What the Bible and ancient myths tell us about big history
Many historians and anthropologists have noted that the biblical fall of man and expulsion from paradise reflects the transition from foraging to farming. God tells Adam that from now on he has to toil the earth in order to eat bread. Adam and Eve, rather than being the first people, became the first foragers to turn to farming, in the process also losing their innocent attitude towards nudity. What is interesting, the transition from foraging in the Garden of Eden, which is believed to be in or near southern Mesopotamia where civilization started, is seen as punishment and a worsening of the human condition. We find the same idea in Hesiod’s Ages of Man, with the Golden Age: Peace and harmony prevailed during this age. Humans did not have to work to feed themselves, for the earth provided food in abundance. Many modern scientists would agree with this assessment, Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari are two of the most famous proponents of the idea that agriculture had more downsides than upsides.
The subsequent story of Cain and Abel has received much less attention from historians and anthropologists. It should have. It’s not merely a story about two brothers who fight each other, but about a farmer (Cain) who kills a pastoralist (Abel). Nomadic pastoralism is often somewhat overlooked by historians. Farmers and pastoralists often had a symbiotic relationship with each other, trading their respective goods. However, there was also ample potential for conflict between the two (from herds destroying the harvest to pastoralist raiding as a fallback strategy). The biblical story has an Egyptian counterpart in the brother Osiris (god of farmers) and Seth (god of the desert people, i.e. nomadic pastoralists), also god of chaos, war and storms (rainfall was even more important to desert pastoralists than farmers). In Egyptian mythology it’s the pastoralist brother Seth who kills his farmer brother Osiris.
The story of Cain and Abel may be visible in our genes. Haplogroup J2 is widespread in areas where early farming was prevalent and J1 is widespread in areas where pastoralism was prevalent
This is not to say that J2 Cain was the first farmer, we already know it was Adam, but Abel may well have been the first herder. What is telling in the bible: farmer Cain is the evil brother. It’s a story written from the perspective of herders. In fact, everything from Abel to Moses tells us that the Lord’s chosen people are a nomadic herder population. Abraham is a herder and trader and God travelled with his people in a tent.
Abraham’s religion remains a herder religion until the conquest of the promised land. What we see here is something that was likely very common: a small herding population taking over a much larger population of farmers. It’s unlikely that the herders themselves also turned to farming, but more likely that they established themselves as a ruling elite, similar to feudalism. There may be some good genetic evidence here: Y-chromosomal Aaron is the name given to the hypothesised most recent common ancestor of the patrilineal Jewish priestly caste known as Kohanim (singular “Kohen”, also spelled “Cohen”). About half of contemporary Jewish Kohanim shared Y-chromosomal J1. Modern Kohanim are traditionally regarded in Judaism as male descendants of biblical Aaron, brother of Moses, a direct patrilineal descendant of Abraham, according to the lineage recorded in the Hebrew Bible. If my hypothesis is correct, they are also descendants of Abel, the first herder.
Moses can be regarded as a farmer again. He brought laws and more laws to his people. Pastoralists are free of many rules and historically have never been followers of laws, which often made them so suspicious to farmers. Whereas the herder god of Abraham had only a few rules, basically just to worship him and not other pastoralist gods, the farmer god of Moses has a plethora of rules, from when to rest to when not to have sex, and of course, thou shalt pay your taxes and not marry any foreigners, refugees or immigrants. Most importantly: the High Priest must marry a virgin. A lot of the laws also revolve around food tabus, which reflects the higher disgust sensitivity of evolutionary farmer types.
In order to go full circle, the farmer bible prohibits a lot of foods that are highly valued by foragers: shellfish, larvae, shrimp and most insects. Jesus was a forager type, not only did he have a low option of farming ( “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”) but he also detested the kind of materialism that came with farming and he was a nomad rather than sedentary.
For a full treatment of this topic check out my book: The Evolution of the Judeo-Christian Religion and its Role in State Formation