Archaeologists in Iraq have discovered a Neanderthal skeleton which appears to have been deliberately buried around 65,000 years ago; Dr Amy Way discusses this recent study.

Earlier excavations of Shanidar cave in northern Iraq suggested that flowers were scattered on the body of one Neanderthal before being deliberately buried. However, this idea was not widely accepted at the time, as there was a possibility that the flowers could have been added later by burrowing rodents. These rodents live in the cave and sometimes take flowers into their burrows.

In this latest article, by Emma Pomeroy from the University of Cambridge and her team, they report on a new analysis from the same cave. This time they analysed another Neanderthal burial and found that this individual was laid in a deliberately cut grave.

A video of the burial, published by Cambridge University 2020, can be seen here:

The mystery of Neanderthal death rites. Cambridge University.

What did they find?

Pomeroy and colleagues analysed the sediments around and below the body and found that they were different. The sediments below were natural cave deposits whereas the sediments surrounding the body were in-fill deposits – these deposits filled the scoop feature in which the body was positioned. In addition, the sediment below the body showed signs of disturbance by digging. These sediments were consistent with an anthropogenic cut rather than a natural feature. In addition, the sediment overlying the body contained plant tissue fragments which are potentially significant, considering the previous ‘flower burial’ find. In-depth analyses of the plant material, including any potential pollen, are underway.

This individual is associated with three previously excavated individuals, and the authors argue that the four together represent the intentional burial of a small group. This group consists of one male, two females and an infant.

The skeletons are articulated, which also adds to the argument that these individuals were buried rather than left lying on the surface and later naturally covered by sediments. If the individuals were left exposed on the surface, there is a probability that the remains would have been eaten and/or scattered in the area by scavengers.

Shanidar Cave

Shanidar Cave

Image: Hardscarf
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When did modern humans start burying their dead?

Modern humans have been burying their dead for a least 100,000 years. Burial rites alongside artistic and symbolic practices are thought to represent the beginning of modern behavioural and cognitive complexity – hallmarks of our humanity. This complexity begins in the modern human story around 70,000 to 100,000 years ago in Africa with the production of shell beads, ochre for painting, and carving of geometric designs in ostrich shells (d’Errico et al. 2005;Henshilwood et al. 2011).

Detail of the new hominin remains in section, looking east; scale 0.3m (photograph by G. Barker), from Pomeroy et al 2020. New Neanderthal remains associated with the ‘flower burial’ at Shanidar Cave

Detail of the new hominin remains in section, looking east; scale 0.3m. Figure 3 in: Pomeroy, E. et al. (2020) New Neanderthal remains associated with the ‘Flower Burial’ at Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. Antiquity: a quarterly review of archaeology, 94 (373). p. 15. Reproduced with permission.

Image: G. Barker
© Antiquity: a quarterly review of archaeology

Deliberate burial: What does this mean for Neanderthal cognition and social awareness?

A pervasive argument in modern scholarship is that Neanderthals were less intelligent and less socially aware than modern humans, however several recent finds have made archaeologists re-assess this analysis.

Most recently, new finds in Spain show that Neanderthals made paintings in three caves more than 65,000 years ago (Hoffmann et al. 2018). The importance of this early date is that it demonstrates that this was an independently developed practice, rather than something Neanderthals learnt from modern Homo sapiens after H. sapiens entered Europe around 40,000 years ago.

This evidence for deliberate burial adds weight to the growing body of evidence which suggests that Neanderthals had cognitive and creative abilities much closer to our own ancestors than previously thought.

Dr Amy Mosig Way, Scientific Officer, Archaeology, Australian Museum Research Institute; and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.

More information:

  • d'Errico, F., Henshilwood, C., Vanhaeren, M. and van Niekerk, K. (2005) Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave: Evidence for symbolic behaviour in the Middle Stone Age. Journal of Human Evolution. 48, 3-24.
  • Henshilwood C.S., d'Errico F., van Niekerk K.L., Coquinot Y., Jacobs Z., Lauritzen S.E., Menu M. and García-Moreno R. (2011) A 100,000-year-old ochre-processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science. 14;334(6053):219-22.
  • Hoffmann, D. L., Standish, C.D., Marcos García-Diez, Paul B. Pettitt, James A. Milton, João Zilhão, José Javier Alcolea-González et al. "U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art." Science 359, no. 6378 (2018): 912-915.
  • Pearson, M.P. & Pearson, M.P. (1999). The archaeology of death and burial (p. 44). Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton.
  • Pomeroy, E., Bennett, P., Hunt, C.O., Reynolds, T., Farr, L., Frouin, M., Holman, J., Lane, R., French, C. and Barker, G. (2020) New Neanderthal remains associated with the ‘Flower Burial’ at Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. Antiquity: a quarterly review of archaeology, 94 (373). pp. 11-26.