“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.” So declared Science magazine earlier this year.
This discovery in caves in Spain, including pictures of animals, dots and geometric signs, is fascinating in its own right, being possible only because of new and sophisticated dating methods.
But it also has a particular interest for us. The use of art tells us that 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 could even have had a concept of religion, since there is evidence that they might 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 also 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 a matter for discussion, disagreement and heresy.
So 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”.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection