Adamites and Preadamites: or, A Popular Discussion Concerning the Remote Representatives of the Human Species and their Relation to the Biblical Adam

Syracuse, N.Y.: John T. Roberts, 1878

Early Egyptology was on very intimate terms with another nineteenth-century science, ethnology. A precursor to later fields such as comparative anatomy and evolutionary biology, ethnology was, as its name implies, the study of different “ethnic” differences between human groups. Nineteenth-century ethnologists, or “race scientists,” attempted to determine the inherent differences between different human groups, or “types” – Negro, Caucasian, Mongol, and so on – and then attempted to extrapolate from those differences some conclusions about permanent or essential differences between the races. Ethnologists used skin color, skull measurements, language analysis, ancient history, and other forms of data to divide humans up into a small number of total races – some said three, some said five, some said seven – and offered conclusions about world history on the basis of these divisions. Yet far from being a benign, objective, or apolitical science, ethnology was often interested in proving certain claims about racial differences which, during the period of slavery and western colonial expansion, would offer justifications for the continuing enslavement or invasion of non-white peoples.

Egyptology became of extreme importance to ethnology because, for a scientist working on the roles of “negroes” in the ancient world, the problem was one of data collection: where to find the proof of these roles? The Bible, of course, was an important source of information on the ancient world, but, as many ethnologists (and, later, many Darwinians) would argue, the Bible was unreliable regarding certain key facts about early human history – especially in terms of facts about what is today known as “prehistory.” Biblical scholars had long calculated the origin of the human race, and had dated human origin to roughly 4000 B.C., but, with the deciphering and dating of Egyptian monuments in the early nineteenth century, other scholars began to challenge the Biblical timeline, and began pushing back the date of human origin. Egyptian monuments seemed to have been around much earlier than 4000 B.C., and so the authority of the Bible’s story of human origin was seen as faulty and flawed. Egyptology thus represented a crisis for Christianity.

Many questions quickly emerged from this crisis: if the Biblical timeline was faulty, then which other parts of the Biblical story of creation were untrue? If the Biblical creation story was untrue, then where did the human race come from? And if the human race – or more importantly for ethnologists, races – did not all come from the Biblical figures of Adam and Eve, then did that mean that different groups of people had different origins? What was to be done?

For Alexander Winchell, the answer was to focus on the “Pre-Adamites.” The Preadamites, according to Winchell, were that group of early humans who, as their name implies, existed before Adam in the Garden of Eden. Winchell argued that the Biblical story of creation only applied to one group of humans , and not all humans, and thus that the Bible told only the story of one creation. Thus all humans were not fundamentally related. This was a scandalous claim, but one which by the time of Winchell’s tract’s appearance – 1878 – had been circulating for several decades, and, more to the point, was one which had a definite upside: if all humans were not descended from Adam and Eve, then those groups who were not “Adamites” were much more easily viewed as “less human,” subhuman, or even nonhuman. And for a country continuously in the throes of violently conflicted race relations, the justification for treating one group of people as not quite human had many supporters.

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