The Antiquity of Man and the Geological Ages

By Charles J. Ryan

In response to requests to correlate the rounds and races of human evolution as given in the theosophical teachings, with the eras and periods of geology as estimated by modern science, the following suggestions have been prepared. They are the result of considerable study and comparison of the available evidence, but no claim to finality is made.

When we compare various modern scientific estimates of the duration of the geological eras since the first undisputed traces of life in the rocks, we are impressed by serious differences of opinion. Even the new method of measurement by the study of radioactive transformation in certain rocks has limitations and cannot be entirely depended on. The geological processes are not fully understood, and enormous gaps occur in the record.

When fossils of identical nature are found in strata thousands of miles apart geographically, we tend to assume that both series of rocks were deposited at the same time, but this may not be true. Development of certain species or associated groups may have advanced far more rapidly in some regions than in others, and the supposed parallelism of the time periods may be more apparent than real. This is by no means a fanciful notion and it is one factor which makes the exact chronology of the rocks uncertain. We must never forget that the geological record is very incomplete and difficult to decipher. Darwin himself compared it to a book in which whole chapters are missing; those that remain are imperfect; and few of the leaves are unmutilated. In regard to skeletal remains of man, the subject is highly controversial.

When H. P. Blavatsky was writing about the age of the earth in The Secret Doctrine she compared the teachings of the scientists of that time and found nothing but confusion and uncertainty as to geological figures. There was one scientist, however, Professor Lefevre, who in his Philosophy adopted an original method of interpreting the data available. Instead of trying to reach exact figures in regard to the length of the entire fossil-bearing period of sedimentation from the Laurentian period to the present day, or of its subdivisions, he worked out the relative durations of the sedimentary deposits. With this for a background the actual duration of the eras and periods could easily be calculated when reliable evidence was found. Lefevre's studies were based on the erosion of rocks and the deposition of sediments, and his conclusions have stood with little modification till now. H. P. Blavatsky noticed that his estimates of the relative duration of the geological ages agreed fairly well with the 'esoteric' information in her possession, and so by adapting her knowledge of the real figures to Lefevre's proportional scale she constructed a time table which, she says, approximates the truth "in almost every particular." Her total of "320,000,000 years of sedimentation" is much less than that of modern geologists, even though she includes the Laurentian period in her table, which they omit.

A glance at the modern table alongside hers will show how greatly modern geologists have extended their time periods. Two reasons are given for this great extension: first, the supposedly known and constant rate of radioactive disintegration in certain minerals found in the rocks; second, the modern belief that biological evolution by natural selection, etc., required far more time than formerly seemed necessary or permissible.

In her 'Esoteric' table H. P. Blavatsky, following Lefevre's arrangement, combines the three oldest periods, the Laurentian, Cambrian and Silurian, into her Primordial era. The two latter are now placed in the Paleozoic era, and the Laurentian and older rocks are included within the preceding Precambrian era, an enormously long complex of sedimentary, plutonic and metamorphosed rocks lying in tangled confusion below the Paleozoic strata, and in which forms of life are very scanty or altogether absent. The Precambrian era was longer than all the subsequent eras combined, and probably covers much of the "third round" evolution of life on this globe, for H. P. Blavatsky says that her 320,000,000 years of sedimentation, which approximates to the time elapsed since the Precambrian era, refers to this round (the fourth) of the human life-wave, for "it must be noted that even a greater time elapsed during the preparation of this globe for the Fourth Round previous to stratification" (The Secret Doctrine, II, 715). The tremendous cataclysms and the general transformations of the earth's crust that took place at the end of the third round (greater than any of the "revolutions" that have happened since) destroyed nearly all traces of the third round forms of life. A few living entities, mostly or entirely marine, managed to exist in and survive the great disturbances during the dawning of the opening drama of the fourth round. Their fossils are found in the earliest periods of the Paleozoic era associated with the rather more advanced forms which gradually superseded them (ibid., II, 712).

It is now necessary to explain the theosophical usage of the term round which is not found in geological textbooks.


Before the "rounds" can be understood it is essential to have some idea of the entire scheme of terrestrial evolution from the standpoint of the ancient wisdom given in The Secret Doctrine. In a few words: the earth we see is the fourth of a sevenfold "chain" of globes which constitutes a single organism, as we may call it. The other six globes are not visible to our gross senses but the entire group is intimately connected. The vast stream of human monads circulates seven times round the earth planetary chain during the great cycle. We are now in the fourth circulation or round of the great pilgrimage on our globe and so this period is called the fourth round. While on our globe we pass through seven stages called "root-races," each lasting for millions of years. Each in its turn is subdivided into smaller septenary sections. Each succeeding root-race is shorter than its predecessor, and there is some overlapping. Great geological changes separate each root-race from its successor and only a comparatively few survivors remain to provide the seed for the next root-race.

The individualized life cycles in the rounds are associated with diversities in environment. Each round is a component part of a great serial order of evolution which may be summarized as the gradual descent of spirit into matter and the subsequent ascent. The first round, even on this globe, was highly spiritual and ethereal: the succeeding rounds are less so, until the middle of the fourth round is reached. After that axial period the process is reversed and by degrees the original state of ethereality is reassumed. A similar process takes place within each round, but on a minor scale -- smaller cycles within a dominant one. The physical condition of the earth's substance is modified in a corresponding way. The amazing modern discoveries of the nature of the atom, of its transmutations, and of the transformation of 'matter' into energy have removed any prima facie objections to such a process.

In studying this subject we must remember that the word "man" is used in two distinct senses which must be clearly distinguished in order to avoid confusion. It may refer to the spiritual monad in the earlier stages of evolution before the appearance of mind, and which H. P. Blavatsky calls 'the pre-human man"; or to the 'human, Adamic man," thinking, rational, "seven-principled" man of the fourth and fifth root-races in this fourth round. In Hindu philosophy the latter is called "Vaivasvata's humanity." Vaivasvata is the Hindu Noah who allegorically saved the remnant of mankind after the Deluge and established a "new order of ages" on the earth (see The Secret Doctrine, II, pp. 69, 251, 309).

The first root-race of the fourth round was by far the longest of its seven root-races, because within it were included advanced monads from the third round or life-wave on this globe, called sishtas (a Sanskrit word meaning "remainders," those left behind to serve as "seeds of life" for the returning life-wave in the succeeding round), and other forerunners, who preceded by millions of years the main aggregation of monads that formed the first root-race properly so called.

The second root-race was not so long as the first, the third was considerably shorter, and so forth. We are now about halfway through the fifth root-race, and two-and-a-half root-races are still to come before the end of the fourth round on this globe. The fourth round contains the period of greatest materiality for the vehicles of the monad during the entire seven rounds, and during this middle round the ascent of the ladder of spiritual unfoldment begins.

Although the 'physical' conditions, if we may use the word, of the entire fourth round were denser than those of its predecessors, the early part of the fourth, which includes the first and second root-races and most of the third, was still quite ethereal and no material traces of man have been left for science to discover. The records remain, nonetheless, in the "astral light," the ethereal picture gallery of nature, the "Earth-Memory" as G. W. Russell (AE), the Irish poet and mystic, called it. In the fifth subrace of the third root-race, the monad began to build less ethereal embodiments for itself in preparation for the "descent of Mind," and after many long ages the physical and other characteristics of "man," as we understand the term, appeared and were gradually perfected. In the fourth root-race, the "Atlantean" man was fully physicalized, as the earth itself became hard and dense.

In regard to the dates and duration of the earlier root-races of the fourth round we are given but little information. We can, however, place the early root-races approximately side by side with the periods and dates given by H. P. Blavatsky in her 'Esoteric' table and reach a fairly close idea of their antiquity. From some casual hints contained in The Secret Doctrine it is clear that the first root-race began before the Mesozoic (Secondary) era, most probably in the Pennsylvanian (Carboniferous) period in the Paleozoic, but possibly earlier. According to the 'Esoteric' table this could even be almost 150,000,000 years ago. The ethereal first root-race, which did not know physical 'death,' gradually blended with the second root-race in the Permian period.

It is noteworthy that there is some parallelism between the root-races and the periods beginning with great geological, climatic and biological changes called by geologists "revolutions." This applies even to the earliest or ethereal races. At least four and possibly more have taken place, the most important and earth-shaking being that which ushered in the fourth round (about the end of the Precambrian era as already mentioned). As we are only in the fifth root-race no doubt we shall experience other cataclysmic changes during the closing period of this round on this globe. We read in The Secret Doctrine:

As land needs rest and renovation, new forces, and a change for its soil, so does water. Thence arises a periodical redistribution of land and water, change of climates, etc., all brought on by geological revolution, and ending in a final change in the axis. -- II, 726

The exact duration of the rounds or the root-races has never been given out; and the geologists are not inclined to commit themselves definitely in regard to the length of their eras and periods. But there is no doubt of the actuality of the serial events or cyclic repetitions and of the order in which they occur, irrespective of the number of years that may be assigned to them.

Nothing definite is revealed about the chronology of the four earlier subraces of the third root-race, but approximately exact figures are given for the first time when we reach the fifth subrace, and we learn that about 18,618,000 years have elapsed from that subrace to the present day. This period is called by H. P. Blavatsky that of "our humanity" because the characteristics of mankind as we understand it -- physically, emotionally and mentally -- showed their first indications in the fifth subrace. This period is the age of Vaivasvata's humanity already mentioned. The Secret Doctrine, II, 312-13, says:

The History of the Races begins at the separation of the Sexes, . . . and the subsequent sub-races of the Third Root-Race appeared as an entirely new race physiologically. It is this "destruction" which is called allegorically the great "Vaivasvata Manu Deluge," when the account shows Vaivasvata Manu (or "Humanity") remaining alone on Earth in the Ark of Salvation towed by Vishnu in the shape of a monstrous fish, and the Seven Rishis "with him." The allegory is very plain: --
. . . . As to the Seven Rishis in the Ark, they symbolised the seven principles, which became complete in man only after he had separated, and become a human, and no longer a divine creature.

We have, however, so greatly changed since the monad emerged from the shadowy ethereal vestures or vehicles of "pre-human man" that as H. P. Blavatsky says:

that which Science -- recognizing only physical man -- has a right to regard as the prehuman period, may be conceded to have extended from the First Race down to the first half of the Atlantean [Fourth] race, since it is only then that man became the "complete organic being he is now." And this would make Adamic man no older than a few million of years. -- The Secret Doctrine, II, 315

As they grew more and more physical, the human embodiments of the monad or immortal spirit in man in the latest period of the third root-race gradually became illuminated with the light of mind, the manasic principle, which really marks the "new order" of Vaivasvata's humanity. The separation of nascent mankind into two distinct sexes took place about the same time. H. P. Blavatsky illustrates the transformation which changed the ethereal man into the physical by citing the materialization of 'spirits' in the seance room from invisible astral substance to physical in the manner investigated for the first time under scientific control by Sir William Crookes, the famous English physicist. At our present period of evolution the process is of course abnormal and very rare, only being produced by special and not particularly desirable means, but in the distant future the astral form now well hidden within man will be the outer body as it was in the early subraces. The importance of this knowledge is emphasized by H. P. Blavatsky on pages 174 and 737, volume II of The Secret Doctrine. On page 149 of the same volume she makes the following significant remark:

The whole issue of the quarrel between the profane and the esoteric sciences depends upon the belief in, and demonstration of, the existence of an astral body within the physical, the former independent of the latter.

According to the dating in the 'Esoteric' table the third root-race was at its peak in the Jurassic period, becoming denser in the Cretaceous period and ending in the early Cenozoic era. It overlapped the fourth root-race, commonly called the Atlantean, which reached its middle period 8-9,000,000 years ago, near the beginning of the earliest division of the Cenozoic era, the Paleocene. The disastrous breaking up of the main Atlantean continental area occurred in the Miocene period, but portions such as the great islands, Ruta and Daitya, lingered until much later, and Plato's small "island of Atlantis" perished only 11-12,000 years ago.

As Vaivasvata's humanity, in which we are particularly interested, began to develop 18-19,000,000 years ago, it is obviously far older than the Cenozoic era which, according to the 'Esoteric' table, began about 8,960,000 years ago, but here we find a striking unconformity between modern geology and the esoteric teaching. In several places H. P. Blavatsky envisages the possibility that the geologists might increase their estimate of the length of the Cenozoic era, and says that this would not be disturbing. She writes on page 693, volume II of The Secret Doctrine:

It may make our position plainer if we state at once that we use Sir C. Lyell's nomenclature for the ages and periods, and that when we talk of the Secondary and Tertiary age, of the Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene periods -- this is simply to make our facts more comprehensible. Since these ages and periods have not yet been allowed fixed and determined durations, 2½ and 15 million years being assigned at different times to one and the same age (the Tertiary) -- and since no two geologists and naturalists seem to agree on this point -- Esoteric teachings may remain quite indifferent to whether man is shown to appear in the Secondary or the Tertiary age. If the latter age may be allowed even so much as 15 million years' duration -- well and good; for the Occult doctrine, jealously guarding its real and correct figures as far as concerns the First, Second, and two-thirds of the Third Root-Race -- gives clear information upon one point only -- the age of "Vaivasvata Manu's humanity."

Though Vaivasvata's humanity -- our humanity -- has existed for 18-19,000,000 years, and for less than half that time we have been complete organic beings, we may look forward to many more millions of years before any radical changes will take place in our physical structure. During the fourth root-race, the Atlantean, the lowest stage of materiality was reached, and we in the fifth root-race are now somewhat less physically dense. By the time we attain the seventh root-race of this fourth round, in the far distant future, our flesh will have become much more refined and almost translucent, and near the close of the manvantara or great life-period of planetary evolution in the seventh round we shall have risen so far above the lower cosmic plane in which our earth now functions that our highly ethereal bodies "will become self-luminous forms of light."

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