Iraqi excavation rekindles debate over whether Neanderthals buried their dead

neanderthal remains shanidar cave iraqi kurdistan
The newly uncovered Neanderthal remains in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: 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.

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.

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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.

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