CAMBRIDGE, England — Neanderthals have long been written off as our ancient, animalistic ancestors that fell by the wayside to humanity due to their poor intellect. Perhaps we’ve been too quick to assume the neanderthals were devoid of culture or insight. The first partial neanderthal remains discovered in over 20 years is lending further credence to the theory that neanderthals performed “mortuary practices” on their deceased, adorning their lost loved ones with flowers before burying them in places akin to a modern day graveyard.
Furthermore, these new remains are offering modern scientists an invaluable opportunity to analyze neanderthal remains and practices using the latest technologies.
The new remains were discovered at Shanidar Cave, in Iraqi Kurdistan. This location is already incredibly important to our understanding of neanderthals, as it is the original site where archaeologist Ralph Solecki discovered the partial remains of 10 neanderthal men, women, and children in the 1950s. When these original remains were discovered, some of the skeletons were gathered together, and one contained clumps of ancient pollen. It was this discovery that launched Solecki’s initial theory that neanderthals may not have been as primitive as previously believed, and would ritualistically bury their dead after a ceremony involving flowers.
At the time, Solecki’s theory launched decades of debate of among scientists and archeologists regarding the validity of the flower funeral theory. Up until that point, it would have been unheard of to suggest that neanderthals were capable of such cultural sophistication.
Now, more than 50 years after Solecki’s discovery, researchers have reopened that very same location and discovered an additional crushed neanderthal skull and a variety of torso bones. These newly discovered bones have nicknamed “Shanidar Z.”
“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,” says Dr. Emma Pomeroy, from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, in a university release. “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.”
Digging at Solecki’s trench initially started back up again in 2014 but had to be stopped briefly due to ISIS insurgents nearby. Luckily, by 2015 digging was able to resume.
“We thought with luck we’d be able to find the locations where they had found Neanderthals in the 1950s, to see if we could date the surrounding sediments. We didn’t expect to find any Neanderthal bones,” says Professor Graeme Barker from Cambridge’s McDonald Institute of Archaeology.
Early analysis of remains suggest that they are upwards of 70,000 years old, and teeth examinations indicate the neanderthal was a “middle- to older-aged adult” prior to passing away. Right now, the remains are on loan to the labs at Cambridge, where they are being scanned for digital reconstruction. Sediment samples surrounding where the bones were found are also being analyzed, specifically for any traces of charcoal or pollen. Any such fragments could conceivably offer unprecedented insight into neanderthals’ cooking practices and the infamous “flower burial” theory.
All that being said, these new remains have already supplied some interesting new information. Of the 10 original neanderthal remains discovered in the 1950s, four were positioned in what was described as a “unique assemblage.” The new skeletal remains just discovered were very close to this assemblage, leading researchers to hypothesize that Shanidar Z was also a part of the original assemblage. These facts could certainly lead one to conclude that archeologists stumbled upon a neanderthal graveyard of sorts, or at least a set area where, at the time, neanderthals went to bury their loved ones.
Even more fascinating, a noticeable rock was located next to the head of Shanidar Z. This rock may have been used a grave marker, or the equivalent of a modern day tombstone.
“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,” Barker notes. “There is strong early evidence that Shanidar Z was deliberately buried.”
Shanidar Z’s petrous bone, an extremely dense wedge located at the base of the skull, is still intact. Researchers at Cambridge may be able to extract DNA from it, which would provide further insight into these mysterious beings long erased from the planet.
“In recent years we have seen increasing evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought, from cave markings to use of decorative shells and raptor talons,” Pomeroy concludes. “If Neanderthals were using Shanidar cave as a site of memory for the repeated ritual interment of their dead, it would suggest cultural complexity of a high order.”
The study is published in Antiquity.