Human Remains Uncovered at Famous 'Flower Burial' Site Could Shed Light on Neanderthal Death Rituals

Researchers have uncovered the upper body bones of an adult Neanderthal at a famous "flower burial" site in Iraqi Kurdistan in what they describe as an "incredibly exciting" discovery.

According to a study published in the journal Antiquity, the find is the first articulated Neanderthal skeleton—meaning the bones are in the correct anatomical position—to be uncovered in more than 25 years.

Furthermore, evidence presented in the study suggests that the individual may have been intentionally buried, providing a rare opportunity to shed light on the death practices of this extinct human species.

The find was made at the Shanidar Cave, which became an iconic Paleolithic site in the mid-20th century after researcher Ralph Solecki uncovered the partial remains of 10 Neanderthals there.

Solecki suggested, controversially, that some of the individuals had been buried there with formal burial rites, including one with flowers—the famous "flower burial"—due to the discovery of ancient clumps of pollen grains beside the remains. This suggestion opposed the traditional view of Neanderthals—one that held that the species was not capable of such sophisticated cultural practices.

Since the discovery, experts in the field have debated whether evidence at the site indicates that Neanderthals carried out burial rituals, or indeed any kind of burials at all.

Since 2015, a team of scientists led by Graeme Barker and Emma Pomeroy from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. have been carrying out research at the site, after being approached by the Kurdish Regional Government in 2011 to conduct renewed excavations.

"The discoveries Ralph Solecki made between 1951 and 1960 at Shanidar Cave have played a central role in improving our understanding of Neanderthal physical characteristics and behavior, from care for the sick and injured to burial of the dead, even, Solecki argued, with flowers placed in the grave," Pomeroy told Newsweek.

"There had been no excavations at the site since 1960, and developments in archaeological methods and scientific approaches meant that there was significant potential for gaining more detailed information on how long ago the site was used by Neanderthals and modern humans, how old the Neanderthal remains were, what the climate and environment were like when Neanderthals and modern humans used the site in the past, and the similarities and differences in Neanderthal and modern human tools and behavior," Pomeroy said.

During these excavations the scientists uncovered the bones of another Neanderthal—dubbed Shanidar Z—lying in a trench close to the "flower burial." The team uncovered a crushed skull and bones of the torso in the sediment. Early estimates suggest that the remains are around 70,000 years old, although the sex of the individual is not clear.

"What we have found is the articulated skeleton of the upper body of an older adult Neanderthal," Pomeroy said. "The skeleton is reclining on its back, with the left arm tucked under the head, and the right arm bent and sticking out to the side. This skeleton is directly adjacent to where Ralph Solecki's famous Shanidar 4 'flower burial' was found, and indeed it seems that the lower part of the body of the new Neanderthal was removed when Shanidar 4's skeleton was recovered in a block of sediment by Solecki's team in 1960, since they didn't realize this new individual was there."

"At the time, they also didn't realize the extent of the remains they had cut through, and they never had the opportunity to return to the site and re-investigate what they left behind," Pomeroy said. "The purpose of our new excavations was not to find new Neanderthal remains, and so it was surprising to find new Neanderthal bones, although Solecki and his team did suggest they might have left some bones from some of the skeletons behind. What we didn't expect was to find such a complete partial skeleton—this really was a surprise."

Neanderthal remains, Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan
The newly uncovered Neanderthal remains in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. Graeme Barker

According to Pomeroy, the find is "incredibly exciting" for a number of reasons. First, it is rare that such complete Neanderthal skeletal remains are found in their original position in the ground. "It's therefore an extremely valuable opportunity to understand and investigate the skeleton itself and its context with the full range of modern archaeological and scientific techniques," she said.

"There are long-standing debates about how Neanderthals treated their dead and we will be able to significantly contribute to our knowledge of such behavior by looking at the microscopic structure of the sediments to find evidence for whether the depression in which the individual was found was natural or intentionally dug; whether the body was quickly covered in soil or left exposed for a period of time; and whether plants (leaves, flowers, pollen) were included with the body," Pomeroy explained.

The newly uncovered skeleton, alongside previous finds at the site indicate that Neanderthals may have been deliberately returning to the same location in the cave to bury their dead, the researchers say.

"The study of the microscopic structure of the soils has given us some new insights already—it indicates the body was placed in an intentionally dug depression, and that there are ancient plant remains in the sediments surrounding the bones, and that the body may well have been covered in soil when it was deposited," Pomeroy said.

"The evidence also shows the body was covered in soil quite rapidly after it was placed in the depression. The fact the bones were articulated—in anatomical connection—indicates they were somehow protected from scavengers, either by covering with sediment—a true burial as we understand it—or other material, such as skins or branches," Pomeroy added.

In addition, there were no rocks directly on top of this and the other skeletons in this cluster, suggesting that rockfall is unlikely to have killed the Neanderthals, and although some have suggested they may have died while asleep from the cold, environmental data suggests that this was not a very cold time, so that makes death from exposure unlikely, according to the researchers.

"There is no evidence of large amounts of water suggesting drowning or anything like that—we would be able to see sediments showing that there had been lots of water flowing in that case," Pomeroy said. "And if they died in some kind of natural disaster, it's more likely that scavengers would have got to the bodies, and we see no evidence of that."

Furthermore, the researchers found a notable rock next to the head of the specimen which they say, could have been used as some kind of burial marker. While it is still not possible to say for certain that Neanderthals were buried in the cave deliberately, with or without burial rites, such a discovery would not be out of step with other recent discoveries.

"There is a long-standing debate about how similar Neanderthals were to our own species in terms of their mental abilities and behavior," Pomeroy said. "While Neanderthals were previously assumed to be less intelligent than modern humans, we are accumulating more and more evidence for complex behaviors, such as symbolism—for example, use of shells and raptor talons as decoration, use of pigments, cave 'art,' etcetera—as well as more sophisticated hunting techniques than previously assumed."

"Burial of the dead has long been considered a hallmark of modern human behavior, suggesting compassion for group members, care and mourning for the dead, and even perhaps spirituality and ideas about what happens after death, although it is of course very hard to know the exact nature of any such ideas past people might have had," Pomeroy said. "This is why debates about Neanderthal burial has been so intense."

Some have argued that our ancestors might have buried their dead simply for practical reasons, for example, to stop the body attracting scavengers. So for Pomeroy, looking for evidence of symbolism and signs of cultural traditions when it comes to mortuary practices is extremely important for understanding Neanderthal behavior.

"Returning to the same place to deposit the dead could suggest the existence of 'special places' for Neanderthals in the landscape for depositing the dead, another pattern common in modern humans, which again may give us insight into how Neanderthals thought about their world and interpreted the landscape," she said.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Emma Pomeroy.