How did Neanderthals bury their dead? Not this way, after all

Close to the renowned 'Shanidar 4' Neanderthal skeletons' discovery, recent excavations are challenging the established Shanidar flower burial idea.
Sade Agard
Reconstruction of a Neanderthal (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).
Reconstruction of a Neanderthal (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).

Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann/ Wikimedia Commons 

Close to where the famed Shanidar 4 Neanderthal skeleton was found, recent excavations are shaking up what we knew about their burial practices, according to a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science on August 28.

Unearthed in 1960, Shanidar 4 was initially believed to showcase a touching flower burial, portraying Neanderthals as compassionate individuals.

However, this recent development introduces fresh evidence that tweaks this interpretation, revealing a more intricate facet of their rituals.

What did Neanderthals do with their dead?

Once viewed as ruthless, Neanderthals — believed to have vanished around 45,000 years ago — gained a new perspective in the 1950s and 60s when the idea of a Shanidar flower burial emerged.

Back then, an archaeologist named Ralph Solecki stumbled upon the remains of 10 Neanderthals—men, women, and children—in Iraq's Shanidar cave within the Zagros mountains.

Within the vicinity of one male, Shanidar 4, were clusters of ancient pollen. These pollen bundles were presumed to be sacs (anthers) from whole-cut flowers. This discovery portrayed them as compassionate enough to gather flowers from distant mountains to honor their deceased. 

Now, Prof. Chris Hunt at Liverpool John Moores University, UK, and his team have identified two additional Neanderthal bodies, dubbed Shanidar Z, along with further bones and teeth, near the original discovery. 

Significantly, the positioning of the bodies at different depths suggests successive burials over time, providing insights into Neanderthal traditions.

"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 in an article by The Guardian.

The Shanidar flower burial concept, uprooted

Notably, Shanidar 4 and the newly discovered Shanidar Z share similar orientations, facing outward from the cave. This pattern of carefully placed bodies points toward a tradition of respectful burials, reflecting a profound level of care and significance attached to the act.

Reviving the original pollen analysis, the team uncovered multiple flower types in the clumps. However, the evidence suggests nesting bees as the probable pollen source, given the presence of nearby bee-related findings.

Hunt's observations extend to the flowers themselves, noting that one type possesses sharp spines. 

While these may have had medicinal purposes, using them as funeral offerings appears inconsistent with the empathy attributed to the Neanderthals.

The team's analysis also reveals woody fragments encircling the bodies, accompanied by tree pollen. This intriguing find suggests that branches may have been used to protect the remains. 

Dr. Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool, described the argument about bees and clumped pollen as "convincing."

However, the presence of pollen and woody material 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 argued.

On the other hand, Prof Paul Pettitt, an expert in Neanderthal behavior at the University of Durham, said, “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 humanize the Neanderthals. That said, they were our human equals in other ways and clearly buried some of their dead, some of the time.”

The complete study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science on August 28 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

Pollen clumps associated with the skeleton of the Shanidar 4 Neanderthal were interpreted by the excavator as evidence for a purposeful burial with flowers. This was one of several findings from Shanidar Cave that helped to shape modern perceptions of Neanderthals as sharing empathic characteristics with Middle Palaeolithic Homo sapiens (modern humans). Here the available evidence is reviewed critically from a palynological viewpoint. It seems likely that at least some of the pollen clumps were emplaced by nesting solitary bees, though other mechanisms may also have been involved. Shanidar 4 remains of notable importance, however, in being part of a tight cluster of remarkably complete and deliberately emplaced Neanderthal skeletal remains.

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