Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lucy's Bones

A friend of mine wrote to me as follows:

I was told about the following question, raised by Rabbi Yaakov Feit, who was in a museum containing the remains of Lucy, a famous proto-human. He wanted to know whether a kohen could enter the museum, or, equivalently, whether Lucy's bones are halachically considered to have come from a human corpse (in which case they are metamei be'ohel).

I thought this question could be broken down into several interesting components.

1. Are these bones actually the remains of an organism? Adherents of Gosse theory might say that bones carbon dated as millions of years old were simply placed in the earth, as bones, by God at Creation, and never belonged to a living being. My friend and I assumed that bones that are not remains of a living being are not metamei, though we weren't sure how to prove it.

2. Is carbon dating halachically recognized? (Not sure why it shouldn't be, but....)

3. If Lucy lived (and died), was she human, or at least human enough to be metamei? This gets into the whole adnei hasadeh business, etc. Note that apparently there is an opinion (Chasam Sofer?) that the remains of gentiles who lived before Matan Torah are metamei be'ohel mideoraisa, even though the remains of gentiles who lived after Matan Torah are not. So this might be a nafka minah mideoraisa.

I thought this was a really interesting question, because it shows that these topics have practical--and not contrived at all--nafka minahs lema'aseh. It shows that even among those who read Genesis literally and assume the earth to be mere thousands of years old, there are still nafka minahs lema'aseh deoraisa between the various approaches. It makes a big difference whether ancient bones were planted in the earth by God, or whether they were, for example, made to look much older by the Flood (in which case they could still be assumed to be actual remains of once-living organisms). There are probably lots of museums affected by this consideration. It shows that belief in an ancient earth can have practical ramifications. And it shows the importance of paleontology in psak halacha: you can't pasken whether Lucy is metamei now that she's dead until you figure out what she was when she was alive!


  1. How interesting! I had never thought of that angle before.

  2. Isn't the box the skeleton is in an ohel of its own?

    (Sof tum'ah latzet would not seem to apply since the intention is to keep the skeleton there permanently. However, perhaps the whole box has a din of a kever satum ham'tamei kol s'vivav.)

    I'm sure there is more to think about in this case, although I imagine it has already been dealt with in cases with more recent, obviously human skeletons.

  3. According to the Gosse theory, Lucy's bones were planted there to look like the bones of someone who actually existed. Would this be similar to the Brisker vort which assumes that the olive oil used in the chanuka nes was "shemen shel nes", not real oil, and therefore posul l'hadlaka? On this basis, a supernaturally created corpse would not be m'tamei.

    My feeling, for what it's worth, is that Lucy was a humanoid without a neshama and therefore should be treated, l'halakha, like an animal carcass.

  4. Another factor might be to what extent the bone tissue has been petrified/replaced with minerals. If there is no more organic material, wouldn't the bones arguably have the halachic status of rocks?

    Any paleontologists out there who can say whether a skeleton like Lucy's is petrified or permineralized?

  5. Another question is whether kohanim have to worry about non-Jewish remains b'ohel. There's an Ashkenazi/Sephardi split on this.

    I remember once seeing mummies in the Brooklyn Museum and noticing a seal on the case was open. I wondered what effect this would have on kohanim (I'm one), as ephraim pointed out.

    Regarding this problem, Wikipedia refers us to the Sorites paradox.

  6. Not that I'm a posek but:

    > 1. Are these bones actually the remains of an organism?

    Tumah inevitably revolves around an absence of a previously existing life. No living animal is tameh but many dead ones are. The only living organism that is tameh is the human being. Therefore if Lucy is a Divine fraud, then she was never alive and hence cannot be tameh.

    > 2. Is carbon dating halachically recognized?

    Pregnancy tests aren't. Video testimony isn't. Besides, accepting carbon dating as legitimate destroys the literalist case for a young Earth so they couldn't even if only on principle.

    3. If Lucy lived (and died), was she human, or at least human enough to be metamei?

    Lucy was NOT a human being, a homo sapiens. At best she was a proto-human, something between a human and what evolutionists claim is a common ancestor between humans and apes (that still hasn't been found, natch!). Therefore she would be as tameh as a dead monkey.

  7. Garnel wrote, “Lucy was not a human being, a homo sapiens. At best she was a proto-human…. Therefore she would be as tameh as a dead monkey.”

    Which leads right into Rabbi Slifin’s point #3, about adnei hasadeh.

    Is the topic of adnei hasadeh treated in halachik literature much?

  8. > If there is no more organic material, wouldn't the bones arguably have the halachic status of rocks?

    Which brings up the question, what is organic material? What we’re made of is, on a molecular level, no different than inorganic material. Would bones slowly replaced with calcium deposits be organic? Is coal or oil organic? Would a diamond made in the lab from the remains of your loved one be metamei? (I’ve seen ads for a company that does this.)

  9. And according to the "previous worlds" theory ala Teferes Yisroel, Lucy would have belonged to the previous "world" and thus since the Torah is only concerned with THIS world, she would not mitameh.

  10. Garnel, we don't have a very good understanding of the intelligence level of various hominids which might impact whether or not they would halachically be people.

    However, I'm not convinced that someone who accepted a "Gosse theory" (and I'll refrain for now from comparing that to Last Thursdayism) would not consider the bones to not necessarily be metamei tumah. If they were made by God as bones it isn't clear to me why that would mean they'd have any halachic status distinct from their status if they had been from a living person. Can someone cite something backing up this distinction?

  11. I think this issue raises more questions for followers of R' Nadel's approach than for the traditional one.
    I believe he held "adam" represented an entire "ensouled" race. But when exactly did this race emerge if he rejects the 5770 date?
    Every proto-human skeleton in any museum should be a sheilah for a Kohen according to this view.

  12. Is there a Moreh Nevuchim that says there were beings that could speak before Adom Harishon, and what is the source. I would appreciate some info thanks

  13. Like Garnel mentioned, Lucy was not part of the "Homo" genus, therefore categorically even though it might be an ancestor to us, Lucy should scientifically and therefore I guess Halachakly be treated like a Chimpanzee. A better question would be what would be the status concerning Homo Erectus, Neanderthals,Hobbits (that they found in Indonesia), and Homo Sapiens that can be dated 6,000 plus years ago.

  14. ZB, halachic and scientific classification don't need to be the same thing. Scientifici classification is to a large extent a matter of convenience, based on the patterns that are seen. There's no claim of deep metaphysical, Platonic reflections in the classification system. To use an obvious example: Halachah counts bats as birds. Science doesn't.

  15. > Which brings up the question, what is organic material

    Something along the line of "carbon based lifeforms" in which the organism is principles composed of organic chemicals. Organic chemicals are defined as those which form along a change of carbon atoms and form a specific class of molecules. Diamond would not be organic because it is just straight carbon without hydrogen or oxygen, the molecules you need to make carbon organic.

  16. "Which brings up the question, what is organic material? What we’re made of is, on a molecular level, no different than inorganic material."

    Halacha in general is ignorant of chemistry (the science of matter). For example, look at the mishnah about which types of ice and water are acceptable for making a mikvah. Chemically, H2O is H2O, and once melted is no different for having once been snow or ice. Moreover, all water has passed through those phases at one time or another.

    The same is true of many distinctions made in halacha, distinctions that have no basis in chemical reality. This is in the same category of problem as other mistakes of Chazal in science, and can be addressed using all the same methods.

  17. Lunacy over Lucy.

    Organic material is made of exactly the same thing as inorganic material: atomic particles and their sub-atomic parts, such as quarks, etc. Life does not exist in any single particle, but when you connect them into specific patterns then something remarkable happens--life.

    Two ways to view the existence of Lucy's Bones:

    1) G-d is a deceitful wizard who is constantly testing us in a way that makes him seem rather petty by planting ancient bones.
    2) G-d unfolds the universe through a few elementary particles, which arrange themselves through the simple rules of evolution into complex human beings.

    Before you choose...consider;

    Option 1) requires that the scientific method be selectively disregarded whenever its not convenient.

    Option 2) preserves the scientific method which is responsible for every aspect of our modern lives, from airplanes to computers to medicine.

  18. Archer, with a little thought I was able to come up with a third alternative. But instead of revealing it, I'd prefer if you'd come up with one yourself.

  19. Alex, either G-d planted Lucy's bones or 'he' didn't. Any third option, such as selective intervention, the tweaking of the natural selection parameters, is equivalent to having G-d bury Lucy's bones. In both cases G-d exerts influence on the world through supernatural powers that violate the laws of nature.

    Let me pose the question more simply:

    Either, G-d is a supernatural being like Superman, but much stronger. Or G-d is expressed through the laws of nature. Or more precisely, G-d 'is' the laws of nature. Which means his intentions do not exist outside of those laws. Science is the process we use to uncover those laws. But science has no room for supernatural powers.

    Either, you believe in magic or you don't.


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