May 30, 2020


Aim for Excellence

Discovery at ‘flower burial’ site could unravel mystery of Neanderthal death rites

Picture: The Neanderthal cranium, flattened by hundreds of several years of sediment and rock slide, in...

Picture: The Neanderthal cranium, flattened by hundreds of several years of sediment and rock slide, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.
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Credit: Graeme Barker




The to start with articulated Neanderthal skeleton to occur out of the ground for around twenty several years has been unearthed at a person of the most significant websites of mid-20th century archaeology: Shanidar Cave, in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Researchers say the new discover features an unparalleled prospect to investigate the “mortuary methods” of this lost species applying the hottest technologies.

Shanidar Cave was excavated in the fifties, when archaeologist Ralph Solecki uncovered partial remains of ten Neanderthal guys, females and kids.

Some were clustered collectively, with clumps of historic pollen surrounding a person of the skeletons. Solecki claimed this showed Neanderthals buried their dead and carried out funerary rites with flowers.

The ‘flower burial’ captured the public imagination, and prompted a reappraisal of a species that – prior to Shanidar Cave – was considered to have been dumb and animalistic.

It also sparked a a long time-long controversy around irrespective of whether proof from this amazing website did basically issue to death rituals, or burial of any sort, and if Neanderthals were actually capable of this kind of cultural sophistication.

More than 50 several years later on, a group of researchers have reopened the outdated Solecki trench to accumulate new sediment samples, and found out the crushed cranium and torso bones of a different Shanidar Neanderthal.

The discovery has been named Shanidar Z by researchers from Cambridge, Birkbeck and Liverpool John Moores universities.

The work was carried out in conjunction with the Kurdistan Basic Directorate of Antiquities and the Directorate of Antiquities for Soran Province. The discover is announced right now in a paper published in the journal Antiquity.

“So a lot study on how Neanderthals taken care of their dead has to entail returning to finds from sixty or even a hundred several years ago, when archaeological methods were more minimal, and that only ever will get you so considerably,” stated Dr Emma Pomeroy, from Cambridge’s Section of Archaeology, direct author of the new paper.

“To have main proof of this kind of top quality from this well known Neanderthal website will allow for us to use present day technologies to check out anything from historic DNA to long-held thoughts about Neanderthal strategies of death, and irrespective of whether they were equivalent to our individual.”

Ralph Solecki died final calendar year aged a hundred and one, getting never managed to perform additional excavations at his most well known website, in spite of a number of attempts.

In 2011, the Kurdish Regional Governing administration approached Professor Graeme Barker from Cambridge’s McDonald Institute of Archaeology about revisiting Shanidar Cave. With Solecki’s enthusiastic assist, initial digging commenced in 2014, but stopped following two times when ISIS bought as well close. It resumed the subsequent calendar year.

“We considered with luck we’d be equipped to discover the areas exactly where they experienced identified Neanderthals in the fifties, to see if we could day the surrounding sediments,” stated Barker. “We failed to count on to discover any Neanderthal bones.”

In 2016, in a person of the deepest pieces of the trench, a rib emerged from the wall, adopted by a lumbar vertebra, then the bones of a clenched appropriate hand. Nevertheless, metres of sediment necessary very carefully digging out right before the group could excavate the skeleton.

For the duration of 2018-19 they went on to uncover a comprehensive cranium, flattened by hundreds of several years of sediment, and upper system bones nearly to the waistline – with the still left hand curled beneath the head like a little cushion.

Early evaluation implies it is around 70,000 several years outdated. Even though the sexual intercourse is however to be decided, the hottest Neanderthal discovery has the enamel of a “center- to more mature-aged grownup”.

Shanidar Z has now been brought on bank loan to the archaeological labs at Cambridge, exactly where it is staying conserved and scanned to help construct a electronic reconstruction, as more layers of silt are eradicated.

The group is also performing on sediment samples from all over the new discover, on the lookout for symptoms of local weather alter in fragments of shell and bone from historic mice and snails, as nicely as traces of pollen and charcoal that could provide perception into functions this kind of as cooking and the well known ‘flower burial’.

4 of the Neanderthals, which include the ‘flower burial’ and the hottest discover, formed what researchers explain as a “exclusive assemblage”. It raises the question of irrespective of whether Neanderthals were returning to the exact location inside the cave to inter their dead.

A notable rock following to the head of Shanidar Z may possibly have been made use of as a marker for Neanderthals frequently depositing their dead, states Pomeroy, despite the fact that irrespective of whether time amongst fatalities was weeks, a long time or even hundreds of years will be challenging to determine.

“The new excavation implies that some of these bodies were laid in a channel in the cave floor produced by water, which experienced then been deliberately dug to make it further,” stated Barker. “There is solid early proof that Shanidar Z was deliberately buried.”

CT-scans in Cambridge have exposed the petrous bone – a person of the densest in the system a wedge at the foundation of the cranium – to be intact, offering hope of retrieving historic Neanderthal DNA from the hot, dry area exactly where “interbreeding” most likely took spot as people spilled out of Africa.

Additional Pomeroy: “In the latest several years we have viewed increasing proof that Neanderthals were more refined than formerly considered, from cave markings to use of decorative shells and raptor talons.

“If Neanderthals were applying Shanidar cave as a website of memory for the repeated ritual interment of their dead, it would recommend cultural complexity of a large get.”


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