo many personal sacrifices. I confess that I did not feel so well and comfortable during all those long weeks. Through this experience, however, we now understand how these, the most primitive of all American aborigines, would preserve themselves down through the centuries. They have a healthy natural morality which is founded on a vital belief in God (Gusinde, 10).

The Basis for Man's Moral Activities

Food gatherers, scattered in various isolated places over the globe, have traditions about a time when God dealt with man and instructed him about a proper way of life. Father Wilhelm Schmidt, S.V.D., gathered information and traditions from food gatherers around the globe and published them in 12 formidable tomes entitled Ursprung der Gottes Idee (Origin of the Idea of God).He describes as follows what these primitives relate about God and their own original state.

The Supreme Being made known to man His laws' which then became the basis for man's own moral activities. Immediately at that time, while He still dwelt intimately with man on earth, the Supreme Being took the moral, social, and religious education of man into His own hands, as it were, promulgated His laws regarding these activities, and urged man to the observance of these laws. Whatever relates to morality among these early[Ur] groups of people is always referred back to this first giving of the law, to this first education, and this is done expressly, time and time again. The transmission of these laws is passed down continuously from generation to generation both in the education individual families give to their children as well as at the time when the young men and women are ceremonially initiated into adulthood....

The first sin of man in "paradise" was punished, as far as the North Central Californians and the oldest Algonkians were concerned, with the entry of death and physical evil into the world. In addition to this, the Asiatic and African pygmies say that God left the earth where He had dwelt up to that time (Brandewie, 268-269).

Many of these primitives take great pride in their original ancestor, because he received these instructions directly from God. And many look back with longing and nostalgia to that original time of intimacy with God, and long all the more to reach God again in heaven after death (see Brandewie, especially 270-271; 286-288).

Food Gatherers Are Monogamous

The food gatherers are monogamous, wear clothing, love children, educate them strictly, believe in the Supreme Being and try to obey His laws, and hope for eternal reunion with Him in heaven. They educate the children in the whole gamut of personal and social virtues. For example:

Thomson River Indian youths are instructed carefully in the entire gamut of virtues considered essential: to be clean, neat polite, truthful, brave, friendly, hospitable, energetic, wide - awake, pure, generous, kind to friends, industrious, self-reliant modest humble, sociable, merciful, religious, devout, fearless in battle, full of honor, kind-hearted, grateful, loyal, valiant against enemies, active (Zimmerman, 31).

Divorce is so rare an event that many tribes do not even have a word for it. Unfaithfulness is dealt with as a social problem. Father Gusinde was awakened one morning by a loud ruckus, a woman shouting and berating her husband in extreme anger because she suspected unfaithfulness during the night. The group came running together to witness the battle and to learn the truth. Among the Gabun Pygmies a boy must report his first nocturnal emission to his father, who then takes his son to the river for a bath and explains to him the facts of life, telling him never to masturbate intentionally, which is considered a disgrace. Similarly, when girls first menstruate, they are instructed by their mothers. The following picture emerges as typical of family life and moral sexuality among food gatherers: (1) observance of chastity before married life; (2) absolute freedom of choice of a marriage partner; (3) lifelong and loving fidelity in monogamous wedlock; (4) division of labor between husband and wife, and loving mutual help; (5) no contraception, but a great desire for children; (6) love for children to the point of spoiling them (Zimmerman, 31).

Of course, these food gatherers have their own languages and communicate well. We assume that Adam and Eve had linguistic skills comparable with these people, since they were the founders of our race and passed on to us the original revelation.

Homo Sapiens,the Only Hominid with Our Type of Speech Organs

The basicranium of Homo Sapiensand the morphology of his skull are unique, setting him apart from Neanderthal man, from archaic Homo Sapiens,from Homo erectus,from Australopithecus Afarensis,from all and any creatures except himself. The supralaryngeal airway which our skeletal morphology admits, and which that of none of the other hominids admits, makes it possible for us to form the vowels a, I,and u, and the stops k and g. Together with this sophisticated speaking tube, we have the neural substratum which makes possible the enormously complicated achievement of encoding our thoughts rapidly in speech sounds and decoding just as rapidly the speech signals which another communicates to us.

This is not to deny that Neanderthal man and other hominids had some kind of speech ability. But they could not have had the rapid speaking ability which we have. If we tried to fit our speech organs into Neanderthal man, the larynx would be located in his chest, an impossible situation never observed among primates (Lieberman, 296). Lieberman mentions a speaking ability with perhaps one-tenth of the speed at which we speak, as attributable to the non-Homo Sapienssupralaryngeal airway. Therefore only short sentences could be spoken. Anything longer would be lost to the short-term memory because the time lapse is too long (Lieberman, 325). Hence, I believe, people without our type of speech organs would not qualify for the Eden events.

Original Sin 130,000 Years Ago?

Two skulls have been found in strata about 130,000 years old, which are "both clearly identifiable as Homo Sapiens"(Richard E. Leakey, 91). This might push back the possible date of original sin to 130,000 years. Lieberman mentions that Broken Hill man, somewhat older than 100,000 years, had a modern supralaryngeal vocal tract, and that there were various experiments in nature before that (Lieberman, 306-316), so he would guess that human speech appeared between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago (correspondence, 21 February 1987).

If speech developed not at once by a special act of God, but by a slower process of evolution and learning, then we may have to assign a time of adolescence to our Homo Sapiensrace. That is, before our ancestors were led into Eden, the Homo Sapienspopulation passed through a long period of learning to think and to speak. Tools, for example, were used by hominids 2,500,000 years ago, and some point to that as the date of hominization (Johanson-Edey, 231, 259). Fire was used in the Escale Cave near Marseilles in France 750,000 years ago; there are hearths of charcoal and ash; scattered around are remains of primitive wolves and saber-toothed cats. No human fossils are found with them, but we cannot suppose that it was the wolves which were using fire. And Peking man used fire 500,000 years ago (Barnouw, 134). But these members of the Homo erectustype did not have the skeletal morphology which would accommodate our type of speech organs.

If they used language, and we can suppose they did to some extent, it was not sufficient as yet to qualify them for Eden. They were like children today, not yet possessing the intellectual and moral ability which the Eden events require.

We must assign a long period of incubation, then, before we envision the emergence of our Adam and Eve from among the hominid population. It was only when Homo Sapienshad finally achieved enough linguistic and thinking ability to qualify him for the Eden events that God brought our ancestors to that haven of seclusion, and there instructed them about their gift, their duties, their destination with Him in heaven. Just as today the little children already have souls, but they still have to develop ability to speak over a period of time, so the Homo Sapienspopulation probably developed the speech apparatus only over a much longer period of years.

Our Ability to Speak Is Very Special

"The mind creates a place into which the building blocks of language may fit" during the years when children grow to maturity, writes Lenneberg (377). When hominids first developed these speaking organs, it probably took several million years to do what children today do in ten years. The 13 billion nerves of the brain had to develop and be integrated to enable man to become a functional and then a rapid speaker. The skeletal morphology had to take on the shape of Homo Sapiens,and then our sophisticated "fat" tongue which can shape itself and the supralaryngeal airway to produce the needed vowels and stops came into place.

Just the mechanical efforts of speech are a sheer accomplishment which makes us wonder. The thinking hemisphere of the brain and the feeling hemisphere must assemble and make their inputs on the brain's motor strip and send impulses down the nerves to the various muscles to produce speech. All this is not as simple as it seems to us, who speak with such ease. Lenneberg recorded three radio newscasters and found that they spoke an average of 5.7, 5.9, and 6 syllables per second. For each syllable there would be about 2.4 phonemes, totaling 14 phonemes per second. At least 100 muscles of the thorax, the abdomen, the neck and face, the larynx, pharynx, and the oral cavity must be properly coordinated while speaking. Since the passage from one sound to another depends ultimately on differences in muscle adjustments, an order must be issued to every muscle 14 times per second, either to contract, relax, or maintain its tonus. The time is not simultaneous for all the muscles, and to produce a phoneme there must be action at the onset, at its performance, and then at its conclusion.

Since it is obvious that the activation of so many muscles in so short a time cannot depend on conscious volition alone, Lenneberg concludes that there must be automatisms whose trains of events are preprogrammed (cf. Lenneberg, 91-92). We could not possibly fire all those nerves fast enough to produce speech if we had to do this consciously. The situation becomes complicated, because the nerve length between the firing end and the target muscle varies; also the speed of the firing travels faster over thick nerves than over thin ones; therefore the sequence of firing must often be reversed in order to achieve the correct sequence on target. But if 100 muscles are activated 14 times per second by rapid speakers, that means 1400 nerve firings per second which must be done in proper sequence, while the ear monitors to check mistakes. I think it would take not just one second to do this consciously, if we had to do all this manually by ourselves; we might have to work for a full week just to produce the speaking action of one second. Even so, we might never succeed in producing speech all by ourselves, without use of preprogrammed automatisms. Therefore it is not far-fetched to think that it may have taken nature, under God's guiding hand, several million years to evolve our powers of speech.

And so we are back to our theme of evolution and speaking ability. How long did it take? Lucy, the Australopithecine discovered by Donald Johnson, is about 3.5 million years old. She is not human, claims Johanson (284). But we may believe that she is in the line of hominids which God eventually created into humans. We need not preclude her from the line of hominids in which the nerves, muscles, and skeletal morphology were evolving which would eventually allow speech for our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, of the kind which was truly adequate for Eden.


Before Adam and Eve, then, humans may have existed in a condition of pre-adulthood as far as thinking and a sense of responsibility are concerned. When the fullness of time came, that is, when Adam and Eve arrived at the threshold of true human maturity, then God took them apart from the others and introduced them into Eden. There He spoke with them about the human race, and about us, and about how we can live on earth in preparation for a life with Him in heaven. Although they lost the gift of grace temporarily, they never forgot the message, the revelation, which God had given them. They passed this down to the race, and this has become the origin and mainstay of our human culture.

How long ago? I think the age of the two skulls found alongside the Omo River by the Richard E. Leakey expedition may be a good starting point to guess about the time of original sin. The strata in which these Homo Sapiensskulls were found are 130,000 years old. Maybe original sin took place 100,000 or even 200,000 years earlier; maybe some tens of thousands of years later. We leave it there until a better guess or estimate is made.