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The antediluvian (or pre-diluvian) period – meaning "before the deluge" – is the period referred to in the Bible between the Fall of man and the Deluge (flood) in the biblical cosmology. The narrative takes up chapters 1-6 (excluding the flood narrative) of Genesis. The term found its way into early geology and lingered in science until the late Victorian era. Colloquially, the term is used to refer to any ancient and murky period.
In the Quran, the Christian Bible, and the Hebrew Torah, the antediluvian period begins with the Creation according to Genesis and ends with the destruction of all life on the earth except those saved with Noah in the Ark. According to Bishop Ussher's 17th-century chronology, the antediluvian period lasted for 1648 years, from creation at 4004 BC to the flood at 2348 BC. The elements of the narrative include some of the best-known stories in the Bible — the Creation, Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, followed by the genealogies tracing the descendants of Cain and Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. (These genealogies provide the framework for the biblical chronology, in the form A begat B in his Xth year).
The Bible speaks of this era as being a time of great wickedness. There were Gibborim (giants) in the earth in those days as well as Nephilim; some translations identify the two as one and the same. The Gibborim were unusually powerful; Genesis calls them "heroes of old, men of renown;" (Anshay Shem). The antediluvian period ended when God sent the Flood to wipe out all life except Noah, his family, and the animals they took with them. Nevertheless, the Nephilim (literally meaning 'fallen ones', from the Hebrew root n-f-l 'to fall') reappear much later in the biblical narrative, in Numbers 13:31-33 (where the spies sent forth by Moses report that there were Nephilim or "giants" in the Promised Land).
Early scientific attempts at reconstructing the history of the Earth were founded on the biblical narrative and thus used the term Antediluvian to refer to a period understood to be essentially similar to the biblical one. Early scientific interpretation of the biblical narrative divided the Antediluvian into sub-periods:
Prior to the 19th century, rock was classified into three main types: primary or primitive (igneous and metamorphic rock), secondary (sedimentary rock) and tertiary (sediments). The primary rocks (like granite and gneiss) are void of fossils and were thought to be associated with the very creation of the world in the primary Pre-Adamitic period. The secondary rocks, often containing copious fossils, though human remains had not been found, were thought to have been laid down in the secondary Pre-Adamitic period. The tertiary rocks (sediments) were thought to have been put down after Creation and possibly in connection to a flood event, and were thus associated with the Adamitic period. The post-flood period was termed the Quaternary, a name still in use in geology.
As mapping of the geological strata progressed in the early decades of the 19th century, the estimated lengths of the various sub-periods were greatly increased. The fossil rich Secondary Pre-Adamitic period was divided up into the Coal period, the Lias and the Chalk period, later expanded into the now-familiar geologic time scale of the Phanerozoic. The term antediluvian was used in natural science well into the 19th century and lingered in popular imagination despite increasingly detailed stratigraphy mapping the Earth's past, and was often used for the Pleistocene period, where humans existed alongside now extinct megafauna.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the understanding of the nature of early Earth went through a transformation from a biblical or deist interpretation to a scientific one. Even back in the early 18th century, Plutonists had argued for an ancient Earth, but the full impact of the depth of time involved in the Pre-Adamitic period was not commonly accepted until uniformitarianism as presented in Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology of 1830. While vast aeons of time were involved, the narrative of the pre-Adamitic world was still influenced by the biblical story of creation in this transition. A striking example is a description from "Memoires of Ichtyosauri and Plesiosauri", 1839:
An "ungarnished and desolated world which echoed the flapping of [pterodactyl] leathern wings" was lit by "the angry light of supernatural fire", shining on a "sunless and moonless" world, before the creation of these heavenly "lights".
From antiquity, fossils of large animals were often quoted as having lived together with the giants from the Book of Genesis: e.g. the Tannin or "great sea monsters" of Gen. 1,21. They are often described in later books of the Bible, especially by God Himself in the Book of Job: e.g. Re'em in verse 39,9, Behemoth in chapter 40 and Leviathan in chapter 41. With the advent of geological mapping in the early 19th century, it became increasingly obvious that much of the fossils associated with the "secondary" (sedimentary) rock, notably large animals like Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurs, Pliosaurs and the various giant mammals found when excavating the Catacombs of Paris, were neither those of giant humans nor of any extant animals. The geologists of the day increasingly came to use the term Antediluvian only for the younger strata containing fossils of animals resembling those alive today.