Figure 1. Limestone tablet engraved with pictographic writing found in Kish (Iraq), and dated to . Probably the earliest known evidence of writing, it contains pictographs of heads, feet, hands, numbers, and threshing-boards. Image & description courtesy of José-Manuel Benito.
Figure 2. This Sumerian star chart has been dated to , but it is calibrated based on alignments that existed in , and which only occur every 13,000 years. It might also have annotations describing an asteroid that struck a mountain in the Austrian Alps in .1,2
Having fixed Abraham's birth in , we can estimate the dates for his ancestors, and evaluate the possible historicity. This won't be easy — the Torah only gives 11 chapters to events before Abraham, and the secular records before are sparse as well. Still, we can review the information that does exist.
The Torah starts "in the beginning," which the Hebrew calendar identifies as . Interestingly, the earliest known writing has been dated to less than 300 years later, around .3 (See Figure 1.) By , the Sumerians were doing star charts, so they had been counting years for some time by then. (See Figure 2.) It's possible that was when the scribes started keeping continuous records. In other words, the "beginning of time" might have been just the beginning of time-keeping.
The Sumerians started the calendar, perhaps for tracking celestial alignments that take many years to repeat, and naturally they would have used the beginning of time-keeping as the base date, hence its preservation, at least for astronomical observations. Political dates in ancient times were a different story — they were always based on the ascendancy of the ruler, and this practice didn't change until much later. For example, Roman historians found it cumbersome to specify a year by the names of both consuls in office for that year, and some of them started numbering years from the mythical founding of their city by Romulus & Remus in , though they didn't all agree on exactly when that was, and the practice never gained broad acceptance. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christians started counting years from when they thought Christ was born (which modern historians believe to have actually been in ). That practice did come into widespread usage, now known around the world as the "Common Era" (). All the while, Jewish scribes have been maintaining a calendar that just happens to start when writing itself was first invented. Indeed, to Romans, the event that defined their era was the founding of their city; to Christians, it was the birth of Christ; and to Jewish scribes, it was the invention of writing.
Then things get more complex. The Torah doesn't give the Anno Mundi date of creation, or of anything else for that matter, but it does give the ages of the fathers when the children were born. The paternal ages add up to 1946 years between Adam & Abraham. But if Abraham was born in , 1946 years prior would have been in , which misses the beginning of time-keeping by 395 years. If we let Abraham's birthdate slide, and rather pin Adam's at , Abraham would have been born in , long before Mitannian princesses were marrying Egyptian pharaohs, and way too early for Jacob to see the land of Ramesses. Of course, we should have known better than to think that finding historicity in these verses would be easy, since Genesis 5 assigns unrealistic ages to the antediluvian fathers, such as Noah being 500 years old when Shem was born. There just isn't going to be any historicity in that.
To find correlations between scripture & secular records, we first need an interpretation of scripture that's at least biologically possible. This will require that we observe some details and neglect others, which of course will be quite contentious. The present article takes the most conservative approach, keeping as much of the text as possible, while neglecting numbers if they are unrealistic. The reasoning is that numbers are easier to modify than the themes of stories, especially after the stories have already become ingrained in the culture. So the textual aspects of the primeval genealogy, which names 19 Patriarchs before Abraham, are taken as given. But the unrealistic paternal ages in Genesis 5 have to be replaced with reasonable estimates.
Table 1 shows the estimated birthdates for each Patriarch, along with his age when he fathered the next one in line. The "Gen." column shows the ages given in Genesis, Adam through Noah coming from Genesis 5, and Shem through Terah coming from Genesis 11:10-26. The latter gives realistic ages for men to be having children, so they're taken at face value (shown as grey ages in Table 1), and the birthdates were found just by counting backwards from Abraham being born in , as derived in the article on The Historicity of the Patriarchs. Before Arpachshad, the ages of the fathers were first estimated with 30 years per generation, and then fine-tuned to synchronize with secular records. Specifically, Enosh's birthdate was set at , explained later in this article, and Shem's at , for reasons given in the article on Between Adam & Abraham. Between Enosh & Shem, the birthdates were simply interpolated, which worked out to 32.5 years per generation, which is realistic, and close to the average of 31.4 years per generation for Arpachshad through Nahor.
To check these dates for historicity, we should begin with Adam arriving early in the . And such was an interesting time. The Harappan Civilization in India, the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, and the Old Kingdom in Egypt were all on the decline, perhaps due to a century-long drought.4 This enabled Indo-Aryans from Bactria to expand in two directions. One branch migrated to the south-east, across the Hindu Kush and into Punjab, which they seem to have named after the Panj River in Bactria, "Punj Ab" being closer to the Old Persian than to the Sanskrit for "Five Rivers." Meanwhile, another branch migrated to the west, settling in Nubia, Mesopotamia, & Anatolia, attested by Indo-Aryan loan words appearing in Egyptian, Sumerian, & Hittite literature in the .
Figure 3. The Ancient Silk Road(s).
We don't know much about the Bactrians directly, since they didn't leave written records — we only know them by their influence on other cultures. They didn't conquer much of anything, but aside from spreading Bactrian words from India to Anatolia, they also took their faith with them — the commonalities between Vedic & Mitannian religious practices seem to have originated in Bactria before the migration.5:192 To have integrated that easily into such diverse cultures suggests that the Bactrians had a more global world view. Indeed, if the methods of geo-politics are reliable, the Bactrians would have been as cosmopolitan as anybody in the world at the time, being at the cross-roads of the ancient trade routes, which exposed them to the Egyptian, Sumerian, Indian, & Chinese customs, albeit from the outside, and such as those cultures were in the . (See Figure 3.) When the existing power structures weakened, the Bactrians could expand into the territory of their trading partners, being already familiar with their customs.
Is this a suitable context for the story of Adam & Eve?
Their children left Eden in two different directions, with Cain going one way, and Seth going the other.6 Cain settled in Nod, east of Eden. Evidence that Cain was in the eastward Indo-Aryan migration, across the Hindu Kush and into Punjab, might be the later appearance of the Romani people, who were from Punjab,7 and who were identified as the descendants of Cain when they first entered Europe in the .8 In the other direction, one of Seth's grandsons was Kenan, who might have given his name to the region of Canaan, suggesting that Seth was in the westward migration. The region was first attested as such in the period of ,9:111 so the founder would have come earlier. If Kenan lived to be 60 years old, he would have died in , which was over 100 years earlier, but not so far back as to strain the connection. So the most salient aspect of the (i.e., the bidirectional migration out of Bactria) matches up with the only historical details given for the 2nd generation of the Patriarchs (i.e., Cain moving east and Seth moving west).
Figure 4. Mentuhotep II, king of Egypt , and possibly the first of many Yahwist Lords.
After the split, the Torah says no more about Cain, so all of the history is about the western branch of the family. Genesis 4:26 says that after Seth's son Enosh was born, "people began to call upon the name of the Lord." Being a Jahwist fragment, and if Yahwist Lords were actually just Egyptian pharaohs, we need to identify which one was in power in Seth's time, to see if there are any parallels in the secular history. Depending on the exact dates, there are a number of possibilities, but certainly the most significant ruler in that period was Mentuhotep II, who ruled , and who reunited Upper & Lower Egypt to form the Middle Kingdom. (See Figure 4.) He was also the first pharaoh to claim divine origin, around .10:139 So when the Patriarchs "began to call upon the name of the Lord," that name might have been Mentuhotep II. The corresponding verse in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan is more verbose, and describes the change in negative terms, insisting that the people "began to err, and to make themselves idols, and to surname their idols by the name of the Lord."11:G4 So they already had religious beliefs that didn't include the worship of living gods or idols. This is consistent with Bactrians bringing their faith to Canaan in the , but when they got there, they had to learn to address the king of Egypt as a living god, which they did, albeit with prejudice as echoed in the Targum. The good news for us is that this enables the dating of Enosh's birth, being just before the deification of Mentuhotep II in . Then, at 30 years per generation prior to Enosh, Seth would have been born in , and Adam in , fixing the beginning of the present chronology.
If Cain & Seth were Indo-Aryans migrating out of Bactria in the , that explains why the genealogy goes no further back than Adam & Eve. They didn't have writing in Bactria or Punjab, but Seth moved to Canaan, which was a literate region, meaning that he and his progeny would go on record, and he might have proudly insisted that he be known as "Seth, son of Adam & Eve." But there wouldn't have been any reason for a Canaanite scribe to preserve a Bactrian genealogy from before the migration. So the story would begin with Adam & Eve.
Bactrians settling in Babylon might have memorialized Adam & his son Abel in the myth of Dumuzid (later known as Tammuz), who was a Mesopotamian god associated with shepherds. He was also the primary consort of the goddess Inanna (later known as Ishtar), and he competed against the farmer Enkimdu for Inanna's hand in marriage, ultimately prevailing. The Torah also tells of a competition between farmer & shepherd in the story of Cain & Abel, with the shepherd being favored.12:101 Dumuzid was known in Semitic as Adonis, which is cognate with Adam, meaning that Dumuzid was a fusion of Adam & Abel. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Dumuzid was turned into a bird, similar to how Adam & Eve are represented in Hindu legends (as Adimo & Heva).13:291 Shrines to him were small gardens, honoring his fertility, and which might also memorialize the family's home in the Garden of Eden. So it seems that the tale of the first couple was widely circulated by the Indo-Aryans.
Figure 5. Stretch of the Panj River on the border of Afghanistan & Tajikistan, where it flows down out of the Pamir Mountains at right, creating a rich alluvial fan before flowing out at the bottom.
Figure 6. The Panj River, where it comes down out of the Pamir Mountains and onto the Bactrian Plain near Farkhor, Tajikistan.
If Adam & Eve were Bactrian, that's where we should look for the Garden of Eden. A candidate for the actual location (37.598 N, 69.729 E) is pictured in Figure 5, which matches every aspect of the description given in Genesis 2: 8-14.
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.
"Edin" was Sumerian for "plain," which is how the pastoral nomads in the surrounding mountains refer to Bactria. See Figure 6, which is the same location as Figure 5, but at about half the scale. The pale green plain is roughly 400 m above sea level, while the snow-covered mountains just 50 km away are above 4000 m.
"In the east" begs the question, "East of where?" This far back, the people doing the writing were most likely Sumerian,14:26 so they would have been saying that Eden was east of them, and there wasn't much in that direction short of India and Bactria.
And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
This could have been anywhere.
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.
At the location in question, the Panj River splits as it flows downstream, and which is common in alluvial fans. (The five branches in Figure 5 might have given the river its name, "panj" meaning "five" in Old Persian.)
This criterion rules out other proposed locations where rivers converge in the direction of the flow, such as the Tigris & Euphrates in Mesopotamia.
The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.
The Pishon isn't explicitly mentioned in any other literature, but the name did become a root verb in Hebrew, variously meaning to disperse, diverge, scatter, flow, over-flow, or gush.15 For a river to do all of these things, it would have to gush down out of the mountains and diverge in an alluvial fan, which would be an apt description for Figure 5.
The only other mention of Havilah in any ancient literature is in Genesis 10:7, as the name of one of the sons of Cush, so we should suspect that the "land of Havilah" was part or all of the "land of Cush" mentioned in the second verse after this one. "Cush" is typically taken to have meant Ethiopia, but could have just as easily been the Hindu Kush, which separates Bactria & Punjab. The first known usage of the term "Kush" in Egyptian records, where it meant a part of Nubia, was in , which puts it during the migration out of Bactria, opening the possibility that Indo-Aryan migrants settling in Nubia in the named the Nubian Cush after the Hindu Kush back in their homeland.
Gold is mentioned here and in the next verse, so we should take it as an important clue. Gold is only found near mountains, which certainly includes Bactria, while excluding the lower Tigris & Euphrates basins, the Nile delta, and the low rolling hills surrounding Dilmun (modern Bahrain).
And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.
Bactria was one of the few places in the ancient world known for its gold, bdellium, and onyx,16:124-126,17:81 each of which being rare in its own right.
The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush.
The Panj River is a major tributary of the Amu Darya, which is known in the local Islamic history as the Gihon.18
And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Tigris & Euphrates were both loan words from Indo-Aryan as of ,19 so this verse doesn't unambiguously place Eden in Mesopotamia — the reference could have been to the original rivers (or minor branches thereof) in Bactria.
Assyria was unknown to the Sumerians, so that clause was added later. By the time the Assyrians got organized, the two great rivers in Mesopotamia were already known as the Tigris & Euphrates, so perhaps a Babylonian scribe had to wrestle with the oddity of recopying a manuscript that described a river in the east named the Tigris, while to a Babylonian, the Tigris came down from the northwest. So perhaps he settled on calling it a river that "flows east of Assyria," which relative to Assyria could have been the eastern border of Mesopotamia, or anything further in that direction, such as Bactria.
It might be noteworthy that the scribe did not specify the cardinal direction of the Euphrates, perhaps because he couldn't get away with the same ambiguity — relative to anywhere in Mesopotamia, the Euphrates was to the west, while Bactria was to the east — so he just stated the name of the river, and left it at that.
Thus every single clue has been taken into account. Some of them are more specific than others, but taken together, they reinforce each other, and Bactria satisfies all of them.
So far, all of the usable historical details from the 1st & 2nd generations of the Patriarchs are consistent with a Bactrian origin in the . The outstanding issue concerns the Hebrew calendar starting in , over 1600 years earlier. Here we just have to remember who the scribes were — the Bactrians didn't have writing, but when they moved to Mesopotamia, they fell in with the Babylonians, who had inherited writing from the Sumerians. If a Babylonian scribe acknowledged the supremacy of both the Sumerian start date and the primeval history, all he had to do was shift Adam & Eve back to . This meant stretching the years per generation beyond biological limits, but this was perfectly acceptable in the Babylonian tradition, which had antediluvian kings reigning for tens of thousands of years. So as meticulous as they were about accuracy in such diverse disciplines as astronomy and land surveying, the Babylonians were a bit more creative with their political history, and they had no problem aggrandizing rulers with superhuman lifespans. The Patriarchs were rather tame by comparison in this regard. So it seems that the Jewish creation myth preserves the Sumerian start date of , and the Indo-Aryan tradition of Adam & Eve being the first couple, and a bit of the Babylonian tradition of antediluvian ancestors being bigger than life, albeit in a somewhat more conservative way.