Bones of contention

New evidence points to Neanderthal burial rituals

Skeletal remains found in Iraqi cave give credence to theory that humans’ ancient relatives interred their dead, and even left flowers by their side

The exterior of Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq in 2005 (CC BY JosephV/Wikimedia Commons)
The exterior of Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq in 2005 (CC BY JosephV/Wikimedia Commons)

A newly discovered Neanderthal skeleton in northern Iraq has given credence to the theory that the ancient relatives of modern humans had burial rituals.

The skeleton found in the Kurdistan region’s Shanidar Cave belonged to an adult individual who lived some 70,000 years ago. Pollen found in the soil beside the skeleton has boosted proposals that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers.

In the mid-20th century the cave was the site of one of the most significant finds of Neanderthal remains in archaeological history, with the the bodies of 10 individuals dug up by researchers.

Pollen found by the bones of one Neanderthal in 1960 led anthropologist Ralph Solecki to propose that the individual had been buried with flowers — a shocking suggestion at a time when Neanderthals were largely seen as oafish, barely intelligent creatures.

Doubt was later cast on the pollen evidence, with suggestions it was deposited there later by animals or otherwise.

But science has shifted over time on Neanderthals, with growing evidence that the species was far closer in sophistication to homo sapiens than previously thought.

Teams of researchers reentered the cave in recent years to look for more data, as scientific methods have developed considerably since the 1960s. The presence of ancient pollen remains by the new skeleton appeared to back up Solecki’s theory, according to the study published in Antiquity journal this week.

The skeleton’s posture and placement also seemed to indicate the burial was deliberate.

A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human version of a skelaton, left, are on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

University of Cambridge osteologist and paleoanthropologist Emma Pomeroy, who led the new research, said: “From initially being a skeptic based on many of the other published critiques of the flower-burial evidence, I am coming round to think this scenario is much more plausible and I am excited to see the full results of our new analyses.”

She added: “So much research on how Neanderthals treated their dead has to involve returning to finds from 60 or even 100 years ago, when archaeological techniques were more limited, and that only ever gets you so far.”

Pomeroy said researchers have found “increasing evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought, from cave markings to use of decorative shells and raptor talons.

“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,” she said.

Neanderthals as a species became extinct some 40,000 years ago. In recent years genetic studies have shown modern humans contain traces of Neanderthal DNA, indicating interbreeding between the two groups and the possibility that the species did not simply die out but was assimilated into the larger homo sapiens gene pool.

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