Cain and Abel Mystery Solved?

An archeological dig sheds light on the rise of Homo sapiens and fall of Neanderthals.

Humans and Neanderthals may have had conflicts. (Photo: Vitezslav Halamka/Shutterstock)

One of the most perplexing (and disturbing) of all the stories in the Old Testament is that of Cain and Abel. Now, evidence from an archeological dig in Iraq exposes a dark secret about our ancient ancestors that may offer a new way to look at the ancient legend.

In case you are not familiar with the story know it, it goes like this ...

After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, they have two sons. The first born, Cain, is ambitious and grows up to pioneer a whole new way of living on the earth by learning to till the soil. Cain is, in essence, the father of agriculture. His younger brother Abel is a simpler man who lives his life as a nomadic shepherd. God appears to favor the younger Abel and in revenge Cain commits the world's first murder. Cain kills Abel.

It is common knowledge that while the Old Testament is indeed highly metaphorical, it does actually track real historical and geological events. The Garden of Eden with its four rivers did, in fact, exist in southern Iraq and the great flood was real (it may have resulted from an asteroid impacting the earth during the Neolithic Age). The six days of creation follows fairly closely with evolutionary theory if one takes a more flexible definition of the hebrew word yom (which can be translated as "day" "month" or "age" depending upon context). And so on...

So, what about Cain and Abel? Who or what did they represent and what is the significance of the "first murder"?

Here's one theory. What if Cain and Abel actually represented two closely related species—Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, respectively—both of whom descended from a common "father" Adam, the progenitor of the hominid genus? Cain, the elder (sapiens) murders Abel, the younger (neanderthalensis).

This fits with the fossil record of the two species. Homo sapiens is the elder species, emerging about 200,000 years ago while the younger species Homo neanderthalensis emerged about 130,000 years ago. (For a while, scientists believed the Neanderthals were a sub-species of Homo sapiens, but that has also been disproved.)

Human settlements were also the first to show signs of planned agriculture, while Neanderthals relied upon hunting, gathering and herding for their subsistence.

The Neanderthal-as-Abel theory matches up both with the curious mix of history and metaphor that is the Book of Genesis and the fossil record of both species. It also aligns with a discovery by Duke University of a murdered middle-aged Neanderthal named Shanidar 3.

Archeologist Steven Churchill has found evidence that Shanidar 3 was killed about 50,000 to 75,000 years ago. He took a spear in the rib, a spear made by a human. Though the findings are scant, they do nevertheless suggest a theory that humans may have been actively involved in the downfall of the Neanderthal species, their closest resource competitor.

For many decades it was believed that humans and Neanderthals had no contact whatsoever. But recent evidence has shown cohabitation, even interbreeding, and now inter-species violence. This is also not the first finding to suggest human-Neanderthal killings. Another male Neanderthal skeleton dating to about 36,000 years ago was found scalped by a human-made weapon.

Churchill is careful to state that he is not promoting genocide theory. There is not sufficient evidence to prove widespread human warfare against the Neanderthals. Nevertheless, it should give us pause.

As we enter the Sixth Mass Extinction, an extinction initiated and perpetrated solely by humans attempting to feed an unending hunger for more and more natural resources, we should remember our lost brother Abel.

When you kill your kin, there are consequences to pay.

FACTOID: Seven out of 10 biologists believe that the current mass extinction of plant and animal species (at least three per day) is the greatest threat to the survival of humankind.