Back in 1960, archaeologist Ralph Solecki unearthed a deeply divisive Neanderthal burial site at the Shanidar Cave in the Kurdistan Region. Amongst a set of skeletal remains, found curled up in the fetal position, was discovered the presence of plant pollen seemingly scattered across the grave. Solecki claimed the Neanderthal had been buried on a bed of colorful flowers and branches, indicating funerary rites and suggesting our hominin cousins were emotionally sensitive individuals with clear cognitive abilities, not the heavy-browed dopes they were portrayed as at the time. However, this theory was not without its critics.
A new project has returned to the Shanidar Cave and unearthed one of the most complete articulated Neanderthal skeletons found in decades. Not only could this discovery shed light on the life and behavior of Neanderthals, but it could also help to settle the hotly debated “flower burial” case.
“This find is incredibly exciting for a number of reasons. It’s rare that such complete, articulated – with bones in correct anatomical connection – Neanderthal skeletal remains are found. This is the first to our knowledge in 25 years,” Dr Emma Pomeroy, lead study author from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archeology, told IFLScience.
Reported in the journal Antiquity, early analysis suggests the Neanderthal died around 70,000 years ago, but it’s not yet possible to tell if they were male or female. Given the quality of the skeletal remains, the researchers hope it could provide a wealth of information about Homo neanderthalensis. For example, studying the chemical composition of its bones and teeth could identify insights into their diet and geographic origins.
It also presents the possibility of obtaining ancient DNA from a south-west Asian Neanderthal for the first time, a feat that has proved difficult due to warmer climates not preserving genetic material very well.
Most exciting of all, this newly unearthed Neanderthal will provide much-needed revelations into the funerary practices of H. neanderthalensis. For starters, the new skeleton was discovered in the same small cave as at least four other Neanderthal individuals recovered in the 1960s, including the infamous “flower burial” Neanderthal. This suggests the group was buried in an organized fashion, like a Neanderthal graveyard.
But was this part of a sophisticated ritualistic ceremony, ripe with meaning, like a human funeral? Or was it simply done out of practical concern, perhaps hiding the bodies from scavengers?
A preliminary analysis of the new Neanderthal's bones also contains evidence of pollen. While it's still too early to jump to any solid conclusions from this, it could eventually be used to answer the debate around whether the “flower burial” was a coincidence or a conscious effort to memorialize death, just like modern humans.
“Burial of the dead has long been considered a hallmark of modern human behavior, suggesting compassion for group members, care and mourning for the dead, and even perhaps spirituality and ideas about what happens after death,” explained Dr Pomeroy.
“Our initial work on the soil micromorphology has shown mineralized plant material close to the bones of the new Neanderthal, and some evidence of pollen, which is highly relevant to the flower burial debate,” Pomeroy continued. "More work to identify pollen and other plant remains in soil samples taken from precisely recorded locations... will help us to show whether the plant remains are unique to the sediments surrounding the bones, identify the plants they come from, and exclude other explanations such as modern contamination or rodent activities."