New excavations at a well-known Neanderthal site have revealed a previously undiscovered Neanderthal skeleton, along with more evidence that these extinct hominins may have had “flower burials” for their dead.
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In the 1950s, archaeologist Ralph Solecki uncovered Neanderthal remains and tools in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Shanidar Cave, a find extremely influential to our modern understanding of Neanderthals. One of the individuals, called Shanidar 4, was surrounded by clumps of pollen, and archaeologists wondered whether other Neanderthals had intentionally buried the body and placed flowers at its grave. Now, a new excavation at the cave using modern archaeological techniques has revealed another Neanderthal skeleton that seems to have been intentionally buried with plant matter.
“It’s very difficult to try to infer what [the Neanderthals] were actually thinking,” Emma Pomeroy, the study’s first author and an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, told Gizmodo. “But clearly there’s some meaningful thought process aside from just getting rid of a body that smells.”
Shanidar Cave is a large cave in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Bradost Mountains. Here, from 1951 to 1960, Solecki’s team found 10 sets of Neanderthal remains, including men, women, and children. The discovery changed how people thought about Neanderthals; some appeared to have lived with severe disabilities, demonstrating social support and caring.
Though the Shanidar 4 remains were found near pollen grains, archaeologists questioned the theory that the group had given their dead a sort of funeral rite—perhaps the pollen was more a recent contamination (the archaeologists transported the excavated finds atop a taxi), or maybe rodents dragged the plants in, Pomeroy said. After all, if this group lived in a cave together, getting rid of a smelly corpse by burying it makes sense, without attaching any symbolic significance.
Then, in 2014, the Kurdish Regional Government invited researchers to once again excavate the cave, though the threat of ISIS delayed the project by a year. Researchers hoped to better understand how Solecki’s finds originally sat in the cave and determine the dates of the sediments around them. But they weren’t expecting to find a new Neanderthal right next to the original site of Shanidar 4.
The remains comprised the upper body of an individual, including a crushed skull, ribs, and left hand placed beneath the head, likely the same position of the individual at death. The researchers dated the remains at 45,000 to 55,000 years old, and based on the positioning, they guessed it probably belonged to one of the Neanderthals from Solecki’s excavations, perhaps Shanidar 6. They guessed that some of the duplicated bones between this find and Shanidar 6 could belong to another individual, according to the paper published in Antiquity.
These new remains had pollen surrounding them as well, and there were no rodent burrows near the bones to indicate that the plant material was dragged in. This preliminary evidence suggests, once again, that the Neanderthals in the cave intentionally buried their dead with flowers.
But the analysis has only just begun. Pomeroy told Gizmodo that her team hopes to combine techniques such as soil micromorphology—closely studying the sediment surrounding remains to better understand their context—as well as more advanced pollen analysis and even ancient DNA analysis.
We’ll never know for sure exactly what the Neanderthals were thinking when they buried their dead. But research increasingly suggest they were sensitive, artistic people, not hulking brutes. There are still many chapters of the Neanderthal story to uncover.