For tens of thousands of years, the high ceilings, flat earthen floor, and river view of Shanidar Cave have beckoned to ancient humans. The cave, in the Zagros Mountains of northern Iraq, once sheltered at least 10 Neanderthals, who were unearthed starting in the 1950s. One skeleton had so many injuries that he likely needed help to survive, and another had been dusted with pollen, suggesting someone had laid flowers at the burial. The rare discovery ushered in a new way of thinking about Neanderthals, who until then had often been considered brutes. “Although the body was archaic, the spirit was modern,” excavator Ralph Solecki wrote of Neanderthals, in Science, in 1975. But some scientists doubted the pollen was part of a flower offering, and others questioned whether Neanderthals even buried their dead.
In 2014, researchers headed back to Shanidar to re-excavate, and found additional Neanderthal bones. Then, last fall, they unearthed another Neanderthal with a crushed but complete skull and upper thorax, plus both forearms and hands. From 25 to 28 January, scientists will gather at a workshop at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom to discuss what the new finds suggest about Neanderthal views of death. Science caught up with archaeologist and team co-leader Christopher Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom to learn more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why re-excavate?
A: Shanidar has yielded very important and sometimes controversial evidence, but all of the excavation evidence is old. So a key issue is testing Solecki’s hypotheses of burial and ritual activity. Our project is led by archaeologists Graeme Barker, Tim Reynolds, and me. We have been working in the cave since 2014, reassessing the work done by Solecki, dating his layers, and doing all the modern science not available to him.
Q: Why did you want to be part of the excavation?
A: I was motivated by the work of pollen expert Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, who recovered clumps of pollen close to one skeleton. She interpreted this as evidence for the placing and burial of flowers around the body. I think her evidence is plausible, but other explanations are also at least equally possible. The new find is adjacent to the “flower burial” body, so we have a unique opportunity to test her observations.
Q: What did you discover?
A: We located fragmentary human bone 2 years ago, but could not excavate—we were at the end of a season, and there were 2 meters of cave sediment containing both archaeology and huge boulders above it. So we covered it and left it. Last summer, we noticed what appeared to be a fresh disturbance nearby, so we made the decision to excavate. We had to lift out one 3-ton boulder without disturbing anything below it, plus several smaller ones. Human bone specialist Emma Pomeroy, who joined the University of Cambridge this month, was the first person to see the skull as she was troweling. She knew pretty quickly what it was. On first seeing the partly exposed skull, my immediate thought was that this was likely the crowning moment of my 40-year career.
The bones of the new skeleton fit together as they would have in life. The lower body and legs would have extended into the block of sediment containing the “flower burial,” which also contained partial remains of two other adults, both female, and a fragment of a juvenile. Whether the new find relates to one of these individuals is unclear. Analysis has a long way to go, but we should be able to test the hypothesis of the “flower burial,” as well as doing all the great science-based things you can do with a Neanderthal these days!
Q: How old are the new remains?
A: Solecki thought about 80,000 years, but we await dates from the [University of] Oxford [dating] laboratory. For now, the broad envelope of 60,000 to 90,000 years is about as good as gets.
Q: So, were the skeletons buried intentionally, with ritual, or not?
A: Ritual is almost impossible to prove to everyone’s satisfaction. What is clear is that the cluster of bodies at the “flower burial” came to rest in a very restricted area, but not quite at the same geologic level, and therefore likely not quite at the same time. So that might point to some form of intentionality and group memory as Neanderthals returned to the same spot over generations. But I don’t want to go beyond that, because most of the analyses are still to be done.
Q: What’s the next step—are you trying to extract DNA from the bones?
A: Yes. We expect that modern techniques … will allow us to understand better the evolutionary relationships, group territories, and diet of these individuals. We are seeking funding for further work, because we have a whole season’s worth of analyses to do, and we are aware of further Neanderthal remains. We’d like more dates and to try to extract DNA from the sediment itself as well.
Q: Is security a concern?
A: The team was at Shanidar in 2014 when the ISIS [Islamic State group] advance got uncomfortably close, and evacuation became necessary. But the Kurdish Peshmerga have a base at Shanidar, and they and reps from the Kurdish regional government’s Directorate of Antiquities have looked after us splendidly. Shanidar is an immense source of national pride for the Kurds, because the resistance against Saddam [Hussein] was partly run from there.
Digging at Shanidar is a bit like digging on the Cenotaph in London or the Arlington National Monument in the USA. Thousands of day-trippers visit on a regular basis. We see exuberant dancing, picnics, and wedding parties as well as quiet people with flowers and photos, and many school and college groups. They have been delightful, but at times we have been overwhelmed by the sheer demand to participate in selfies, and we have been concerned that curious visitors might trample on important evidence without realizing. The Antiquities Directorate has erected a stout fence, which helps.
Q: What’s the day-to-day work like on-site?
A: Grueling—we have been out there digging hard in the cold during torrential spring rains and in 50⁰C summer heat. Everything has to be carried up from, and down to, base camp, on a flight of more than 240 steps. We have wet-sieved and floated almost every cubic centimeter of cave sediments. As someone who has worked on caves for 35 years, this is by far the most difficult site I have ever worked on! It has become ever clearer to us that Ralph Solecki’s achievement was immense and that his—and our—work at Shanidar will offer challenges and insights for many years to come.