Neanderthal skeleton sheds light on burial rituals

View of the entrance to Shanidar Cave in the foothills of the Baradost Mountains of North East Iraqi Kurdistan

View of the entrance to Shanidar Cave in the foothills of the Baradost Mountains of North East Iraqi Kurdistan

Scientists have recovered a fully articulated Neanderthal skeleton, the first in 20 years, from the "flower burial" site at Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Previous excavations at the Shanidar cave by archeologist Ralph Solecki of Columbia University during the 1950s yielded skeletal remains of 10 other Neanderthals, according to Science News.

The researcher who led those original investigations, Ralph Solecki from Columbia University in NY, claimed it was evidence that Neanderthals had buried their dead with flowers.

The "flower burial" captured the public imagination, and prompted a reappraisal of a species that - prior to Shanidar Cave - was thought to have been dumb and animalistic. Next, archaeologists recovered the remains of a clinched fist. Both sites are located in south-east Spain.

"There had been no excavations at the site since 1960, and developments in archaeological methods and scientific approaches meant that there was significant potential for gaining more detailed information on how long ago the site was used by Neanderthals and modern humans, how old the Neanderthal remains were, what the climate and environment were like when Neanderthals and modern humans used the site in the past, and the similarities and differences in Neanderthal and modern human tools and behavior", Pomeroy stated. The research which was published in the Antiquity journal sparked debate over whether Neanderthals had a cultural sophistication.

Professor Graeme Barker, from Cambridge University's McDonald Institute of Archaeology, who took part in the excavation, said there is evidence that Shanidar Z, this what researchers named the skeleton, was buried intentionally. It resumed the following year.

More evidence has since emerged that Neanderthals were way smarter than we initially gave them credit for, but it's been a long time since they walked the Earth, and their remains have been pretty rare.

The bones of the Neanderthal's left arm and ribs in situ.

The Neanderthal skull flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall in situ in Shanidar Cave Iraqi Kurdistan

In 2016, in one of the deepest parts of the trench, the researchers identified a rib, followed by a lumbar vertebra - part of the spine. However, metres of sediment needed carefully digging out before the team could excavate the skeleton. 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 nearly acting as a pillow beneath the skull. While the sex has yet to be determined, the discovery has relatively worn teeth, suggesting the individual was a "middle- to older-aged adult". The lower half of the skeleton is missing, but researchers haven't ruled out that it could be elsewhere in the cave.

The pollen remains found in Shanidar Cave led to the re-evaluation of Neanderthals, which were previously considered to be an undeveloped species closer to animals. In 2018-19, the upper body and crushed skull were exposed.

The pose is quite different from the Flower Burial skeleton, which was arranged in the foetal position, right next to and possibly overlapping Shanidar Z.

The study raises important questions over whether or not Neanderthals in the area returned to Shanidar Cave to inter their dead, which would denote cultural complexity, the study says.

But whether the time between deaths was weeks, decades or even centuries will be hard to determine.

"The new excavation suggests that some of these bodies were laid in a channel in the cave floor created by water, which had then been intentionally dug to make it deeper", said Prof Graeme Barker. The individual - dubbed Shanidar Z - was perhaps in his or her 40s or 50s.

This map shows the location of Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Neanderthal remains were discovered.

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