Iraq Cave Discovery Could Unravel Mystery of Neanderthal Death Rites

(CN) – What’s the difference between accidentally being buried by rocks in a cave-in, and intentionally being buried in a ceremony? Archaeologists have been searching for the answers in one Iraqi cave for more than half a century.

Research published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity documents the latest findings at the Shanidar Cave, adding to modern understanding of the rare Neanderthal flower burial.

Famed archaeologist Ralph Solecki documented two types of burials in the Shanidar Cave in the 1950s in Iraqi Kurdistan, a site where the remains of a dozen Neanderthals lay.

Neanderthal skull
A Neanderthal skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. (Photo by Graeme Barke)

Commonly considered “cave men,” Neanderthals share the same homo genius as modern man. These early hominids used stone tools, made fire, and wore simple ponchos made of animal hide. Although modern humans are considered a distinct species from Neanderthals, both lived in the Paleolithic period and may have interbred. Few intentional, ritualistic burials remain from the era, however, which makes discovering them important to understanding the ceremonies of man’s early ancestors.

In the Shanidar Cave, Solecki distinguished bodies that had likely been crushed during a cave-in from those that were more carefully arranged and surrounded by clumps of pollen. Among the 10 bodies found in the cave, Solecki found one man, two women, and an infant that he believed had been given a special flower burial.

Additionally, the notion of the flower burial led many archaeologists to question what they thought they knew about Neanderthals – breaking the myth of the dumb, animalistic cave man.

For further study, Solecki’s crew excavated a block of sediment and transported it on top of a taxi for analysis at the Baghdad Museum, where it remains today.

Earlier in the last decade, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq invited researchers from Cambridge, Birkbeck and Liverpool John Moores universities to collaborate with the Kurdistan General Directorate of Antiquities and the Directorate of Antiquities for Soran District.

The dig was delayed a year due to Islamic State Group activity in the region but commenced in 2015.

Lead by Emma Pomeroy in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, researchers aimed to place Solecki’s “findings into a robust chronological, paleoclimatic, paleoecological and cultural framework, using the full range of modern archaeological science techniques that were unavailable at that time.”

“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,” explained Pomeroy in a statement.

Armed with more than chisels, today’s archaeologists are better equipped to age the bones they find as well as the surrounding rocks, fossils, and the kind of climate in which they were lost.

“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,” Pomeroy added.

In addition to distinguishing rocks that fell during a cave-in from rocks excavated around formally buried bodies, archaeologists discovered a previously undocumented burial placed in a sleeping position, with one arm tucked under his or her head.

By examining its teeth, researchers estimate the body was aged 40 to 50 years old and buried 70,000 years ago.

“The completeness and articulated nature of the remains would argue against natural deaths that left the bodies exposed and susceptible to scavengers, for any period of time,” researchers wrote, supporting their mentor’s hypothesis.

The researchers dedicated their paper to Solecki, who died last March at 101 years old, and spent much of his life humanizing Neanderthals and debunking the myth of the cave man.

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