Between 1951 and 1960, archaeologist Ralph Solecki unearthed ten sets of remains that changed the way we see Neanderthals, and one individual stood out from the rest: It was a corpse that appeared to be carefully lain to rest, adorned with flowers. Those ancient bones suggested that neanderthals had funerals and maybe even a sense of spirituality. New research published this week offers even more insight into this lost culture's concept of death.
In 2015, scientists returned to Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan, the same cave where the “flower burial" remains were found. They found yet another set of neanderthal remains, and published their results Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.
These remains were "articulated" — they had not been moved since the individual died — are the first to be unearthed in 25 years.
Emma Pomeroy is a lecturer at Cambridge University, and the first author of the paper. She tells Inverse that this newly discovered individual was found directly next to the “flower burial” remains (also called Shanidar 4). Though this skeleton didn't have funerary flowers, it also appears to have been buried intentionally.
That intentionality has several meanings. It can tell us that Neanderthals were practical: perhaps they buried their dead so as not to attract scavengers or spare themselves the smell of a decomposing corpse.
But it also tells us that they gave death the respect it deserves:
“If we can find evidence of actions that don’t have a function – the placement of flowers or other objects with the body, or returning repeatedly to the same spot to deposit the dead, that strongly suggests the mortuary behavior has a symbolic or ritual component," says Pomeroy.
“[That] is what we might truly call funerary behavior that might hint at a more abstract and spiritual understanding of the world, although it’s almost impossible to infer exactly what those beliefs.”
"It’s humbling to think of what the cave has seen"
Pomeroy describes the Shanidar Cave as an iconic site in Neanderthal archaeology. It's surrounded by steep valleys, and lush wildlife, including ibex during the day and wolves at night.
If you go back 30,000 to 90,000 years, that cave also was home to at least ten neanderthals, whose remains were excavated by Solecki in the '50s and '60s. Some appear to have died from falling rocks. One sustained numerous injuries, but appears to have been nursed back to health.
Another, the paper notes, may have been stabbed in the ribs, suggesting that cave life was as dramatic then, as, say, murderous Arctic expeditions are today.
"It’s humbling to think of what the cave has seen," says Pomeroy. "The fact that it was home to people right into the second half of the 20th century, either as herders, or Kurdish people hiding from persecution."
The real treasures of the place, including this new find, were found beneath the surface. This time, when Pomeroy went to Shanidar, her team analyzed the soil surrounding the new find.
That soil examination showed very different sediments surrounding the bones, compared to the sediments found underneath (suggesting that some churning of the soil occurred, the same way it does when we dig graves today).That grave digging probably enhanced a natural dip that was already in the cave.
Pomeroy and the team's analysis of soil samples also shed light on the famous "flower burial" site.
There was ancient plant material in the same sediment where the bones were found, which means that those flowers probably weren't brought there by more recent travelers. They also found no evidence that animals had burrowed around the remains. Pomeroy tells Inverse that some theories suggest animals dragged the flowers in to their burrows. This finding makes that explanation less likely, and strengthens the ideas that the neanderthals used them to adorn their dead.
Now, team will need to test the rest of the soil samples taken from around the new skeleton. If they find that the plant material is only found near the skeletons, that would further suggest that the flowers were brought there as symbols.
Neanderthals led rich lives
These remains show us yet another way we are closely connected to them: like humans, they may have also had a rich spiritual world that they immortalized through funerary practices.
"We do have some pretty convincing evidence of burial at other Neanderthal sites, but also other mortuary practice like defleshing the bones (which we also see in some early remains of our own species)," says Pomeroy.
"Being able to identify patterns over time or space in such behavior would give us evidence of cultural traditions, again something we consider to be very human."
Those are the kind of clues that don't often survive tens of thousands of years, but small ritualistic pieces of evidence, like funeral flowers in a cave, are some of the only evidence we have of a culture that has since vanished.
Abstract: Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan became an iconic Palaeolithic site following Ralph Solecki’s mid twentieth-century discovery of Neanderthal remains. Solecki argued that some of these individuals had died in rockfalls and—controversially—that others were interred with formal burial rites, including one with flowers. Recent excavations have revealed the articulated upper body of an adult Neanderthal located close to the ‘flower burial’ location—the first articulated Neanderthal discovered in over 25 years. Stratigraphic evidence suggests that the individual was intentionally buried. This new find offers the rare opportunity to investigate Neanderthal mortuary practices utilizing modern archaeological techniques.