New Evidence Ends the Neanderthal Burial Debate

New Evidence Ends the Neanderthal Burial Debate

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There is a longstanding debate about whether Neanderthals buried their dead or if this is a funerary rite unique to our species. However a new study may finally sway skeptics over to the side that intentional Neanderthal burials really did happen.

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers led by members of the CNRS and the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle of France and the University of the Basque Country in Spain have used several methods to prove that a two-year-old Neanderthal child was buried around 41,000 years ago. The child’s remains were found in a rock shelter called La Ferrassie in southwestern France sometime between 1970-1973 and have been stored and forgotten in the collections of the Musée d'archéologie nationale until now.

Science Daily reports that when the team of researchers decided to study the remains they found 47 bones that had been unaccounted for but clearly belong to the Neanderthal child. They read the notebooks and field diaries used by the original excavation team and then analyzed the state of preservation of the bones, as well as the proteins, genetics, and date associated with the remains. Next, the researchers returned to La Ferrassie to see if there were any more bones that were missed by the archaeologists in the past.

Examining material from the 1970s excavations at the Musée d’archéologie nationale, France. Thousands of bone remains were sorted and 47 new fossil remains belonging to the Neandertal child ‘La Ferrassie 8’ were identified. ( Antoine Balzeau – CNRS/MNHN )

They didn’t find any more Neanderthal burials or remains, but the work at the site did allow them to “reconstruct and interpret the spatial distribution of the human remains and the rare associated animal bones,” according to Science Daily . Their study, which is published in Scientific Reports , shows that the Neanderthal child was “buried in a sedimentary layer which inclined to the west (the head, to the east, was higher than the pelvis), while the other stratigraphic layers of the site inclined to the north-east. The bones, which were relatively unscattered, had remained in their anatomical position. Their preservation, better than that of the bison and other herbivores found in the same stratum, indicates a rapid burial after death.”

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The combined anthropological, spatial, geochronological, taphonomic, and biomolecular data analysed here suggest that a burial is the most parsimonious explanation,” the authors write in their paper. A CNRS press release declares that “This new information proves that the body of this two-year-old Neandertal child was purposefully deposited in a pit dug in a sedimentary layer around 41,000 years ago.” However the researchers did note that more discoveries are needed to properly “understand the chronology and geographical extension of Neandertal burial practices.”

A 'Flower Burial' Indicates Neanderthals Had Death Rites

This isn’t the first time researchers have found evidence for intentional Neanderthal burials. The famous Paleolithic site of Shanidar Cave in Iraq has also provided clues that Neanderthals not only purposely buried their dead, but also performed death rituals.

Between 1951 and the 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 Paleolithic period. 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 )

According to a study published in Antiquity in February 2020, 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

For a long time there were no major digs carried out at Shanidar, despite its status as “an iconic Palaeolithic site,” according to Antiquity. But 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 )

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.

Signs of Neanderthal Burial Rituals?

The find was yet another suggestion that at least some 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 Neanderthal remains. 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. 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

There is so much evidence that shows that the Neanderthals were far from primitive ape-men. Finds like the indications of Neanderthal burials indicate that they had high cognitive abilities. The discoveries may also suggest that the Neanderthals had some spiritual or even religious beliefs.

According to Dr. Pomeroy, the Neanderthal 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 Neanderthals had any beliefs about death, but it is clear that they cared for their dead.

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

An examination of the Shanidar Cave site, especially a micromorphology of sediment retrieved from the cave, shows researchers how the Neanderthals used the site. This could help to understand if Neanderthals' behavior changed over time, in a similar way to modern humans - and this would indicate higher-order, or 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 could also tell scientists much more about the site and the environment in which the Neanderthals lived . These types of studies could reveal what plants were used in the Neanderthal burial and if they were local. If pollen is found it could also reveal what plants were part of the Neanderthal diet .

Micromorphology thin section through the cut feature containing the 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 anatomically modern humans as they came out of Africa . There is evidence, elsewhere in Eurasia, that modern humans and Neanderthals mated.

The results of the Shanidar Cave study discussing Neanderthal burials are published in Antiquity.

Did Neanderthals bury their dead with flowers? Iraq cave yields new clues.

A Neanderthal skeleton unearthed in an Iraqi cave already famous for fossils of these extinct cousins of our species is providing fresh evidence that they buried their dead - and intriguing clues that flowers may have been used in such rituals.

Scientists said on Tuesday they had discovered in Shanidar Cave in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq the well-preserved upper body skeleton of an adult Neanderthal who lived about 70,000 years ago. The individual - dubbed Shanidar Z - was perhaps in his or her 40s or 50s. The sex was undetermined.

The cave was a pivotal site for mid-20th century archaeology. Remains of 10 Neanderthals - seven adults and three infants - were dug up there six decades ago, offering insight into the physical characteristics, behavior and diet of this species.

Clusters of flower pollen were found at that time in soil samples associated with one of the skeletons, a discovery that prompted scientists involved in that research to propose that Neanderthals buried their dead and conducted funerary rites with flowers.

That hypothesis helped change the prevailing popular view at the time of Neanderthals as dimwitted and brutish, a notion increasingly discredited by new discoveries. Critics cast doubt, however, on the “flower burial,” arguing the pollen could have been modern contamination from people working and living in the cave or from burrowing rodents or insects.

But Shanidar Z’s bones, which appear to be the top half of a partial skeleton unearthed in 1960, were found in sediment containing ancient pollen and other mineralized plant remains, reviving the possibility of flower burials. The material is being examined to determine its age and the plants represented.

“So from initially being a skeptic based on many of the other published critiques of the flower-burial evidence, I am coming round to think this scenario is much more plausible and I am excited to see the full results of our new analyses,” said University of Cambridge osteologist and paleoanthropologist Emma Pomeroy, lead author of the research published in the journal Antiquity.

Scholars have argued for years about whether Neanderthals buried their dead with mortuary rituals much as our species does, part of the larger debate over their levels of cognitive sophistication.

“What is key here is the intentionality behind the burial. You might bury a body for purely practical reasons, in order to avoid attracting dangerous scavengers and/or to reduce the smell. But when this goes beyond practical elements it is important because that indicates more complex, symbolic and abstract thinking, compassion and care for the dead, and perhaps feelings of mourning and loss,” Pomeroy said.

Shanidar Z appears to have been deliberately placed in an intentionally dug depression cut into the subsoil and part of a cluster of four individuals.

“Whether the Neanderthal group of dead placed around 70,000 years ago in the cave were a few years, a few decades or centuries - or even millennia - apart, it seems clear that Shanidar was a special place, with bodies being placed just in one part of a large cave,” said University of Cambridge archeologist and study co-author Graeme Barker.

Neanderthals - more robustly built than Homo sapiens and with larger brows - inhabited Eurasia from the Atlantic coast to the Ural Mountains from about 400,000 years ago until a bit after 40,000 years ago, disappearing after our species established itself in the region.

The two species interbred, with modern non-African human populations bearing residual Neanderthal DNA.

Shanidar Z was found to be reclining on his or her back, with the left arm tucked under the head and the right arm bent and sticking out to the side.

A new and unexpected Neanderthal skeleton

Now, new research has reopened the discussion. Though Solecki died in 2019, his efforts to resume excavations at Shanidar Cave repeatedly blocked, a team led by the University of Cambridge was invited by the Kurdistan Regional Government to explore further at the site. However the expectation wasn’t to discover new remains.

“The Neanderthals had been found by Solecki between three and seven meters down,” Fred Lewsey at the University of Cambridge writes, “and the idea was to reopen the trenches to get samples of soil, in the hope of pulling new evidence for age or climate from microscopic mineral and animal fragments.”

Instead more bones were unearthed, including a seemingly complete – but flattened – skull, along with upper body bones almost to the waist. The left hand was curled under the head. The remains are believed to be more than 70,000 years old, and those of a middle- to older-aged adult. With sex still undetermined, the archeologists are referring to the remains as Shanidar Z.

The well-preserved state of these 50,000-year-old bones led researchers to suggest that Neanderthals buried their dead well before modern humans arrived in western Europe. However, skeptics argued that the burials may not have been intentional. Here, the Neanderthal burial pit at the end of the excavations.

Neanderthals were known to bury their dead in the Middle East. However, these burials dated to a time when contact with modern humans (Homo sapiens) might have occurred, suggesting that humans' Neanderthal relatives might not have come up with this idea on their own.

Still, in the past decade, a number of discoveries suggest that Neanderthals were capable of complex mental behavior, such as wearing decorative feathers. These findings could potentially support the idea that Neanderthals had minds complex enough to contemplate revering the dead enough to create tombs for them.

Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual

A 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton discovered in a cave in France was intentionally buried.

A Neanderthal skeleton first unearthed in a cave in southwestern France over a century ago was intentionally buried, according to a new 13-year reanalysis of the site.

Confirming that careful burials existed among early humans at least 50,000 years ago, the companions of the Neanderthal took great care to dig him a grave and protect his body from scavengers, report the study authors in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Neanderthals were an ancient species of early humans, who left behind only faint traces of their genes in modern people of non-African descent. The new burial study, led by New York University paleontologist William Rendu, settles a long-standing debate about the Neanderthal site and its remains.

"There has been a tendency among researchers working on this topic to discard all evidence coming from old excavations just because the excavations were done long ago," said Francesco d'Errico, an archeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France who was not involved in the study.

"This study demonstrates that the pioneers of the discipline often did, considering the means they had, a very good job."

Most anthropologists now agree, based on evidence uncovered at 20 or so grave sites throughout Western Europe, that our closest evolutionary relatives buried their dead at least some of the time.

The site at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, however, has always been something of a question mark. In 1908, two brothers who were also archeologists uncovered the 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton in the cave, and almost immediately they speculated that the remains were intentionally buried. But a lack of information about the excavation procedures used by the Bouyssonie brothers—as well as the fact that they were Catholic priests—caused many skeptics to wonder if the discovery had been misinterpreted.

In 1999, French researchers reexamined the site. Their excavations, which concluded in 2012, showed that the depression where the skeleton was found was at least partially modified to create a grave. Moreover, unlike reindeer and bison bones also present in the cave, the Neanderthal remains contained few cracks and showed no signs of weathering-related smoothing or disturbance by animals.

"All these elements attest that the two sets of bones have two different histories. The animal bones were exposed to the open air for a long time, while the Neanderthal remains were rapidly protected after their deposit from any kind of disturbance or alteration," said Rendu, a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) in New York City.

The scientists also found bone fragments belonging to other Neanderthals—two children and one adult—but it's unclear whether they were also buried.

Paul Pettitt, an archeologist at Durham University in the U.K. who also did not participate in the research, said the report "not only demonstrates that Neanderthal burial was a reality at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, but in my opinion also raises the possibility that the evolution of human burial began with the simple modification of natural pits for funerary use."

Culture and Caring Origins

The idea that Neanderthals buried their dead fits with recent findings that they were capable of symbolic thought and of developing rich cultures. For example, findings show they likely decorated themselves using pigments, and wore jewelry made of feathers and colored shells.

Evidence from the La Chapelle site also suggests that Neanderthals were like us in that they cared for their sick and elderly. The skeleton discovered by the Bouyssonie brothers belonged to a Neanderthal who was missing most of his teeth and showed signs of hip and back problems that would have made movement difficult without assistance.

"Before they took care of his dead body, the other members of his group would have had to have taken care of his living one," Rendu said.

70,000-year-old Neanderthal discovery shows they likely 'buried their dead with flowers'

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A shocking new study suggests that Neanderthals may have buried their dead with flowers.

The research looks at an "articulated" (all the bones in proper order) Neanderthal skeleton that was recently unearthed in Iraqi Kurdistan, the first such skeleton found in more than 20 years. Known as Shanidar Z, the Neanderthal was likely "deliberately buried," according to experts. Clumps of ancient pollen were also found, suggesting that flowers were also a part of the burial ritual.

"So much research on how Neanderthals treated their dead has to involve returning to finds from sixty or even a hundred years ago, when archaeological techniques were more limited, and that only ever gets you so far," said the study's lead author, Emma Pomeroy, in a statement.

The Neanderthal skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. (Credit: Graeme Barker)

"To have primary evidence of such quality from this famous Neanderthal site will allow us to use modern technologies to explore everything from ancient DNA to long-held questions about Neanderthal ways of death, and whether they were similar to our own," Pomeroy added.

New analysis shows that Shanidar Z is believed to be more than 70,000-years-old and was likely a middle- or elderly-aged adult when he died.

The researchers started exploring the Shanidar Cave where the skeleton was found in 2014 but had to postpone digging for a year because of its close proximity to Islamic State forces.

The bones of the Neanderthal’s left arm and ribs in situ in Shanidar Cave. (Credit: SWNS)

After the dig was restarted, a rib, part of a spine and a clenched right hand were discovered. A crushed skull and the left hand were subsequently found years later.

"The new excavation suggests that some of these bodies were laid in a channel in the cave floor created by water, which had then been intentionally dug to make it deeper," Cambridge's McDonald Institute of Archaeology professor Graeme Barker added in the statement. "There is strong early evidence that Shanidar Z was deliberately buried."

The cave was first discovered in the 1950s by archaeologist Ralph Solecki (who died in 2019), who unearthed 10 skeletons of Neanderthal men, women and children, including one that had clumps of pollen surrounding it. However, for nearly 70 years, the idea that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers was highly controversial, but the new findings add credence to Solecki's idea.

Material and methods

A complete re-inventory of the anthropological collections of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle has been facilitated by their transfer to the Jardin des Plantes from the Musée de l’Homme (Paris, France) due to renovations. Several boxes contained elements from the site of La Ferrassie (Dordogne, France) where new human fragments were identified. Some elements fit with the LF1 and LF2 skeletons. Another box contained elements from the excavations of Delporte in 1973 that were related to the discovery of LF8. To complement the information available in this box, including the new human remains, we visited the collections and archives of the excavations led by Delporte in La Ferrassie from 1968 to 1973 at the Musée d'Archéologie nationale et Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (noted MAN). This provided a better understanding of the context of the 1968–1973 excavations and their results (Supplementary Text S1). Graphic documentation, including photographs of square 1 from the final days of the 1973 field season were useful to visualize and understand the process of the excavations. Notebooks with information about the labelling and 3D coordinates of each element were crucial to reconstruct the spatial distribution of the Mousterian layer and the LF8 elements (Supplementary Text S2, supplementary data 1 for the raw data used, and Figs. S6 and S10). The notebooks for square 1 (field seasons 1970, 1972 and 1973) are entirely reproduced (SI Supplementary data 1). Among the boxes in the MNHN and in the MAN, several fragments of a partial bison horncore that perfectly refit together were discovered (Supplementary Text S2) as well as numerous new human remains of LF8 (Supplementary Text S2). The attribution of the new human remains to LF8 is based on their consistency with the existing remains in terms of size and age-at-death, the lack of anatomical duplication, the direct refitting of bone elements, their location in the deposit, and the taphonomic analyses (following the methodology of Rendu and colleagues 16 ) of the entire fossil bone collection, including the horn and other faunal elements and the complete hominin collections. The archives of Marcelin Boule (housed at the MNHN and at the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine, Paris, France) were visited in order to search for information regarding the La Ferrassie site. In order to provide a more thorough evaluation of the original LF8 context, we present new data on the archaeo-stratigraphic context of the LF8 Neandertal child including: spatial data of the LF8 fossils and associated finds, taphonomic analysis of LF8 and the associated faunal remains, stratigraphic information regarding the findings from the LF8 sector (both from Delporte’s excavation and our own excavation in 2014), new luminescence and 14 C ages and ZooMS data of some indeterminate fossil remains associated to LF8. The methodologies follow classic protocols and are detailed elsewhere (Supplementary Text S1). The methods used for the retrieval and analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA are described in detail in Supplementary Text S1.

Grave controversy

To help end this controversy, between 1999 and 2012, scientists excavated seven caves at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, where the first known potential Neanderthal burial was discovered. [See Images of the Neanderthal Burial Pits]

Inheritance, fairness, and the billionaire class

"One of our major difficulties was convincing the scientific community that a site excavated 100 years ago might still be rich in information," said study lead author William Rendu, a paleoanthropologist at France's National Center for Scientific Research and New York University.

The researchers found more Neanderthal remains — two children and one adult — as well as some bison and reindeer bones. They did not find tool marks or other conclusive evidence of intentional digging of the earth at the site, but geological analysis of the 15-inch-deep (39 centimeters) pit where the remains were found suggested it was not a natural feature of the cave floor.

Moreover, when the scientists examined the Neanderthal remains found at the site in 1908, they discovered that unlike the bison and reindeer bones, the Neanderthal fossils had few cracks, no smoothing related to natural erosion from the environment and no signs of disturbance by animals. These traits suggest the Neanderthal was buried rapidly, and perhaps intentionally, to protect the bones.

"It is novel evidence that Neanderthals were able to develop, by themselves, some complex symbolic thought," Rendu told LiveScience. "The behavioral distance between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans seems to become even thinner."

It remains uncertain what the precise meaning of this burial might have been, or if burial was a common practice among Neanderthals. "We need to compare this data to other possible burials from the same period and region," Rendu said. "The problem is that they all come from old excavations, and they all need to be reanalyzed and discussed."

Rendu and his colleagues detailed their findings online Dec. 16 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human, too – Stephen Wroe

The team, led by Stephen Wroe, from the University of New England, Armidale, NSW Australia, told me at the time that their computer model indicated Neanderthals could therefore speak just like us. At the time of his discovery, he said: "Many would argue that our capacity for speech and language is among the most fundamental of characteristics that makes us human. If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human, too."

If they could speak, then they could efficiently transmit information to each other, such as how to make tools. They may even have taught us modern humans a thing or two.

Finlayson says the steep cliffs on Gibraltar have helped to preserve Neanderthal remains (Credit: Getty Images)

There is now evidence that suggests this is exactly what happened when Neanderthals and modern humans came into contact. A type of bone tool, discovered at a known Neanderthal site, later was also found where only modern humans lived.

The team, led by Marie Soressi of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, analysed known Neanderthal sites from about 40-60,000 years ago. The tools they found were actually fragments of rib bones from deer and were most likely used to help make animal hide softer, possibly for clothes. "This type of bone tool is very common… in any sites used by modern humans after the demise of the Neanderthals," Soressi told me in an interview for BBC Earth.

This points to one thing, she says: the modern humans who had met Neanderthals copied their use of bone tools. "For me, it’s potentially the first evidence of something being transmitted from Neanderthals to modern humans.

When we lived closer to the equator, we didn’t have a need for warmer clothes. Neanderthals, on the other hand, had lived in the colder European climates for many years before modern humans arrived. Learning how Neanderthals dealt with the cold would have been of great benefit to us.

Many researchers, including Soressi, now argue that meeting other early humans may therefore have been crucial for us to become the successful species we are today.

Finlayson and colleagues at Gorham’s Cave – the last known place where Neanderthals lived? (Credit: BBC)

That Neanderthals used many different tools again reveals how similar they were to us. Like us, they were able to successfully adapt and exploit their environment.

"Neanderthals were much more evolved than what we used to think," Soressi says. "We are now at a turning point where we should consider that Neanderthals and contemporaneous modern humans were equal in many domains.”

This becomes even more apparent considering additional evidence that suggests they buried their dead, too – another important cultural ritual showing “complex symbolic behaviour”.

Last Neanderthals

But there were also clear differences between Neanderthals and modern humans. It is telling that we are here today and they are not. And as they reached the last few millennia of their existence, they were facing new challenges – ones they weren’t as well equipped to deal with as modern humans proved to be.

John Stewart of the UK’s Bournemouth University points to his work looking at the different hunting strategies of humans and Neanderthals. The latter, he says, did not exploit smaller game, such as rabbits, as much as modern humans did. Though there is some evidence from Gorham's cave that Neandertals hunted rabbits, Stewart says they hunted less of them than we did.

Their close-combat hunting tactics, which had served them well for larger game, may have made it much more difficult to catch enough rabbits to sustain them when other food was in short supply. "I think modern humans had more technologies to catch these fast-moving smaller prey items, like nets or traps. Certainly when times got tough modern humans always had more at their disposal," he says.

Climatic evidence shows that Neanderthals also were existing in an increasingly hostile environment. Extreme cold periods in other parts of Europe pushed them further south until they arrived in areas like Gibraltar.

"Every few thousand years in Europe and Asia, the climate was drastically changing from relatively warm to bitterly cold," says Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. "As this was happening over and over again, they were never able to build up their diversity."

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal burial at Chapelle-aux-Saints, France (Credit: Getty Images)

It concealed Kurdish families during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

As well as aiding the living, Shanidar Cave harbours the dead.

A graveyard of 35 people lain to rest over 10,000 years ago was uncovered in Shanidar Cave by archaeologist Ralph Solecki in 1960.

This cemetery was found at the end of four seasons of excavation, during which time Solecki discovered something more extraordinary: the partial remains of ten Neanderthal men, women and children. Mid-20th century techniques could only date them to over 45,000 years ago.

Stockier than us, with heavy brows and sloping foreheads, it had long been assumed that Neanderthals were primitive and animalistic: subhuman. Evolutionary losers ultimately rendered extinct by their own deficiencies.

Illustrated reconstruction of a Neanderthal man. Hermann Schaaffhausen, 1888.

Illustrated reconstruction of a Neanderthal man. Hermann Schaaffhausen, 1888.

However, Shanidar Cave suggested a far more sophisticated creature. One male had a disabled arm, deafness and head trauma that likely rendered him partially blind. Yet he had lived a long time, so must have been cared for. Signs of compassion.  

Four individuals were found clustered together in a “unique assemblage”, with ancient pollen clumped in the sediment around one of the bodies. Solecki claimed this as evidence of Neanderthal burial rites: repeated interments the laying of flowers on the deceased. Human-like ritual behaviour.

Controversy ensued, and still lingers. Does Shanidar Cave show that Neanderthals mourned for and buried their dead? Were they far closer to us in thought and action? What does this mean for the evolution of our lineage? 

“Undergraduates across the world studying pre-history get asked a version of: Neanderthals were nasty, brutish and short – discuss. The Shanidar flower burial always comes up,” says Prof Graeme Barker, Fellow of St John’s College and former Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

One such student essayist at Cambridge would eventually be among the first archaeologists allowed back into Shanidar Cave for more than fifty years. “I stood at the bottom of the hill leading up to the cave and thought: how am I getting to do this?” says Dr Emma Pomeroy, now a lecturer at the University and Fellow of Newnham College.  

She first heard about the cave while studying at St. John’s College. “It was mind-blowing. School hadn’t taught us about human evolution, and I was fascinated by what Neanderthal behaviour might tell us about our own species.” 

Ralph Solecki didn’t finish excavating at Shanidar. He tried to re-excavate several times – reaching the foot of the hill in 1978 – but was stymied by political unrest, and his neglected trenches filled with rubble. Solecki died in March last year aged 101.

Shanidar 4 (the &aposflower burial&apos) in situ in 1960, with Ralph Solecki on the left. Credit: Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Shanidar 4 (the &aposflower burial&apos) in situ in 1960, with Ralph Solecki on the left. Credit: Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

In 2011, Barker was invited by the Kurdistan Regional Government to re-excavate Shanidar. “Most archaeologists would jump at the chance,” he says. “The fact that Solecki was enthusiastic was a clincher.” Initial digging in 2014 stopped after two days when ISIS got too close, but resumed in earnest the following year. Pomeroy joined the team in 2016 as the project’s palaeoanthropologist.

The Neanderthals had been found by Solecki between three and seven metres down, and the idea was to reopen the trenches to get samples of soil, in the hope of pulling new evidence for age or climate from microscopic mineral and animal fragments.   

“We thought with luck we𠆝 be able to find the locations where Solecki had discovered the Neanderthals, and see if we could date sediments with techniques they didn’t have back in the fifties,” says Barker. “We didn’t think we𠆝 be lucky enough to find more Neanderthal bones.”  

In 2016, down in the �p Sounding” of the Solecki trench, while working on the eastern face, a rib emerged from the wall, followed by the arch of a lumbar vertebra, then the bones of a clenched right hand. Archaeologists would have to wait until the following year to begin excavating the delicate remains from beneath metres of rock and soil.

During 2018 and 2019, the team uncovered a seemingly complete skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment, and upper body bones almost to the waist – with the left hand curled under the head like a small cushion.

Quick sketch of the Neanderthal body position by Dr Emma Pomeroy.

Quick sketch of the Neanderthal body position by Dr Emma Pomeroy.

The first articulated Neanderthal skeleton to come out of the ground for a quarter of a century is over 70,000 years old. Sex is yet to be determined, but it has the teeth of a “middle- to older-aged adult”.

The find is described in a new paper published in the journal Antiquity.

The Neanderthal skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Neanderthal skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The bones are “heartbreakingly soft” says Pomeroy. Barker describes the consistency as akin to wet biscuit, and soil had to be slowly and meticulously scraped away, sometimes using bamboo kebab sticks. 𠇎mma’s got an eye for where the various protuberances of bone are likely to be,” says Barker. “It took her weeks of intense concentration working in what is pretty much a sauna in terms of heat and humidity.”

Dr Emma Pomeroy at work in Shanidar Cave.

Dr Emma Pomeroy at work in Shanidar Cave.

A glue-like consolidant is then brushed on, soaking in to bolster the bone, before sections are lifted out and wrapped in foil. But the bones are just the headline act. Scoops of surrounding soil are also ferried to camp where they are washed and picked through. Barker says they collect everything larger than two millimetres.  

The painstaking work of excavating in situ is risky as the bone is so fragile. An alternative is “en bloc”: to coat the area in plaster and extract it wholesale, then excavate fully in the lab.

“We considered en bloc, but it can be quite brutal,” says Pomeroy. 𠇌rucially, it risks destroying precious evidence that may determine whether the Neanderthals were buried in a purpose-dug pit – a grave – or not.”  

In the 1950s, Solecki opted for the en bloc excavation of the 𠆏lower burial’. Pomeroy thinks it was this extraction that left the latest Neanderthal find chopped at the waist. “In their notes they describe bones trickling out of the block. Solecki numbered the individuals we think we have the top half of Shanidar 6, but until we can confirm this we call ours Shanidar Z.”

What thrills both archaeologists is the wealth of evidence to be gleaned from Shanidar Z using technologies unavailable to Solecki. “In the Neanderthal burial debate, archaeologists are always going back to the reports of finds from sixty or a hundred years ago, but that only gets you so far,” says Pomeroy. “Now we have primary evidence.”

She is currently CT-scanning each segment of Shanidar Z in the lab at the Cambridge Biotomography Centre, and will rescan them once the layers of silt – the “matrix” – are removed. Ultimately a digital reconstruction will emerge.

Members of Ralph Solecki’s team, Dr T. Dale Stewart (right) and Jacques Bordaz (left) at Shanidar Cave in 1960, working on removing the remains of Shanidar 4 (the 𠆏lower burial’) en bloc. This block of sediment was later found to also contain the partial remains of 3 more individuals.  

Members of Ralph Solecki’s team, Dr T. Dale Stewart (right) and Jacques Bordaz (left) at Shanidar Cave in 1960, working on removing the remains of Shanidar 4 (the 𠆏lower burial’) en bloc. This block of sediment was later found to also contain the partial remains of 3 more individuals.  

Ralph Solecki’s excavation team carrying the block containing Shanidar 4 (the flower burial), 6, 8 and 9 down from the cave to be transported to the Baghdad Museum for further study.

Ralph Solecki’s excavation team carrying the block containing Shanidar 4 (the flower burial), 6, 8 and 9 down from the cave to be transported to the Baghdad Museum for further study.

A 3D rendering of the in situ positions of the Neanderthal left hand and torso as it emerged from the sediment of Shanidar Cave. Credit: Ross Lane.

A 3D rendering of the in situ positions of the Neanderthal left hand and torso as it emerged from the sediment of Shanidar Cave. Credit: Ross Lane.

Scans have revealed the petrous bone to be intact. Named for the Latin petrosus, or ‘stone’, it’s a wedge at the base of your skull, behind the ear, and one of the densest bones in the body. The petrous is a grail for hunters of ancient DNA, as it can preserve genetic data for millennia.

We have ancient Neanderthal DNA from the North, where colder climates aided preservation. That’s how we know they bred with modern humans at some point. All non-African people still carry an average of 2% Neanderthal DNA, and a recent study from Princeton suggests most Africans also have around 0.3%. 

What we don’t have is Neanderthal genetics from hot and dry South West Asia, where this interbreeding most likely occurred as modern humans spilled out of Africa. Shanidar Z might be the best hope yet.

Cross-sectional CT image showing the petrous part of the temporal and inner ear (within red box) of the new Shanidar skull.

Cross-sectional CT image showing the petrous part of the temporal and inner ear (within red box) of the new Shanidar skull.

Some argue that competition from our species was the catalyst for Neanderthal extinction. Other theories include an inability to cope with changing climates. In the office above Pomeroy, PhD student Emily Tilby is sifting through shards of shell and bone from Shanidar snails and mice, searching for traces of temperature shift.

“Small animals are particularly sensitive to climate change,” explains Barker. “Greenland ice cores give us a general global picture, but these tiny bones can tell us about changing climates in Kurdistan at the time when Neanderthals were roaming its mountains.”

Estimates suggest that – despite ranging from the Atlantic coast to the Urals and South West Asia – there may have only been around 20,000 Neanderthals at any one time, says Barker, “living in widely dispersed small clans yet somehow staying connected across the landscape.”     

Part of that connection may have been locations of cultural significance to which they returned again and again – places like Shanidar Cave. “We have Neanderthals at different levels, as well as this cluster of bodies next to a very large rock, perhaps some kind of marker,” says Pomeroy. “Not only are they returning to the same cave, but they appear to be putting bodies in the same spot.”

Time between deaths is a mystery. Solecki proposed that some of the Shanidar Neanderthals were killed simultaneously by rockfall. Pomeroy thinks this unlikely, but whether the bodies are separated by weeks, decades or centuries is a major challenge for the new research. “Getting scientific evidence for this is going to be one of the hardest nuts to crack,” says Barker.

Terms like �metery’ and ‘grave’ are problematic for the researchers. “We can’t yet be absolutely sure if Neanderthals were actually digging holes for the dead, then covering them over,” says Pomeroy, who prefers the phrase “mortuary behaviour”.

Early evidence from the new excavations suggests that some of the Neanderthals had been deposited in natural dips in the cave floor created by water, but also that “intentional digging” around the bodies had occurred.  

If Neanderthals were living in the cave there may have been practicalities (“you don’t want decomposing bodies to attract hyenas”), but Barker cautions against modern mindsets – death as medical fact – when considering their behaviour.

“In many traditional human societies, death is a long process, with stages of interment and ceremony. And funerary rites can sometimes be more about making sure the dead are not coming back than helping them with their onward journey,” Barker says.

He points out that isolated groups spread across Europe and the Near East over many thousands of years won’t have left a single Neanderthal way of death. �tween a body being dumped and elaborate funerary activity involving items such as flowers, there’s a vast range of possibilities.”

The pioneering pollen work of paleobotanist Arlette Leroi-Gourhan in the 1960s, which led to Solecki’s 𠆏lower burial’ claim, has been criticised in the years since (although Pomeroy and colleague Lucy Farr have uncovered documents in the Smithsonian they believe may rebut the rebuttals).

Some argue it was animals dragging flowers into burrows that caused pollen clumps. Others say Solecki’s workers tramped in petals from their daily cave commute. With colleagues at Liverpool John Moores, the team are reopening the case of the flower burial by analysing resin-imbued sediment from the scene, sliced wafer-thin.

Watch the video: Νέα έρευνα: Οι Ταυτότητες των αρνητών και οι θεωρίες συνωμοσίας