By Michael Marshall
This Neanderthal was deliberately buried 50,000 years ago
Neanderthals really did bury their dead. Archaeologists in Iraq have discovered a new Neanderthal skeleton that appears to have been deliberately buried around 50,000 years ago.
We are quite confident, says Emma Pomeroy at the University of Cambridge.
The first evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead emerged after archaeologist Ralph Solecki excavated Shanidar cave in northern Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s. The cave eventually yielded the remains of 10 Neanderthals, including one dubbed Shanidar 4, which was found with clumps of pollen suggesting the body had been deliberately placed in a grave and flowers scattered on it. The finding was one of several lines of evidence that has led to a reassessment of Neanderthals as highly intelligent and not the shambling brutes of earlier portrayals.
However, the flower burial suggestion has been controversial. There are burrowing rodents that use the cave and they sometimes take flowers into their burrows, says Pomeroy. Some of the workmen helping with the dig also carried flowers. Enough doubt was cast that people became quite sceptical.
In 2014, excavations at the cave restarted under tight security because of the threat from ISIS in the region. The aim was to study the sediments in which the Neanderthals were found, to clarify what had happened. However, to the teams surprise they found a new set of remains: the upper half of a Neanderthal, the bones still in their anatomical positions.
Pomeroys team found multiple lines of evidence that the Neanderthal was deliberately buried, including that fact that the sediment layer around the body is visibly different to the layer below. The one containing the bones is much darker, says Pomeroy.
What’s more, the sediment below the body shows signs of having been disturbed by digging. If you imagine youre digging into soil or sediment to dig a grave or a little hole, that causes some compression of the soil, underneath that youre taking out, because youre pushing down, says Pomeroy. The team found that the layer immediately under the body is compressed, but the deeper layers aren’t. Thats quite good evidence that something was dug out and thats what the bodys been put in.
It isn’t clear if the remains belong to a new individual or to one of the previous finds, several of which are incomplete. Pomeroy says the body was probably accidentally cut in half by the original excavators, who removed the flower burial in a large block of rock.
Modern humans were burying their dead at least 100,000 years ago, says Pomeroy. We don’t know whether Neanderthals devised the behaviour themselves or if they learned it from humans, but we do know Neanderthals and humans encountered each other around the time of the Shanidar burials.
Journal reference: Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.207
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By Michael Marshall