New cave fossils have revived the debate over Neandertal burials

Part of an adult Neandertal’s skeleton was found in a manner that suggests intentional burial

Neandertal fossils in Shanidar Cave

Newly discovered Neandertal fossils in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Shanidar Cave, including this rib cage, support a controversial claim that Neandertals intentionally buried some of their dead, researchers say.

Graeme Barker

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).

Solecki’s critics 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 hold.

“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 cave.

“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.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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