“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals.” (Science, 22 February 2018)
This discovery, including pictures of animals, dots and geometric signs, in caves in Spain is fascinating in its own right. It was possible because of new and sophisticated dating methods. It has a particular interest for us. The use of art tells us the Neanderthals had the capacity to generalise concepts and to express them symbolically. We must therefore assume that they had reason and some level of moral sense. They may even have had a concept of religion since there is evidence that they may have buried their dead for religious reasons. It has been suggested that they are an offshoot from the human line but more recent analysis concludes that they were a different species from homo sapiens. (Our interbreeding with Neanderthals came later.)
We accept the idea that early biblical accounts are not always historical in our sense. We do not for example argue that the universe was created in six days. We accept the essential truth of God’s creation and realise that it is expressed in terms comprehensible to its original readership. We may even be critical of evangelical Christians who continue to insist on the literal truth of the biblical account. But how about Original Sin? Not only does it seem to be taught as a literal occurrence in Genesis but it is treated in the same way in the New Testament. Today, we see it as a deep, inherited flaw from the sin of our first parents and, throughout Christian history its consequences have been matter for discussion, disagreement and heresy.
How do we fit in the Neanderthals now that we have evidence that they had spiritual capacities, primitive though they may have been? If current evidence tells us that they were a different species from sapiens, then they either remained unfallen since they never inherited from Adam, or, if fallen, would have needed redemption – like Adam. Perhaps they shared the situation of an unbaptised infant who, as the old Catechism describes, is only fit for “that part of hell called Limbo”.
I am not a theologian, biblical or otherwise, but I think we may consider some questions here. (The conclusions that I suggest are personal speculation.) Science favours the view that homo sapiens is unlikely to have descended from a single couple. It notes that new species are inclined to come from several instances of creatures which have reached a similar stage of evolution.
In this context we note that Adam and Eve are not names as such: Adam simply means Man; Eve means Mother of all the living. Given that over 300,000 years ago our direct ancestors were using tools and trading, is it possible that we are not talking about a specific historical couple, somehow remembered for many millennia, but simply proxies for our first ancestors whoever they may have been?
Our distinction between body and soul may help us here. We know that we evolved from the brute beast. And at some point we developed brains which were capable of rational thinking and, through that, our capacity for moral choice. These abilities, being essentially spiritual, are beyond the bounds of science since they exclude material cause and effect by definition. We would then conclude that each of us, by the age of reason, is susceptible to the choice of evil. And all of us, except the Virgin Mary, are prone to fall. In such terms Original Sin is native but personal, and requires the grace of Redemption to save us.
The exact text of Genesis is interesting here. The protagonists are tempted by the Serpent with the promise that to eat the forbidden fruit will enable them to distinguish between good and evil, and thus to be like gods. This is an apparent anomaly. While still in their unfallen state they were, the account tells us, already susceptible to temptation, and they freely chose to disobey. To become like gods is the ultimate ambition behind all sin. It suggests to me that the potentiality to choose the evil was within our race (and presumably the Neanderthals) from the very beginning. The former ideal state of humanity, pictured by Genesis, is not a literal description but a mythological vision of how the world could have been if humans were to seek only the good. But through the Redemption we will, we may hope, live in just such a world after the Resurrection.