Neanderthal 'Flower Burial' Site Reexamined, More Remains Uncovered

neanderthal skull
Representative image of a Neanderthal skull. iStock

Scientists have discovered more remains at the archaeological site where the Neanderthal "flower burial" was unearthed over 50 years ago.

In the late 1950s, researchers working at the Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq's Zagros Mountains discovered the remains of around 10 individual Neanderthals. In 1975, American archaeologist Ralph Solecki discovered something that would change the way we think about Neanderthals—he found the area where the bodies were found was "rich in flower pollen." This, he said, suggests flowers had been purposefully placed at what could be a Neanderthal burial site.

Before this discovery, Neanderthals had largely been thought of as far removed from humans in terms of their intelligence and social structures. The discovery of what was essentially a Neanderthal cemetery, complete with ritual offerings, turned this idea on its head. "The recovery of pollen grains around the Neanderthal burial was in itself unusual and without precedent to our knowledge," Solecki wrote in Science. "But to find flower pollen, and in quantity, was an added extraordinary dividend. The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension to our knowledge of his humanness, indicating he had a 'soul.'"

Over recent years, evidence increasingly points to Neanderthals being more advanced than initially thought. Researchers believe they cared for one another, produced art and incorporated symbolic objects into their culture.

In 2014, researchers returned to the Shanidar Cave to better understand Neanderthal burial practices. Over the last four years, they have uncovered more skeletal remains—including the complete but crushed skull, thorax, forearms and hands of an individual, Science reports.

In an interview with the magazine, archaeologist Christopher Hunt, who has worked at the Shanidar Cave for the last five years, explained why they returned to the site. "Shanidar has yielded very important and sometimes controversial evidence, but all of the excavation evidence is old… I was motivated by the work of pollen expert Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, who recovered clumps of pollen close to one skeleton. She interpreted this as evidence for the placing and burial of flowers around the body. I think her evidence is plausible, but other explanations are also at least equally possible."

The newly discovered body would have been part of the sediment that contained the "flower burial" bodies. Hunt, from the U.K.'s Liverpool John Moores University, said it is not clear whether this individual is related to the other Neanderthals in the cave. He said the new remains appear to be between 60,000 and 90,000 years old—the other bodies at the site date back to 60,000 years.

Hunt said the possibility of rituals being carried out at the Neanderthal site is "almost impossible to prove to everyone's satisfaction," but said it is clear these bodies ended up in a restricted area at slightly different periods of time. "That might point to some form of intentionality and group memory as Neanderthals returned to the same spot over generations," he told the magazine. "But I don't want to go beyond that, because most of the analyses are still to be done."

Zagros Mountains
The remains were found in a cave in Iran's Zagros Mountains. iStock