How long have humans been on this earth?

I frequently see the claim made in news media coverage of science: that humans have been around for a couple of million years. They talk about the latest anthropological discovery in terms of “early humans” and “our ancestors” in times periods from hundreds of thousands of years ago up to one or two million years. Some examples follow:

An extinct species of tool-making humans apparently occupied a vast area in China as early as 1.7 million years ago, researchers say. (Life Science)

“This was a place where was big competition between carnivores and hominins [ancient humans]. It seems that they were fighting for the carcasses, and unfortunately for the hominins, but fortunately for us, they were not always successful,” Professor Lordkipanidze said. (The Independent)

An Oxford University study has concluded that our ancient ancestors who lived in East Africa between 2.4 million-1.4 million years ago mainly ate tiger nuts (grass bulbs) supplemented with the odd grasshopper and worm. (Science Daily)

These claims are not scientifically accurate. Every human being on earth today is a member of the group called “behaviorally-modern humans”; the genus, species, and subspecies is termed: homo sapiens sapiens. Anthropologists believe that behaviorally-modern humans began only about 50 to 70 ka (thousand years ago). Before that time, modern man did not exist. So our particular species and subspecies has only been around for tens of thousands of years. That is not my own opinion. It is the prevailing view among scientists who specialize in this field.

Anthropologists believe that behaviorally-modern humans (BMH) arose from an earlier group: anatomically-modern humans (AMH). The AMH have bodies that are anatomically very similar to the BMH. The distinction is that behaviorally-modern humans have the ability to reason abstractly, and anatomically-modern humans do not.

The current theory is that anatomically-modern humans began about 200 ka. No human person or ethnic group today is a member of the AMH; the whole human race is comprised only of behaviorally-modern humans (BMH). We all have an inherent ability to think abstractly.

Prior to the AMHs, our distant ancestors are called “hominins”; they are of the genus homo, but not the species sapiens. These hominins not anatomically distinct from the AMH; they do not closely resemble modern man in body. And the more ancient the hominin species is, the less they look like humans and the more they look like non-human primates.

In the first quote above, the species in question is called “tool-making humans”. But it refers to hominins 1.7 million years ago — long before anatomically-modern humans and behaviorally-modern humans. Those creatures were more ape than man.

The second quote above uses the correct scientific term “hominins”, but then the journalist or editor added “ancient humans” in brackets. That phrasing is not correct. Hominins are not considered to be humans by anthropologists; they are not homo sapiens,

As for the third quote, the hominins are, in some sense our ancient ancestors. But again the distinction between homo sapiens and non-human primate predecessors is lost.

My View

My position on evolution is that most of the theory of evolution is correct. But a faithful Christian must also hold that God intervened to deliberately create the human race; it was not an accident of an unthinking evolutionary process. And evolution exceeds the limits of its field when it assumes that God could not have been involved, by providence or miraculous intervention, as Creation unfolded on earth.

The behaviorally-modern humans have the ability to reason abstractly; this distinguishes them from anatomically-modern humans. In my opinion, the ability to reason abstractly implies free will. For reason is not self-guided; it needs the choice of the will to drive the search for understanding. Then reason and free will imply an immortal soul.

I conclude, therefore, that human persons have been in the world for only about 50 to 70 thousand years. The anatomically-modern humans were essentially just the highest form of primate; they were not “persons” in the theological sense of the word.

I’m currently working on a book that attempts to reconcile evolution (with some modifications) and the story of Adam and Eve. It is a book about the intersection between faith and science. I don’t take a Creationist point of view. Nor do I consider the first 11 chapters of Genesis to be entirely figurative. I hold that some elements of the Adam and Eve story were literal, and other elements were figurative. And I accept the immense antiquity of the earth and the universe, while still holding that God created heaven and earth.

More on this topic in later posts.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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4 Responses to How long have humans been on this earth?

  1. Matt says:

    Ron,
    Vatican Council I states the following:

    This sole true God by His goodness and “omnipotent power,” not to increase His own beatitude, and not to add to, but to manifest His perfection by the blessings which He bestows on creatures, with most free volition, “immediately from the beginning of time fashioned each creature out of nothing, spiritual and corporeal, namely angelic and mundane; and then the human creation, common as it were, composed of both spirit and body” [Lateran Council IV, can. 2 and 5]

    My interpretation of this section contradicts your assertions that we evolved.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Ron Conte says:

      It’s not the Vatican Council, but the Fourth Lateran Council: “creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal; who by his almighty power at the beginning of time created from nothing both spiritual and corporeal creatures, that is to say angelic and earthly, and then created human beings composed as it were of both spirit and body in common. The devil and other demons were created by God naturally good, but they became evil by their own doing. Man, however, sinned at the prompting of the devil.”

      This explanation clearly places the creation of human beings after the creation of other beings (angels) and things. So there is an order to the creation, just as Genesis explains (multiple steps to creation, not one immediate act). Also, the fact that God started His work of Creation by creating from nothing does not imply that He could ONLY create each being from nothing. We know that each of us, as individuals, is created from the process of procreation. Adam is described as being created from dust of the earth, not from nothing; and Eve from the side of Adam. So it is obvious that the Council did not intend to say that each thing is created directly from nothing.

      No, the Council’s word do not exclude evolution. Both Pope Pius XII (Humani Generis) and John Paul II permitted believe in evolution (within certain limits, which I intend to discuss in my book)

      Humani Generis 36. “For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.”

      JP2 address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences: “Well-established experimental results enable you to build a general scheme or model, tracing the whole evolution of the universe from an infinitesimal instant after the starting-point of time up to the present, and beyond, into the distant future.”

      JP2 on evolution (1996)

  2. Matt says:

    Ron,
    Pope Leo 13 stated the following in his 1880 encyclical Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae:

    STILL, the purpose We have set before Us is not to recount, in detail, benefits of this kind; Our wish is rather to speak about that family union of which marriage is the beginning and the foundation. The true origin of marriage, venerable brothers, is well known to all. Though revilers of the Christian faith refuse to acknowledge the never-interrupted doctrine of the Church on this subject, and have long striven to destroy the testimony of all nations and of all times, they have nevertheless failed not only to quench the powerful light of truth, but even to lessen it. We record what is to all known, and cannot be doubted by any, that God, on the sixth day of creation, having made man from the slime of the earth, and having breathed into his face the breath of life, gave him a companion, whom He miraculously took from the side of Adam when he was locked in sleep. God thus, in His most far-reaching foresight, decreed that this husband and wife should be the natural beginning of the human race, from whom it might be propagated and preserved by an unfailing fruitfulness throughout all futurity of time.

    This Pope wrote and believed that God on the sixth day, created man from the slime of the Earth.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Ron Conte says:

      He was speaking within the figure of Scripture. When the Pope calls Jesus the Shepherd and us the sheep, does he not speak in the same way? But my position is that God did literally create Adam and Eve miraculously, though patterned after the highest form of life on earth at the time (anatomically-modern humans).

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