The story of Eden contained in the Biblical books of Genesis and Ezekiel — and its variations in other ancient literature, such as that in the Epic of Gilgamesh — reflects the flight of early nomadic peoples from the “wet Sahara” some 5,000 years ago.
The story of Eden and the banishment of humankind from its paradise is well known, as is the role of a certain supernatural serpent. It is traditionally taught as an allegory for humanity’s relationship with God and the risk it runs in disobeying divine commands. The story is not unlike that of a boogeyman: Behave or you will be banished from paradise!
Equal attention is perhaps paid to the nature of the “garden,” its numerous and supernatural flora and fauna, and its supposed location. The fact that God seemingly placed Adam in Eden, which Genesis identifies as somewhere in to the east, but we should be careful with taking any specific details from anything as archaic as a creation story. “East” — much like certain numerals such as seven — most likely carried symbolic meaning of one sort or another, and the preserved version of the Genesis creation story was undoubtedly changed time and time again before finally being set down in its “canonical” form.
Indeed the entire Genesis creation story follows a formula discernible in other ancient creation stories. The beginning of the world as endless waters parallels the time before Amun, creator of the world in ancient Egyptian mythology; the rising of the land from those same waters once again parallels the rising of Amun from the waters in the form of a pyramid which then rises to reveal a monumental obelisk. The order in which Genesis lists the transition from nothing to creation is the very same one would expect from a society attached to the cycles of river-valleys, such as those along the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus: land rises from the waters to become fertile soil, not unlike the silted topsoil upon which river-valley civilizations depended. From that soil will grow plants and vegetation, which in turn attract animals; the consistency of both the river’s cycle and the constant visit of edible wildlife was necessary for the creation of stable, stationary societies.
I have fleshed out these parallel of examples to simply point out the consistent pattern of creation myths that we see across the world, with greater similarity among those civilizations in greater proximity to one another. These creation stories do not come from nowhere; they are passed down, today digitally but in writing before that. And before that, such major stories would have been passed down verbally, changing with the context and times of their retelling. This is a well-known phenomenon which is thought to be responsible for the composition of, for example, the Iliad and Odyssey. The story of creation told in Genesis, so similar in more ways than I can name here to other contemporary myths, is itself almost certainly derived from a story — or series of stories, more likely — told and retold, passed down in the oral tradition typical of nomadic societies.
The “wet” or “green” Sahara hypothesis stipulates that at a time before 3000 BCE, what we today refer to as the Sahara Desert was a massive, lush grassland populated by the sort of flora and fauna which today we find across Africa and parts of Asia. This great grassland must have been stunning, allowing animals to roam free from southern and equatorial Africa to the Atlas Mountains in the north and the Levant and Mesopotamia to the east. Before humanity was no more than bands of hunter-gatherers in Africa, the expanded glaciers to the north lowered the water in the Mediterranean basin, allowing even greater freedom of mobility. As glaciers receded and water levels rose, first Europe was cut from Africa and then, as the Earth’s tilt shifted gradually and the Sahara became desert, northern and sub-Saharan Africa in turn became separated. This is why lions once roamed parts of Europe, and continued after them in northern Africa; today they continue to roam in India and in sub-Saharan Africa. Giraffes likewise once roamed Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and the distribution of elephant, rhino, and leopard species across Eurasia and Africa is still more evidence of the fluidity of prehistoric movement. Once separated from one another, they continued to adapt to their environments as remnant populations, become increasingly specialized as they became more distant in time and space from their common ancestors. Such can be seen in the distinctive differences between the rhinoceroses of Africa and those of India, Sumatra, and Java. Fossils speak of species of these kinds which were specialized for life on the Sahara grasslands, such as giant giraffes and grassland buffalo, the evolutionary descendants of the megafauna of the “Ice Age” variety.
This garden of Sahara was, in essence, our evolutionary childhood’s playground. From beginnings in the Great Rift Valley, humankind spread out across the grasslands of the future Sahara, some migrating out of Africa, most likely following game. The process of desertification must have been a rather traumatic one; on the scale of human existence, it happened in about two millennia, which may seem like a great deal of time, but consider that we are now separated by more than three times that many millennia from the construction of the Great Pyramids and Great Sphinx of Giza. That is an incredibly drastic change in environment in a very short span of time. This cyclical desertification most likely changed the way humans behaved, forcing them out of the rapidly shrinking and increasing desolate grasslands of the Sahara and possibly parts of Mesopotamia. This process forced humanity to migrate towards river valleys, where water and food were both reliable and plentiful.
For generations of nomads, even over two millennia, there must have been a very clear sense of having migrated from elsewhere. These stories are likewise numerous across ancient societies; to use another Biblical example, the story of the Tower of Babel is one such story which tells of a universal population of humans who were confused in their languages and dispersed across the earth. Migration and founding stories likewise dot the stories of the ancient world; Romulus and Remus were descended of Trojans come to Italy, while multiple Greek city-states traced their origins to parent cities or groups of people (e.g. Dorians, Aeolians, etc.). The banishment from Eden should be understood in this same context, a tale of migration from an uber-ancient homeland whose name, appearance, smells, etc., may have been forgotten but were retold in stories.
Could it be that the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis — as well as the various other iterations across the ancient world — is a remnant collective memory of generations upon generations of flight from a unique paradise. On the scale of oral tradition, where time can be stretched and otherwise distorted, two millennia of constricting grassland and wildlife would have been retold as though it occurred over a generation. The first man and first woman were banished from the garden, which the creator-god has chosen to deny them. It was a story to explain this nagging feeling that there lay more to one’s origins that what simply can be seen and experienced. Such collective memory can be seen most poignantly in the collective trauma experienced by, for example, minority groups in times of crisis, leading to distrust of authorities and official channels of business. In this case the trauma was one of being expelled, and so an explanation was inevitably needed — if only to keep the kid’s questions at bay just a little longer.
The disappearance of this vast paradise likewise corresponds with the loss of unique flora and fauna. The “Tree of Knowledge” may not be literally a tree from which fruit which give knowledge grow, but it may be representative of sorts of flora which disappeared with the desertification of the Sahara and Mesopotamia. One wonders what connection, if any, the disappearance of similarly unique fauna has to the stories of the Great Flood of Noah and Ark notoriety — yet another event documented in multiple ancient myths. If they are connected, it is via the rapid melting of glaciers which brought about sudden and intense flooding as tons upon tons of water heated within an ice shell is suddenly released. The sort of tsunami-like wave that would have followed might easily have wiped away entire regions of earth, including towns, vegetation, and wildlife. It must have been an incredibly stressful time to live on earth, one in which you either listen to ravings of an old man building a massive boat or just living your life as you have every day. This process easily accounts for the multiple variations on the great flood story as glaciers across the globe thawed and melted in explosive, catastrophic waves of freezing water. It is in many ways just another version of the creation story, one which is likewise begins with waters and concludes with the emergence of land, flora, fauna — and humans.