In what might be the oldest evidence of murder in the human line, scientists studying human remains in Sima de los Huesos (The Pit of Bones) in Spain have discovered a human skull in which are the marks of two lethal, pre-mortem attacks. The pit was apparently in use about 430,000 ago as a place to dispose of human bodies. The two marks are seemingly made by the same weapon--presumably a rock or stone tool--ruling out that the injury occurred when the body was thrown into the pit. As such, they suggest an act of deliberate aggression between human beings, or a precursor group like the Neanderthals.
8Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out in the field.” When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD asked Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper" God then said: What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!
What interests me is the similarity between the biblical account and scientific discovery. But also the differences. Science and the Bible both confront us with the insight that violence between human beings is deeply rooted in our experience. Cain and Abel, after all, were first children born to the first parents, Adam and Eve. Fratricidal jealousy and hatred were experienced by the very first fratres, or brothers. Science shows us that human-on-human violence was part of our makeup - even before we could be said to be fully human.
But the difference in the two narratives is interesting also. Science will suggest that intra-tribal murder was programmed into us and is embedded deep into our DNA -- as deep as is the tool-making capacity that led to the creation of the murder weapon. Murderous propensities are a part of who we are, unfortunately. The Biblical writers, with no insight into paleontology, DNA or evolution, but stuck with the idea of a Deity who created a perfect world, suggested that the problem of violence was something that humans brought upon themselves. Violence seems part of the curse that came with the disobedience of Adam and Eve. They ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and were sentenced to painful childbirth, the subjugation of women to men, the need to work for a living and finally, death. Evidently, the capacity of their kids to act with lethal vengeance upon one another was also part of God's judgment.
I don't buy the idea that God cursed humanity because of the seemingly innocuous sin of eating a fruit. But I am impressed with the insight of the minds that crafted Genesis, who reached out to discover God's plan with such clearheaded view of their race's own flaws. Only recently have scientists discovered the intra-species violence that occasionally occurs in nature: the lethal inter-troop murder sprees of chimpanzees, for instance. Sure, there is violence in nature -- males battling males for territory and access to females, for instance. But to the ancient mind, and even to our own, non-human animal violence pales by comparison to the absurd lengths that human go to destroying each other. The Bible's writers and editors put that insight at the forefront of their story of the origins of humanity. And science has now confirmed that insight.
What to do?
In Genesis, God does not destroy murderous Cain. How could he? Murder was part and parcel of the Biblical writer's world. Obviously, God had allowed the first murderer to live. God does put his mark on Cain, but it is a protective mark that warns others not to kill him. In this way, God allows Cain to propagate his proclivity to violence to the entire human race. And with God's tacit permission.
Perhaps God realizes that a race that reasons for itself (because of the fruit it tasted) has inevitably lost its anchors in the pre-programmed behaviors and ritualized combat that mark so much of the rest of the natural world. Rams may butt heads until one combatant skulks away, defeated but alive. Deer may lock horns until one prevails. But humans, having the "gift" of reason, can plan, conspire, cajole, threaten their way to victory. Violence may be the inevitable companion of a mind freed of the restraints that keep other animals from destroying others of their own species. It is impressively wise that our biblical forebears encoded this same insight into the myths they wrote about our origins.
Ultimately, the wisdom of the Bible lies not in the biographical tidbits it provides about our earliest ancestors. The wisdom it provides is about ourselves -- our unique place in creation as the only animal that uses reason (the knowledge of good and evil) to carve out its own destiny. No alley cat, opossum, vole or amoeba can do much more than to follow the urgings of its DNA and cognitive programming. Human are cursed and blessed with the ability to follow other behavioral pathways, some to our detriment, like jealousy, anger and fratricidal murder, and others to our benefit, like love, forgiveness and reconciliation.
May we choose wisely!