For several years now I’ve come across articles on the Internet that mention a book called Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia by Stephen Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer argues in this book that there were floods that affected the ancient world, and that in the case of Southeast Asia, this led to a dispersal of peoples out into the Pacific and westward towards the Middle East that can be traced in terms of “scientific” evidence, such as DNA, as well as in terms of “un-scientific” information like folklore. Accordingly, one half of the book looks at scientific information and the other half examines myths and creation stories.
This is how the book is summarized on Amazon.com:
“This book completely changes the established and conventional view of prehistory by relocating the Lost Eden – the world’s first civilization – to Southeast Asia. At the end of the Ice Age, Southeast Asia formed a continent twice the size of India, which included Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Borneo. In Eden in the East, Stephen Oppenheimer puts forward the astonishing argument that here in southeast Asia – rather than in Mesopotamia where it is usually placed – was the lost civilization that fertilized the Great cultures of the Middle East 6,000 years ago. He produces evidence from ethnography, archaeology, oceanography, creation stories, myths, linguistics, and DNA analysis to argue that this founding civilization was destroyed by a catastrophic flood, caused by a rapid rise in the sea level at the end of the last ice age.”
Yesterday I finally started to read this book, and the first thing that struck me was the extent to which concepts from the Judeo-Christian tradition inform the way that information in this book is presented. Beyond the term “Eden” in the title of the book, individual chapter titles contain terms like “floods,” “Babel,” “Eve,” and “Cain and Abel.”
While one might view this as a mere literary technique, I would argue that it points to deeper flaws in this book. Oppenheimer’s main inspiration for connecting “myths” to history are the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century works of Sir James Frazer, a Scottish anthropologist who pioneered the comparative study of myths and religions through books like The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion and Folk-Lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend and Law.
Frazer’s overall goal in his writings was to demonstrate that human thought passed through three main phases of development – from the magical to the religious to the scientific. He did this by providing evidence for these different stages from different societies around the world, however there was a Judeo-Christian focus to his approach.
We can see this straight away in the opening lines of Folk-Lore in the Old Testament where Fazer says the following:
“Modern researches into the early history of man, conducted on different lines, have converged with almost irresistible force on the conclusion, that all civilized races have at some period emerged from a state of savagery resembling more or less closely the state in which many backward races have continued to the present time.”
He then goes on to say that “Despite the high moral and religious development of the ancient Hebrews, there is no reason to suppose that they formed an exception to this general law. They, too, had probably passed through a stage of barbarism and even of savagery; and this probability, based on the analogy of other races, is confirmed by an examination of their literature” (i.e., the Old Testament). [vii]
Frazer took for granted that Christians (or followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition) were civilized. That was so obvious to him (and undoubtedly to many of his readers as well) that it did not need to be demonstrated. What his readers would have had a harder time believing, and what he tried to demonstrate, was that Christians had passed through an earlier stage of savagery.
To demonstrate this point, Frazer looked for similarities between information in the Old Testament with stories from some of the “backward races” of his time. One such topic that he looked at comparatively were “flood stories.”
In Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, Frazer looked at flood stories from all over the world.
One example that he mentioned came from the Bahnar people of what is now the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The information that Frazer obtained about a Bahnar flood story came from an article that a French missionary by the name of Father Jean Guerlach published in 1887 in the journal Les Missions Catholiques on “the mores and superstitions of the savage Bahnar” (copies of the journal can be found here).
In this article, Father Guerlach included a section on “the flood” (le déluge), which Frazer later summarized in English as follows:
“The Bahnars, a primitive tribe of Cochin China, tell how once on a time the kite [i.e., a kind of bird] quarreled with the crab, and pecked the crab’s skull so hard that he made a hole in it, which may be seen down to this very day. To avenge this injury to his skull, the crab caused the sea and the rivers to swell till the waters reached the sky, and all living beings perished except two, a brother and a sister, who were saved in a huge chest. They took with them into the chest a pair of every sort of animal, shut the lid tight, and floated on the waters for seven days and seven nights. Then the brother heard a cock crowing outside, for the bird had been sent by the spirits to let our ancestors know that the flood had abated, and that they could come forth from the chest. So the brother let all the birds fly away, then he let loose the animals, and last of all he and his sister walked out on the dry land. They did not know how they were to live, for they had eaten up all the rice that was stored in the chest. However, a black ant brought them two grains of rice: the brother planted them, and next morning the plain was covered with a rich crop. So the brother and sister were saved.” (209-210)
There are indeed remarkable similarities between this story and the story of the flood and Noah’s ark in the Bible. Perhaps this is why in his original article, Father Guerlach referred to the brother in this story as “the Bahnar Noah” (le Noë bahnar).
Or perhaps Father Guerlach wrote this way because he was viewing the Bahnar world through a Judeo-Christian lens. . .
What makes me wonder about this is the fact that even though Guerlach placed this story in a section called “the flood,” the story ultimately seems to be about something else, as there was more to the story, and Frazer provided an English summary of the rest of the story in another work, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead:
“The Bahnars of eastern Cochinchina say that in the beginning when people died they used to be buried at the foot of a tree called Lông Blô, and that after a time they always rose from the dead, not as infants but as full-grown men and women. So the earth was peopled very fast, and all the inhabitants formed but one great town under the presidency of our first parents [i.e., the brother and sister]. In time men multiplied to such an extent that a certain lizard could not take his walks abroad without somebody treading on his tail. This vexed him, and the wily creature gave an insidious hint to the gravediggers. ‘Why bury the dead at the foot of the Lông Blô tree?’ said he; ‘bury them at the foot of Lông Khung, and they will not come to life again. Let them die outright and be done with it.’ The hint was taken, and from that day the dead have not come to life again.” (74)
Father Guerlach included all of this information in the section of his article that he called “the flood.” Does all of this information taken together constitute a flood story? It doesn’t look that way to me. Instead, it appears to me to be a story about the proper way to treat the dead (albeit a story with a long beginning that does include mention of a flood).
As Oscar Salemink pointed out years ago in his The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders: A Historical Contextualization, 1850-1990, Father Guerlach’s main objective in writing such articles was to demonstrate that the Bahnar were “superstitious” and therefore in need of conversion to Christianity.
Taking a story that was ultimately a lesson about how to treat the dead and presenting it as a rather absurd “savage version” of the Flood/Noah’s ark story would surely be one way of showing how “uncivilized” the Bahnar were.
That said, perhaps what this really shows us is how limited Guerlach’s worldview was. He could only see what he knew. He knew the Bible, and he saw (imperfect) parts of the Bible in the Bahnar.
Similarly, Frazer saw (imperfect) parts of the Bible in the stories of “backward races.” And similarly, I argue, Oppenheimer has seen parts of the Bible in Southeast Asian prehistory.
In his Eden in the East, Oppenheimer cites Frazer’s summary of “the flood” part of the Bahnar story that Guerlach recorded in order to support his argument about how floods in the past led to a dispersal of peoples from Southeast Asia, but he ignores the rest of that story which talks about how to bury the dead. And it is that part of the story that I would guess was the most meaningful part for the Bahnar.
Where Oppenheimer differs from Guerlach and Frazer, however, is that he sees “perfection” in Southeast Asian prehistory, and imperfect parts of that perfection in the Bible.
In the end, however, they are all engaged in the same project – they are all using the Judeo-Christian tradition to view parts of the world that were not part of that tradition.