Buried in a partial foetal position and surrounded by flower pollen, the discovery of Shanidar 4 – a Neanderthal skeleton unearthed in 1960 – prompted a dramatic reappraisal of our ancient cousins.
Far from being brutish thugs, the Shanidar flower burial, as it became known, painted a picture of Neanderthals as empathic beings who cared enough for their dead to scour the mountains for funeral bouquets. Now, fresh evidence suggests this interpretation may have been incorrect – although Neanderthals may still have had strong funerary rituals.
Neanderthals are estimated to have died out 45,000 years ago and few physical remains of them have survived. However, during the late 1950s and early 60s, an archaeologist called Ralph Solecki discovered the skeletons of 10 Neanderthal men, women and children at Shanidar cave in the Zagros mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Surrounding one of the males, Shanidar 4, were clumps of ancient pollen – presumed to be pollen sacs (anthers) from whole cut flowers – launching Solecki’s flower burial hypothesis.
“Although the evidence was subsequently questioned, the story was spectacular enough that it is still found in most archaeology textbooks,” said Prof Chris Hunt at Liverpool John Moores University, who also credits it with inspiring him to pursue a career in environmental archaeology.
However, recent excavations next to where Solecki discovered the Shanidar 4 remains are prompting a rethink of this hypothesis.
Hunt and his colleagues have identified two further Neanderthal bodies – one, known as Shanidar Z, immediately adjacent to and slightly below where Shanidar 4 was found – plus further bones and teeth about 15cm below these remains.
The three bodies appear to have been placed in a gully-like feature, through which water occasionally flowed, immediately adjacent to a huge rock. The relative depths of the bodies suggest that they were placed here at different times – possibly over a period of several tens to hundreds of years.
Shanidar 4 and Z appear to have been placed in roughly the same position, as if they were looking out of the cave, and while the remains of the third Neanderthal are too sparse to be sure of its burial position its head similarly appears to be facing east.
“What is becoming very clear is that at least three times Neanderthals came and camped on the sediments beside this gully, and placed a body into it,” Hunt said.
“Although it is very difficult to infer traditions from archaeology, this looks like a tradition of disposing of the dead in a very similar way and it’s obviously with care, because two of the bodies are very complete.”
The team also revisited the original pollen identifications, finding that the clumps contained pollen from more than one type of flower, with not all of these plants blooming at the same time of year, –throwing the idea of funeral flowers into doubt. Rather, the most likely source of the pollen clumps is nesting bees – evidence of which was discovered nearby, –the team suggests.
Hunt also notes that one of the flowers, the yellow star thistle, is surrounded by sharp, 2cm-long spines. Though it’s plausible they could have been gathered for medicinal reasons, their choice as funeral flowers would be hard to square with modern notions of empathy, he said.
However, the team also identified woody fragments surrounding the bodies, with clumps of tree pollen – possible evidence of the bodies having been covered with branches to protect them.
“It is very sad that we’ve demolished the flower burial story because it is a lovely story, but there’s something else going on here, which I think is in many ways just as remarkable,” said Hunt, whose research is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Taken together, he believes the findings imply the transmission of traditions over generations, and that Neanderthals may have lived in a world where stories and symbolic ideas guided their actions.
Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool and author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, agreed that the argument for burrowing bees being responsible for some of the clumped pollen was “convincing”.
However, the discovery of pollen and woody material in association with Shanidar Z “leaves open the possibility that we may be looking at some kind of intentional inclusion of plants with the remains of the dead,” she said.
“If that turns out to be the case, even if plants were not any sort of funerary ‘gift’ or memorial as we might imagine them, this would still be highly significant in behavioural terms, as there are very few well-supported cases of objects or materials intentionally left with Neanderthal skeletons – one being a partial deer jaw with a young Neanderthal child from Amud, Israel, and another may be a stone flake found very close to Shanidar Z’s hand.”
Prof Paul Pettitt, an expert in Neanderthal behaviour at the University of Durham, said: “Hunt’s work resolves long-held suspicions that the so-called flower burial was no such thing: in addition to his suspicion that bees deposited clumps of pollen, abundant remains of burrowing rodents from the cave’s sediments suggest a second possible culprit too.
“The original sampling for pollen was by no means exhaustive, so the flower burial myth was never based on robust evidence. It says more about the social background of the 1960s and the desire to humanise the Neanderthals. That said, they were our human equals in other ways, and clearly buried some of their dead, some of the time.”