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Shanidar Cave; insert - excavations of the new Neanderthal remains. Source: Hardscarf / CC BY-SA 4.0; R. Lane / Antiquity Publications Ltd.

'Flower Burial' Indicates Neanderthals Had Death Rites

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New Neanderthal remains have been uncovered at a famous Palaeolithic site in Iraq. They are from the Shanidar Cave site which is famous for providing remarkable insights into the Neanderthals. In particular, the finds could help researchers to finally resolve the controversy over whether or not the Neanderthals buried their dead with rituals.

Between 1951 and 1960s Ralph Solceki and his team investigated the Shanidar Cave , in the Baraadost Mountains, which is in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq. At a depth of several meters, they found a number of Neanderthal remains that date to the Upper Palaeolithic. This find became world-famous because it seemed to provide evidence of Neanderthal burial practices, for the first time.

Shanidar Cave became an iconic Palaeolithic site following Ralph Solecki’s discovery of Neanderthal remains. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Shanidar Cave became an iconic Palaeolithic site following Ralph Solecki’s discovery of Neanderthal remains. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

According to Antiquity, Solceki had uncovered the “famous flower burial, so-called because of clumps of pollen grains from adjacent sediments”. This appeared to be an intentional burial with flowers, possibly indicating mortuary practices among the Neanderthals and offering evidence that they were capable of symbolic thought and cultural practices .

Articulated Neanderthal Remains

There have been no major digs carried out at Shanidar since 1960, despite its status as “an iconic Palaeolithic site” according to Antiquity. In 2014 the local Kurdistan regional government-backed a new dig at the site, which did not begin until 2015. It was conducted by a team from several leading British Universities.

The objective of the research project was to “place Solceki’s findings into a robust paleoclimatic, paleoecological and cultural framework using the full range of modern archaeological science techniques” reports Antiquity. They did not expect to find any more Neanderthal remains.

Instead, they found the first articulated remains of a Neanderthal in over a generation in a deposit of silt. They uncovered part of a badly damaged cranium and some bones from the torso of a member of the extinct human species.

Excavated Neanderthal skull. (G. Barker / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Excavated Neanderthal skull. (G. Barker / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The discovery has been named Shanidar Z and is believed to be 70,000 years old and to be the remains of a male, possibly in his 40s. The remains have been analyzed using a variety of techniques that were not available when the cave was first investigated.

Neanderthal Burial Rituals?

The find is adding to the body of evidence that at least some of the Neanderthals were buried. Dr. Emma Pomeroy, lead author of the study exclusively told Ancient Origins that “We have been able to provide evidence that a scoop was dug in which to place the new individual, and that there are ancient plant remains in the sediments around the bones”. It appears that an existing channel on the cave floor was deepened, something that would have required a great deal of effort.

Location of the newly discovered Neanderthal remains. (G. Barker / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Location of the newly discovered Neanderthal remains. (G. Barker / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

This strongly indicates that the individual was intentionally buried. A stone that was possibly a marker was also found near the suspected burial. Dr. Pomeroy told Ancient Origins that “We also have the possibility that stones were used to mark where the bodies were, and for Neanderthals returning multiple times to deposit their dead in the exact same spot”.

Possible Neanderthal Cultural Practices

This is evidence that shows that the Neanderthals were far from primitive ape-men. It indicates that they had high cognitive abilities. The discovery could suggest that the Neanderthals had some spiritual or even religious beliefs.

According to Dr. Pomeroy the burials “could hint at some kind of spiritual ideas, or at least compassion for others in the group, care for the dead, and feelings of mourning or loss”. It is impossible to determine if the archaic human had any beliefs, but it is clear that they cared for their dead.

Reconstruction of the possible burial position of the recently found Neanderthal remains; the stone behind the head is shown in grey. (E. Pomeroy / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Reconstruction of the possible burial position of the recently found Neanderthal remains; the stone behind the head is shown in grey. (E. Pomeroy / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

An examination of the site, especially, a micromorphology of sediment retrieved from the cave, is showing researchers how the Neanderthals used the site. This could help them to understand if Neanderthals' behavior changed over time, in a similar way to modern humans and this would indicate higher-order even symbolic thinking . This “will be important for understanding more fully the nature and variability of potential cultural behaviors in Neanderthals”, Dr. Pomeroy told Ancient Origins.

How Did Neanderthals Become Extinct?

The micromorphology of sediment can also tell scientists much more about the site and the environment in which the Neanderthals lived . They could reveal what plants were used in the supposed burial and if they were local. If pollen is found it could also reveal what plants were part of the Neanderthals diet .

Micromorphology thin section through the cut feature containing the new Neanderthal remains. (L. Farr / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Micromorphology thin section through the cut feature containing the new Neanderthal remains. (L. Farr / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Dr. Pomeroy told Ancient Origins that “if we are able to isolate ancient environmental DNA (eDNA) from the sediments, this might give us a greater understanding of Neanderthal genetic variation and variability”. This could reveal a great deal about the extinct species . It may also help researchers to understand why they disappeared about 40,000 years ago.

There are real hopes that some DNA may be extracted from a bone in the skull, that was identified during a CT scan. This could help us to understand if Neanderthals in southwest Asia interbred with modern anatomically humans as they came out of Africa . There is evidence, elsewhere in Eurasia, that modern humans and Neanderthals mated.

The results of the study are published in Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.213

Top image: Shanidar Cave; insert - excavations of the new Neanderthal remains. Source: Hardscarf / CC BY-SA 4.0 ; R. Lane / Antiquity Publications Ltd .

By Ed Whelan

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