At Shanidar Cave in the Zagros Mountains of the Kurdish region of Iraq, excavations in the 1950s unearthed the remains of a Neanderthal who had apparently been placed on a bed of flowers after his death. This idea came from the discovery of flower pollen embedded in the soil in the cave, in the same excavation layer and beneath the spot where the Neanderthal body was laid to rest.
But this interpretation has now been challenged by a team of British researchers who hypothesize that the ancient pollen removed from the cave floor was actually left by bees, who frequently nest in the Zagros Mountain cavern to this very day.
The interior of Shanidar Cave, where the deposits of pollen were discovered. (Hardscarf / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Latest Buzz about the Shanidar Cave Neanderthal “Flower Burial”
Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University, the University of London and the University of Cambridge collaborated on the new study of the so-called “ Flower Burial ,” which was discovered many decades ago in Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq, a natural landmark that lies close to the country’s borders with Turkey and Iran.
It was archaeologist Ralph Solecki who unearthed the Neanderthal skeleton designated as Shanidar 4 , which was among more than 30 Neanderthal skeletons that Solecki and his team ultimately found within Shanidar Cave. As part of his examination of this particular specimen, Solecki removed soil samples from beneath and around the skeleton and sent them off to be analyzed.
Testing found various types of pollen in these earth samples that had come from a variety of plant sources, including several types of flowers known to grow in the region. This finding was consistent with the idea that Shanidar 4 had been surrounded by bouquets of flowers when he was laid to rest. At the time archaeologists hypothesized that he was put there by other Neanderthals saddened by his death.
But since the flowers themselves could not have survived for tens of thousands of years, this conclusion was considered highly speculative. This has motivated scientists to look for other theories. In an article just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science the team of British researchers made their case that the pollen found in the ancient cave soil was far more likely to have been carried in by bees than by Neanderthals laying flowers.
The landscape surrounding Shanidar Cave in Iraq is filled with wild flowers. (C.O. Hunt / CC BY 4.0 )
Delving into Pollen Found at Shanidar Cave
The studies that revealed the presence of the pollen in the ancient soil were performed in the 1950s by French archaeologist Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, who was a pioneer in the study of ancient pollen samples taken from archaeological sites. She and Ralph Solecki both believed the pollen found at Shanidar Cave had been introduced by Neanderthals during burial ceremonies , based on the distribution of the pollen grains in the soil samples (they were allegedly arranged in a way that suggested they’d been deposited by decaying flower heads).
But in their new analysis, the team of British researchers argued that the types of pollen found in the soil were too randomly mixed to have come from a collection of neatly arranged and gradually decaying flowers. They believe it is more likely that a pollinating species—like bees, for example—had deposited the grains of pollen inside the cave while nesting. Since bees pick up pollen from many different plants over a long period of time, any pollen deposits they leave behind are guaranteed to be heavily mixed.
Ancient insect burrows (see arrows) in the trench wall at Shanidar Cave in Iraq, found within deposits found about 15 cm below the location of Shanidar Z and close to the level of recently discovered Neanderthal remains. (C.O. Hunt / CC BY 4.0 )
Carrying their analysis still further, the British researchers examined the seasonal growth patterns and geographical distribution of the plant species that produced the pollen grains discovered in the cave. They found that these plants would not have been growing and blooming in the area around Shanidar Cave all at the same time. This means that Neanderthals picking flowers near the cave to make wreaths or bouquets would not have been able to produce the precise pollen mixtures that were unearthed from the cave floor’s ancient excavation layers.
Based on such inconsistencies, the researchers hypothesize that solitary bees making nests in Shanidar Cave were the most likely sources for the seemingly anomalous pollen clumps found in the spot where the Neanderthal called Shanidar 4 was laid to rest.
Adding weight to this conclusion, the burrows made by solitary nesting bees can be found in many less-trampled areas of the cave floor today. Notably, archaeologists have discovered small, filled-in bullet-shaped cavities in excavation layers within Shanidar Cave which is the telltale shape of a bee burrow.
Neanderthal skull recovered from Shanidar Cave. (James Gordon / CC BY 2.0 )
With or Without Flower Burials, Neanderthals Were Smart and Sensitive
When the discovery of the so-called “flower burial” was first announced, it created a lot of excitement among anthropologists and archaeologists who studied ancient Neanderthals and their culture . If Neanderthals really buried their dead surrounded by flowers for ceremonial, symbolic or sentimental reasons, it would have shown they were capable of mourning and missing lost loved ones, just like their human cousins.
In this instance, it seems that a misinterpretation of the evidence led to false conclusions about Neanderthal funerary practices . In recent years, however, there have been plenty of other scientific and archaeological discoveries that have revealed the truth about Neanderthals, which is that they were sensitive and intelligent beings capable of building complex cultures and multi-layered belief systems.
This means that the rehabilitation of the Neanderthal reputation shouldn’t be impacted by the revelation that they weren’t saying fond farewell to their loved ones with wreaths of flowers at Shanidar Cave tens of thousands of years ago.
Top image: New research has concluded that it was bees, and not Neanderthals, who left pollen within Shanidar Cave in Iraq. Source: ink drop / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde
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