Science and Religion

Was There a Population Explosion After the Flood? Eight people could produce 100 million by Abraham's day, but with difficulty.

Edward N. Lugenbeal, who has a doctorate in paleoanthropology, is a member of the Geoscience Research Institute staff at Berrien Springs, Michigan.


From the pyramids of Egypt to the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the ancient ruins of "antique" civilizations speak silently of the great Pharaohs and kings of the past who rose to power on the aching shoulders of millions of ordinary people. It is these millions of ordinary people that inspire the question: Could these ancient civilizations—already in full flower in Abraham's day—bloom in just a few centuries after the Noachian flood? Was there enough time to produce the necessary people?

To answer this question, we need to know: (1) How many years after the Flood Abraham lived and (2) world population at the time of Abraham.

A precise reckoning of the time be tween the Flood and Abraham is possible only if the chronological data in Genesis 11 is complete and can be used legitimately to construct a chronology of the ancient world. But here lies a serious complication. Most Old Testament scholars believe an exact chronology of the ancient world cannot be obtained from Genesis 11. They point to such factors as the apparently stylized form of the lists (both the pre-Flood genealogy of Genesis 5 and the post-Flood list of Genesis 11 contain exactly ten generations), as well as the fact that of the forty ages given in Genesis 5 and 11 for the twenty patriarchs, nineteen are multiples of ten (the statistical probability of such a result happening naturally is approximately one in a thousand). Obviously, if the Bible does not tell us how long after the Flood Abraham lived, it is meaningless to ask whether the Bible allows enough time between the Flood and Abraham for the attainment of the population levels characteristic of Abra ham's day.

Some Old Testament students, how ever, believe that a valid chronology can be derived from Genesis 11. Ellen White stated that "the time when these conditions [the Flood and the pre-Flood world] existed can be learned" and "can be learned only from the Inspired Record" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 112). It has been suggested that Ellen White is not concerned here with a chronological scale, but is affirming an antediluvian rather than a pre-Adamic date for certain animal, plant, and human remains.

We will simply ignore these complications and for the purpose of our analysis assume that the information found in the genealogical list of Genesis 11 can be used to determine the length of the time interval between the Flood and Abra ham.

A second complication cannot be ignored. Dating the Flood by adding the individual numbers in the genealogies would be a straightforward procedure if the different textual traditions of the Old Testament agreed. They don't. For ex ample, the total for the ages given in the Greek Septuagint is 1,132 years; Josephus gives a total of 981 years; the Samaritan Pentateuch totals 942 years; and the Masoretic text lists ages totaling only 352 years. Much evidence (including the Dead Sea scrolls) points to the Masoretic textual tradition of the Hebrew Old Testament as the best. But does this mean that in Genesis 11 the numbers given by the Masoretic text accurately preserve the numbers recorded originally by Moses?

The best we can do with respect to world population in antiquity is to suggest a general order of magnitude. Archeological surveys can sometimes discern population trends by recording the number and size of archeological sites in successive time periods, but these trends can seldom be turned into accurate population figures apart from information derived from written records.

Population levels in the ancient world can best be estimated for the Near East, where the archeological record is relatively complete and written records occur very early. But the story of world population only begins in the Near East. Archeological evidence shows clearly that virtually the entire habitable world was occupied by the time of Abraham. Indeed, major civilizations comparable to those of the Near East existed in the Indus Valley of India and in Iran and the Persian Gulf areas between Mesopotamia and India. China was on the brink of developing its own civilization (the Shang civilization), and Mexico and Peru were already on cultural roads that were to lead to full-fledged civilizations by the end of the second millennium B.C.

Taking into account the pertinent archeological data, Dr. Ansley Coale, a well-known student of world population, has drawn a graph presenting his interpretation of the history of world population. (See Scientific American, Sept., 1974, p. 42.) According to Dr. Coale, approximately 100 million people were alive in Abraham's day. That seems a reasonable guess. But that's all it is—a guess.

The Hebrew Masoretic text tells us that Abraham's father, Terah, born only 220 years after the Flood, lived in Ur, a city that can be identified historically and archeologically as an important center of Mesopotamian civilization. Therefore, we will conservatively take Terah as the termination point of our post-Flood "prehistoric" time interval and ask whether 100 million people could have issued from only eight ancestors in a minimum of 220 years. The Septuagint text, on the other hand, gives us 1,002 years from the Flood to the birth of Terah.

How quickly could eight people in crease to 100 million? Let's examine historically known growth rates. From the dawn of recorded history until about A.D. 1750, growth was extremely slow according to Dr. Ansley Coale. The re cent surge (the celebrated "population explosion") seems to be caused primarily by reduced death rates, not in creased birth rates. At today's 2 percent rate of annual increase, world population will double each thirty-five years!

Applying this rate to the period be tween the Flood and Terah demonstrates how important it is to know whether that period consists of the 220 years of the Masoretic text or the 1,002 years of the Septuagint. If population doubles each thirty-five years, in 220 years there will be only 1,024 people—far short of the needed 100 million. But in 1,002 years (believe it or not), the population will exceed 3 billion!

Although world population may be growing faster now than at any time since Abraham, we can speculate that immediately after the Flood it may have grown even faster. Perhaps the post- Flood patriarchs' greater physical vitality more than made up for the advantages conferred on us by modern medicine and an energy-intensive industrial society. We can theorize that the longer lives of the patriarchs implied high birth rates and low infant and childhood death rates. If the patriarchs sired more children than modern man, and few of their children died young, perhaps the current population explosion is not unique after all. If long lives were typical of all people living before Abra ham, it is tempting to conclude that the population must have grown much more rapidly than it is growing today. Surprisingly, such a result may not necessarily have been the case. Once the average life span reaches about 65 to 70 years (as it has in much of the modern world), additional longevity affects growth rates very little. The Biblical evidence is that the fertile period in the patriarchs' lives was not directly correlated with their longevity. Although Abraham and Sarah lived nearly three times as long as we do today, they were not fertile three times as long as we are. Remember, they scoffed when the angel told them Sarah would have a son at the age of 90 (see Gen. 17:17). Thus longevity does not seem to be a critical factor.

The truly critical factor is fertility. Population growth is most sensitive to the average number of children born per female and to the spacing of the children over the fertile period of a female's life.

Because information concerning post- Flood fertility is lacking, our best plan is to calculate the assumptions we must make about fertility rates in order to achieve a population of 100 million in a minimum of about 220 years from an original eight persons. A variety of assumptions concerning fertility rates has been tested using established methods of population projection.

The results show that world population could have reached 100 million in 220 years if each female (1) gave birth to fifteen children, (2) began having them at age 15, and (3) had one every two years. Fifteen is a rather low average age for a first pregnancy. If we take 17 as the average age of the first pregnancy, then 100 million people could be produced in 220 years if each female gave birth to twenty-five children.

Much larger families are possible if the spacing is only one year per child, but a one-year average interval between birth for all females is a bit unrealistic. (One suspects that under such conditions the feminist movement might have started some 4,000 years earlier than it did!)

What can we conclude? Certainly the necessary fertility rates far exceed any thing recorded for modern populations. One of the highest fertility rates in modern times for a population (as opposed to individual women) is that of the Hutterites, a religious sect that lives in closed communities in North Dakota and Canada. Hutterite women are now averaging approximately ten children apiece—one half to two thirds the fertility rate required to produce 100 million people from eight ancestors in 220 years. Thus the required post-Flood rates seem a bit less mind-boggling, granted longer life spans and greater physical vitality immediately after the Flood. Clearly it is not biologically impossible to go from eight to 100 million people in 220 years if women who lived before Abraham were fertile twice as long as modern women.

In theory, population growth can be extremely rapid. A mathematician has calculated that if present rates of in crease continued for 1,200 years, our planet earth would weigh less than the people on it! Moreover, if modern rates of increase were to last 6,000 years, babies would be spilling forth in such quantities that they would form a sphere of bodies expanding at the speed of light!

Needless to say, population growth never reaches its mathematical or bio logical potential. The growth of any living species is always severely curtailed by checks that produce the ecological balance of life forms. Therefore, establishing the chronological credibility (as opposed to the mathematical possibility) of the genealogy of Genesis 11 can never be accomplished by these kinds of calculation. Rather, the archeological and historical evidence that indicates how fast population did in fact grow after the Flood must provide the ultimate focus of any serious analysis.

The above calculations were based on the simple assumption that population grew steadily and at the same breakneck rate from Shem to Abraham's time. Implied is the further assumption that the heavily populated civilizations of the ancient world did not significantly ante date Terah and Abraham. Current interpretations of scientific and historical evidence cast doubt on both of these assumptions, posing a real challenge to the scientific credibility of a chronology based on Genesis 11. Some of the cur rent interpretations of historical and scientific evidence need careful study:

1. The date of the earliest Near Eastern civilizations. Egyptologists feel they have a particularly compelling case for dating the first dynasty in Egypt no later than 2800 B.C. Abundant predynastic re mains predate the first dynasty.

2. The pattern of population growth prior to Abraham. The available evidence suggests that population levels were low and growth was relatively slow for most of the period between the Flood and Abraham. If the relative dating methods of geology and archeology (used with such impressive success in Biblical archeology) are correct, the archeological record seems to show man living primarily as a hunter and gatherer for most of this period—sites are small, few in number, and lack evidence of domesticated plants or animals. Modern nonagricultural "primitive" peoples in variably attain extremely low population densities a maximum of one person per square mile and an average of one to twenty-five people per 100 square miles. The pace of population growth presumably picked up only after the wide-scale introduction of agriculture near the close of this time period. The Biblical record, on the other hand, treats both Noah and his immediate descendants in Mesopotamia as agriculturalists.

3. The pattern of population growth subsequent to Abraham. According to Dr. Ansley Coale, population levels were fairly stable between the time of Abraham and the time of Christ, in creasing slowly at an overall annual rate of .045 percent. If true, then the transition from fantastically rapid growth to extremely slow growth must have occurred prior to the time of Terah and Abraham. Yet rapid population growth has a powerful momentum. For example, even if all nations in the world today succeeded within the next twenty years in limiting births to two per female, world population would still increase from four billion to more than eight billion in seventy years. The brakes can be applied, but it takes time to stop a run away vehicle.

If we assume world population reached 100 million in the 220 years be tween the Flood and Terah because each female had fifteen children with two years between births, and then propose that at the time of Abraham fertility suddenly dropped to slightly more than two births per female (zero-growth fertility), population would nevertheless continue to grow rapidly for 200 years, reaching more than 600 million people. In just the first 100 years after Abraham, population would more than triple in size (from nearly 134 million to over 407 mil lion)!

4. The post-Flood dispersal of man. How long did it take the descendants of Noah to repopulate the entire earth? Major population expansion in South America, for example, could gather momentum only after a few pioneers had arrived from the Near East. Evidence for transoceanic voyages between the Near East and the New World has not yet been found for the time period when man first reached the New World. More over, man probably did not reach lands far from Ararat by riding the drifting continents provided by plate-tectonic theory in geology. Geological evidence indicates that continental drift had taken the earth's land masses to their present locations prior to the dispersal of man. Yet, this dispersal was essentially complete by the time of Abraham.

5. The physical differentiation of man into geographic races. Whatever time, if any, was necessary for the development of the modern physical varieties of man must be found in the pre-Abrahamic time period. Skeletal remains and artistic re productions from the ancient world show that the major physical types of modern man were already in existence in the time of Abraham.

6. Skeletal evidence concerning life span. Bone specialists, studying the age-sensitive features of the skeletons of individuals who died before the time of Abraham, have given the following interpretation of average age at death: approximately 18 years for the oldest pre-Arbrahamic group of skeletons studied, 19 to 25 years for a group of skeletons of intermediate age, and 20 to 27 years for the latest group. Average life spans of less than 30 years and the high mortality rates they imply are difficult to reconcile with rapid population growth.

The pressure of some of these lines of historical and scientific evidence would be at least partially alleviated if the Septuagint's version of Genesis 11 should prove to be closer to the original than the Masoretic version.


Could world population grow from eight to the millions of Abraham's day in the short time period derived from Genesis 11? The answer to this question is Yes. There certainly could have been a population explosion after the Flood. Although problems exist, one should not reject the chronological information found in Genesis 11 by arguing that population could not grow fast enough to reach the levels seen in Abraham's time in a period as short as 220 years. Instead, attention should be directed toward two questions: (1) What is the internal Biblical evidence concerning the intent and meaning of the genealogies found in Genesis 5 and 11, and does that intent include chronology? (2) What does the available historical and scientific evidence have to say about actual rates of growth before Abraham—was there in fact a population explosion after the Flood?

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Edward N. Lugenbeal, who has a doctorate in paleoanthropology, is a member of the Geoscience Research Institute staff at Berrien Springs, Michigan.

December 1978

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