New cave fossils have revived the debate over Neandertal burials

The excavation of an adult Neandertal’s partial
upper-body skeleton
in Iraqi Kurdistan has revived a decades-long debate
over whether Neandertals intentionally buried their dead.

Analyses of the fossils, unearthed from the region’s
Shanidar Cave, and the surrounding sediment indicate the individual was placed
at the bottom of a shallow depression that someone had dug, scientists report
in the February Antiquity.

The discovery follows excavations in Shanidar from 1951 to
1960 that yielded fossils from 10 other Neandertals, including a partial
skeleton known as the “flower burial” for the ancient clumps of pollen that
surrounded the remains. The late archaeologist Ralph Solecki, who led those
earlier digs, concluded that the pollen showed that Shanidar Neandertals had
buried their dead and scattered flowers over bodies in funeral rituals.

Burying the dead — a behavior typically associated only
with Homo sapiens — implies
compassion for group members, care and mourning for the dead, and
perhaps spirituality and belief in an afterlife. If Solecki was right,
Neandertals could have engaged in various symbolic acts, such as creating
cave paintings
, also usually attributed only to H. sapiens (SN: 10/28/19).

have suggested, however, that Neandertals sleeping in Shanidar Cave
could have died from exposure or injuries caused by falling rocks before
natural processes covered their bodies with dirt and plants (SN: 12/11/01). To complicate matters,
Solecki’s discoveries occurred before professional standards were developed for
carefully excavating fossils and studying how site sediments formed.

The newly excavated Neandertal, dubbed Shanidar Z, lay next
to the flower burial and in a manner that strengthens the argument for Solecki’s
theory that the cave contains one or more Stone Age graves, the researchers

“We are pretty convinced that at least some of the Shanidar
individuals were intentionally deposited,” says study coauthor Emma Pomeroy, an
archaeologist at the University of Cambridge.

Pomeroy’s team traveled at the invitation of the Kurdish
Regional Government to Shanidar Cave in 2014 to find and date Solecki’s
fossil-bearing sediments. Work stopped after two days when Islamic State fighters
got close to the site, resuming only the next year when conditions were deemed safe.

In 2016, the team unearthed a rib, a lower back bone and
bones of a clenched right hand, presumably from a Neandertal. Further fossils from
the same individual, unearthed in 2018 and 2019, included a flattened skull that
still displayed Neandertal traits, such as large brow ridges, and upper-body
bones including a left hand that had been curled under the head. Lower-body fossils
from Shanidar Z have yet to be removed from cave sediment.

Shanidar Cave
Excavations in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Shanidar Cave, shown from the outside, have added to previous fossil evidence suggesting that the site contains Neandertal graves.Graeme Barker

Preliminary dating of soil just below Shanidar Z’s remains
suggests the individual, whose sex remains undetermined, lived between 70,000
and 60,000 years ago. A sharpened stone artifact lay next to one of Shanidar
Z’s ribs. It’s not clear how the implement got there.

Shanidar Z lay at the bottom of a depression, where slightly
compacted soil indicates that the hole was intentionally dug. Sediment
containing Shanidar Z and nearby Neandertals shows no signs of exposure to
rockfalls in the cave, Pomeroy and colleagues report.

Two stacked stones were unearthed near the Neandertal’s head
and may have marked where the body was buried. It’s unknown, however, how much
time might have passed between presumed interments of Shanidar Z, the adjacent
“flower” individual and nearby Neandertals.

Microscopic remnants of ancient plants, as well as some
pollen, were also found in sediment near Shanidar Z, Pomeroy says. Further
research will determine what types of plants were represented and whether
burrowing rodents, rather than mourning Neandertals, brought plants into the

“As with all previous
claims for Neandertal intentional burials
, there are no smoking guns clearly
indicating intentional burial [of Shanidar Z],” says archaeologist Dennis
Sandgathe of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. Shanidar Z’s body was
not arranged in any special way, but lay “in a rather loose fetal position”
that could have occurred randomly, he says. And no obvious material offerings
were placed with the body, as in later ritual burials of humans.

But Shanidar Z’s body being at the bottom of an
intentionally scooped-out depression in the cave sediment still leaves open the
possibility of an intentional burial, Sandgathe says.