Part of a Neanderthal upper body skeleton was unearthed from the Shanidar cave in Iraqi Kurdistan, the first such discovery in more than 25 years, report the authors of a study published on February 18 in Antiquity. The authors conclude that Shanidar Z, as the individual is now known, was given an intentional burial, an idea that remains in dispute.
The skeleton was found in a depression that appears to have been dug intentionally, reports Science News. A sharpened stone and remnants of ancient plants and pollen were discovered in the sediment around the bones, and two stones near the head may have served as grave markers.
Testing of the soil underneath the remains revealed that Shanidar Z lived between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago.
Previous excavations at the Shanidar cave by archeologist Ralph Solecki of Columbia University during the 1950s yielded skeletal remains of 10 other Neanderthals, according to Science News. One partial skeleton known as the “flower burial” was surrounded by clumps of pollen that led Solecki to conclude that Neanderthals had scattered flowers over the body as part of an ancient burial practice. But critics had argued that the individuals in the cave may have died from exposure or falling rocks, after which their bodies were naturally covered with dirt and plants.
Shanidar Z lay next to four other individuals in one area of the large cave, reports Reuters, suggesting that the remains had been buried deliberately. “We are pretty convinced that at least some of the Shanidar individuals were intentionally deposited,” Emma Pomeroy, a coauthor of the latest study and an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Science News.
Archaeologist Dennis Sandgathe of Simon Fraser University in Canada questions Pomeroy’s conclusion. “As with all previous claims for Neandertal intentional burials, there are no smoking guns clearly indicating intentional burial [of Shanidar Z],” he tells Science News, noting that the “rather loose fetal position” of the body suggests it may have been randomly deposited.
“What is key here is the intentionality behind the burial,” Pomeroy tells Reuters. “You might bury a body for purely practical reasons, in order to avoid attracting dangerous scavengers and/or to reduce the smell. But when this goes beyond practical elements it is important because that indicates more complex, symbolic and abstract thinking, compassion and care for the dead, and perhaps feelings of mourning and loss.”
Amy Schleunes is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.