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Neanderthal funerary flowers

Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan has been in the Neanderthal news ever since the 1960s and 1970s when the late Ralph Solecki unearthed nine Neanderthals there. Some were rockfall victims, but Solecki claimed that others were deliberately buried. He also maintained that the Neanderthals cared for their injured or disabled and that they buried their dead with flowers.

There has long been scepticism about the flamboyant Solecki’s findings. Now Graeme Barker and Emma Pomeroy from Cambridge University have rediscovered the burial site and one under a landfall. Their state-of-the-art excavation included pollen analysis, sampling for plant remains, and the use of environmental DNA in sediments to reveal different plants, animals, and humans.

The upper part of a Neanderthal skeleton has come from the excavations. Careful excavation revealed that the body lay in a deliberately scraped-out hollow in the cave floor on a layer of plants. (Their identification is under way.) A single chert implement lay close to one of the hands. Small limestone blocks found with the body may have been burial markers. The grave lies close to a conspicuous vertical limestone pillar. Clearly the people returned to the same location to dispose of the dead over a significant period of time.

So Solecki was correct: Neanderthals deliberately buried some of their dead and also had feelings about death and the afterlife. They may have had a richer cultural and social life than we have hitherto assumed.

Brian Fagan reporting.

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