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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Discovering Culture in the Shanidar Cave Neanderthals

Often, Neanderthals are thought of as a robust and brutish distant relative of modern humans. With their stout features and receding foreheads, the similarities between them and us seem scant at first, but in fact important parallels exist.

Shanidar I excavation photo, 1957 [1].

Between 1957 and 1960, a total of nine Neanderthal individuals were recovered by archaeologist Ralph S. Solecki and local laborers in Shanidar Cave, Iraq. Fragments of lower leg bones of a tenth Neanderthal individual, an infant, have also been found, mixed in with the Shanidar animal fossil remains in the Smithsonian collections. These discoveries date to the Mousterian era at approximately 100,000 to 35,000 years ago. Neanderthals looked different from modern humans and through the 1950s had  erroneously been thought to be less evolved, yet both species engaged in complex social behaviors, including care for sick or infirm individuals and symbolic beliefs.

Culture is a phenomenon found in all human societies and behaviors similar to what we would consider cultural in modern humans were carried out by Neanderthals. For example, like humans, Neanderthals learned to create tools and ornaments made of stone and bone [2]. During the excavations of Shanidar Cave, hearths or firepits were unearthed, which may offer insight into the life habits of Neanderthals. Neanderthals had the capacity to start and maintain fires, and many of the hearths appear to have been strategically built against stones to give off reflective heat [2, 3]. The size of the hearths suggests that some were for communal use and others were reserved for smaller groups, possibly families [3]. Based on this evidence, some scientists believe that like modern humans Neanderthals formed groups and bonds among each other and very likely gathered around the hearths for meals and other activities that point to social practices [3].

Illustration of the hearths excavated at Shanidar Cave,
circa 1957-1960 [1].

Mortuary practices, or behaviors associated with the treatment of the dead, are frequently an index of complex cultural practices. In archaeology, mortuary practices are one way to learn about cultural beliefs. In 1960, Ralph Solecki uncovered a male Neanderthal, aged approximately 40 years at time of death, during the fourth excavation season at Shanidar Cave. The individual, Shanidar IV, was found 7.5 meters below the modern cave floor in damp, brown, sandy soil. This soil was looser than what the excavators had previously encountered and indicated a burial. Shanidar IV was positioned on his left side with head placed towards the south. [4, 5, 9]. Through analysis of the Shanidar IV Neanderthal burial, specifically the soil samples collected during excavation, archaeologists like Ralph Solecki believed that the Shanidar IV skeleton may have been an intentional Neanderthal burial.

Shanidar IV was found on its side in a bent position [1].

In 1975, a palynologist, or a scientist who studies pollen, Arlette Leroi-Gourhan published information regarding the soil samples taken from Shanidar Cave [6]. The samples showed tree pollen that could have blown into the cave by wind, but other samples contained pollen from at least eight species of small, brightly colored flowers that were relatives of hollyhock, yellow flowering groundsel, bachelor’s button, and grape hyacinth, all found today growing around the surrounding hillsides [6]. While this theory has been disputed by later scholars, Leroi-Gourhan suggested that the flower pollen was not brought into the cave by the wind or animals, but perhaps by the Neanderthals for a funerary ritual. The presence of Malvaceaes – a large, singular flower covered in spikes—seemed to suggest that the Neanderthals living at the cave at the time had wandered in search of the flower to place within the grave. This interpretation pointed toward higher cognitive ability within Neanderthals, according to Ralph Solecki [4, 5]. 

Malvaceae was one of the flower families found 
in the soil sample taken from around Shanidar IV [1]. 

Other anthropologists, who reasoned that Neanderthals were not using flowers in funerary practices, disagreed with Ralph Solecki’s interpretation of Shanidar IV. These interpretations stated that wind was able to carry the pollen through the large mouth of the cave [7]. Additionally, rodent species found in the cave are known to burrow and store plant materials, including flowers. These rodents might have been responsible for some of the deposition of the pollen found near Shanidar IV [8]. The pollen samples collected from the burial pit also included tiny fragments of wood and pollen grains of evergreens such as fir, suggesting to some researchers that tree boughs could have been brought to the burial site in addition to clusters of colorful flowers (6). The debate on whether the pollen samples found from around Shanidar IV are indicative of intentional funerary practices or whether the pollen came into the cave through other means continues today. If funerary, this has implications for how Neanderthals and even our own ancestors interacted with and interpreted the world around them.

Due to the extreme rarity of paleontological and archaeological evidence relating to human ancestors living tens of thousands of years ago, our comprehension about the human

lineage is often limited. Therefore, the wealth of archaeological evidence accompanying the Neanderthal remains at Shanidar Cave uncovered by Ralph and Rose Solecki has fundamentally shaped how we understand Neanderthals and our knowledge about the past. Two important goals of archaeologists like the Soleckis are to attempt to give those who lived in the past a voice and for others to have access to this information. These excavations and the Soleckis’ work have inspired new excavations at Shanidar Cave, which will broaden our understanding of how people occupying this cave adapted to their environment [10, 11]. Moreover, the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project is processing the professional papers and cataloging the artifact collections of the Soleckis, including material from the Shanidar Cave excavations, in order to make them more accessible to researchers as well as the public.

To learn more about the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project, check out previous Solecki Project Smithsonian Collections Blog posts. Also, explore the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program’s  Snapshot in Time about Shanidar Cave. The Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project was made possible by two grants from the Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund.

Viridiana Garcia and Kayla Kubehl, Interns, Spring 2019

[1] The Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
[2] Matt Cartmill, Kaye Brown, and Fred H. Smith, The Human Lineage. (Hoboken, N.J: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
[3] Ralph S. Solecki. “Living Floors in the Middle Palaeolithic Deposits at Shanidar Cave, Northern Iraq.” Unpublished, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
[4] Ralph S. Solecki, 1975. “Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal burial in Northern Iraq.” Science 190 (4217), pp. 880-881.
[5] Ralph S. Solecki, Shanidar: The First Flower People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971). 
[6] Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, 1975. “The flowers found with Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal burial in Iraq.” Science 190 (4214), pp. 562-564.
[7] Robert H. Gargett et al., 1989. “Grave shortcomings: The evidence for Neanderthal burial.” Current Anthropology 30 (2), 157-190.
[8] Jeffrey D. Sommer, 1999. “The Shanidar IV ‘Flower Burial’: A re-evaluation of Neanderthal burial ritual.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9 (1), pp. 127-129.
[9] Ralph S. Solecki, Shanidar, The First Flower People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
[10] Tim Reynolds, William Boismier, Lucy Farr, Chris Hunt, Dlshad Abdulmutalb and Graeme Barker, 2015. “New investigations at Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.” Antiquity: A Review of World Archaeology vol. 89, no. 348

[11] Elizabeth Culotta, 2019. “New remains discovered at site of famous Neanderthal ‘flower burial’” Science, doi:10.1126/science.aaw7586

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