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Did The Neanderthals of Shanidar Cave Really Bury their Dead?

Did The Neanderthals of Shanidar Cave Really Bury their Dead?


There has long been debate among scientists regarding how Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals compared in terms of their cognition and intelligence. Some anthropologists believe Neanderthals were just as intelligent as modern humans, while others believe that Homo Sapiens endured over Neanderthals because they were superior in intelligence. Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq has been a subject of contention in this debate because it appears to contain evidence of a burial with funerary offerings made by Neanderthals in the form of flowers.

First Traces Emerge from the Cave

Initial excavation was done in Shanidar Cave, located in the Zagros Mountains, in the late 1920s. One of the first people to attempt excavation at the site was Dorothy Garrod, a British archaeologist. She found animal bones and a few stone tools such as handaxes, but no human remains. Work began in earnest in 1950, when an archaeology graduate student from Columbia University named Ralph Solecki began excavating the caves.

Shanidar cave in the Zagros Mountains.

Shanidar cave in the Zagros Mountains. (Jan Sefti /CC BY SA 2.0)

The first human skull was uncovered in 1957 and was nicknamed, “Nandy” because the specimen was a Neanderthal, an old man of about 40 or 50 years who had apparently been cared for by the group for many years. In the Paleolithic era, 50 was a ripe old age.

Neanderthal Burials

Over the years, excavators uncovered several other skeletons of varying ages. The most interesting find was a specimen which they called Shanidar 4, since it was the fourth skeleton discovered at the cave. This skeleton was in the fetal position. They also discovered a large amount of pollen in the vicinity of Shanidar 4, which suggested that flowers had been deposited there. The position of the skeleton and the pollen implied that the Neanderthal had been purposefully buried.

A Neanderthal skull found inside Shanidar.

A Neanderthal skull found inside Shanidar. (CC by SA 2.0)

This is not the only finding of a Neanderthal burial. There is also evidence that Neanderthals were deliberately buried in a grave in La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France.

Burial of the dead is a practice that was long thought to have been exclusive to Homo Sapiens. However, recent evidence of deliberate burial and funerary rites suggest that Neanderthals did indeed engage in this practice, and may have been equal to early humans in their cognitive abilities.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal burial.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal burial. (Eras historicas de la Humanidad by FMPM)

Neanderthal Culture

The finding of Neanderthal burials fits with other discoveries relating to Neanderthal culture. One example of this is musical ability. In 1995, a thigh bone from a juvenile bear with two holes pierced in it was found in a cave in the Divje Babe archaeological park near Cerkno, Slovenia. The object dates to about 43,000 years ago.

It has been suggested by some archaeologists that this specimen is in fact a flute, signifying that Neanderthals had musical abilities. The object also predates the arrival of Cro-Magnon in Europe, making it unlikely that the Neanderthals obtained it from Homo Sapiens. This increases the likelihood that it was of Neanderthal manufacture. In light of this, it seems expected that evidence would also be found that Neanderthals purposefully buried their dead in addition to being able to appreciate music.

The Neanderthal flute of the Divje Babe.

The Neanderthal flute of the Divje Babe. (CC by SA 2.0)

Questioning the Findings

Recent research, however, has cast doubt on the interpretation of Shanidar 4. Those studies suggest that the pollen in the grave of Shanidar 4 may in fact be from infiltration of the cave by the Persian jyrd, a type of rodent that can be found across the Middle East and west central Asia. These animals are known for storing their food in multiple locations in their burrows. Analysis of the pollen grains, pollen type, and pollen distribution by the archaeologist Jeffry D. Sommer suggests that it is more likely that the pollen was naturally deposited in the grave rather than intentionally deposited as part of a funerary rite.

While the remains of Shanidar 4 may not be all that they seem, there is confirmed evidence that Neanderthals at least purposely disposed of their dead - though they may have buried them for pragmatic rather than ritual or compassionate reasons - such as to keep away predators.

Top image: Main: The entrance to Shanidar cave. (CC by SA 3.0) Inset: A Neanderthal skull found inside Shanidar (CC by SA 2.0)

By Caleb Strom


Sommer, Jeffrey D. "The Shanidar IV ‘flower burial’: a re-evaluation of Neanderthal burial

ritual." Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9.01 (1999): 127-129.

The Skeletons of Shanidar Cave by Owen Edwards (2010). The Smithsonian. Available at:

Was "Earliest Musical Instrument" Just a Chewed-Up Bone? By Ralph Martins (2015). National Geographic. Available at:

Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual by Ker Than (2013). National Geographic. Available at:

Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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