Skeleton found in cave could reveal Neanderthal death rites

Around 70,000 years ago, a Neanderthal was laid to rest in Shanidar Cave. Excavations in recent years have slowly revealed its entire upper body, including the clenched bones of a right hand.

Posted: Feb 19, 2020 9:35 AM


Around 70,000 years ago, a Neanderthal was laid to rest in Shanidar Cave. Excavations in recent years have slowly revealed its entire upper body, including a lower back, the clenched bones of a right hand and the left hand almost acting as a pillow beneath the skull.

It's the first discovery of its kind in 20 years, according to a new study published Tuesday. And the cave where the Neanderthal skeleton was found has its own intriguing story to tell.

Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan is where archaeologist Ralph Solecki found the remains of 10 Neanderthal men, women and children in the 1950s. An advocate for humanizing our Neanderthal ancestors, Solecki suggested at the time that the grouped remains were found with ancient pollen clumps because Neanderthals buried their dead and included flowers as part of their funeral rites.

He and his colleagues removed some of the skeletons in a block and transported them to the Baghdad Museum on the roof of a taxi in 1960. Solecki's studies of the Neanderthals excavated from the block were controversial and eye-opening, because he believed that they were capable of sophisticated rituals and behavior -- a contrast to the ignorant, brutish way they had previously been depicted.

Unfortunately, Solecki died at age 101 last year, unable to revisit the famous site due to various complications. But another excavation, initially delayed by ISIS activity in 2014, got underway in 2015.

The discovery of the new Neanderthal remains happened between 2016 and 2019, when the research team was looking to date sediments, according to Graeme Barker, study co-author from Cambridge University's McDonald Institute of Archaeology.

A study including details about the Neanderthal, referred to as Shanidar Z, published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.

"So much research on how Neanderthals treated their dead has to involve returning to finds from 60 or even a 100 years ago, when archaeological techniques were more limited -- and that only ever gets you so far," said Emma Pomeroy, lead study author at the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

"To have primary evidence of such quality from this famous Neanderthal site will allow us to use modern technologies to explore everything from ancient DNA to long-held questions about Neanderthal ways of death, and whether they were similar to our own."

Other ongoing research can help determine the gender, but for now, the researchers believe it was a middle-aged adult, possibly older, based on his or her teeth.

Shanidar Z's location in the cave, when regarded along with four of the other Neanderthals found in close juxtaposition, create a "unique assemblage" that caused the researchers to wonder if they routinely returned to this location to bury their dead.

A rather large triangular rock was also found prominently placed near the skull of Shanidar Z, likely as a grave marker.

"The new excavation suggests that some of these bodies were laid in a channel created in the cave floor by water, which had then been intentionally dug to make it deeper," Barker said. "There is strong early evidence that Shanidar Z was deliberately buried."

Researchers are really just getting to know Shanidar Z. CT scans revealed that the petrous bone is intact at the base of the skull, which could contain ancient DNA and tell them more about the Neanderthals that once lived in this region.

Plant material was also found over the rib fragments, and an analysis of it is currently underway. They are also studying the Neanderthal remains to determine the individual's diet, health and potential genetic relationship to the other remains.

The researchers believe that Shanidar Z was placed on their back, head rotated to the left side and resting on its hand, with the head and shoulders raised. The lower half of the skeleton is missing, but researchers haven't ruled out that it could be elsewhere in the cave.

"In recent years we have seen increasing evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought, from cave markings to use of decorative shells and raptor talons," Pomeroy said.

"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."

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