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The discovery of a grave in 1960 led researchers to hypothesize that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, which challenges the widely held view that ancient humans were stupid and brutal. Scientists now say a key piece of evidence from the site, which helped shape the Neanderthal study, may have been misinterpreted.
The burial flower, as it came to be known, was discovered by archaeologist Ralph Solecki while exploring Shanidar Cave in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. He found several Neanderthal specimens in the 1950s, and in 1960 he identified the skeleton of a male who became known as Schneider 4. The 65,000-year-old remains were surrounded by masses of pollen.
Arlette Leroy-Gourhan, an archaeologist and pollen expert, hypothesized at the time that these blocks were anthers, the structures that contain pollen in flowers. She and Solecki suggested that Neanderthals placed flowers on the grave, in the same way many humans do today.
“You will find this story in many archeology textbooks to this day,” said Chris Hunt, professor emeritus at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK and lead author of a new study on the Shanidar site. “It was one of the things that convinced Solecki that Neanderthals weren’t just evil and brutal, which was what people had basically thought up until that point. But in fact, they were caring individuals, and they cared for each other.
Over the years, scientists have found additional evidence of Neanderthal intelligence and sophistication, including art, strings, and tools. However, the elements of the burial of flowers theory did not seem to have any value.
Hunt and his colleagues were working in Shanidar Cave in 2014 when they found traces of ancient pollen on the surface of the cave floor. Had it made it to Neanderthal bunches, it would have been found under millennia-old sediments and debris, just like Neanderthal skeletons.
“For us, that was an indication that there may have been something going on in the burial of Venus,” Hunt said.
The new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, puts forward an alternative hypothesis: rather than arriving at the cave via funerary bouquets, the pollen may have associated with cave-dwelling pollinators.
Hunt said he initially assumed the ruins were the remnants of decades-long excavations.
“My immediate thought was that Solecki had contaminated the site,” Hunt said, and he may have been carrying pollen in his shoes for decades.
Pollen analysis showed that it is thousands of years old, so it is not a recent pollutant. But the discovery confirmed the idea that pollen was making its way into the cave independently of humans or Neanderthals.
Courtesy Christopher Owen Hunt
Shanidar Cave in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq in May. The site is where Neanderthal remains were found as well as ancient pollen. Their presence is due to the activity of bees and not to the burial of flowers, as indicated by a study by Chris Hunt, Professor Emeritus at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom.
Further exploration of clumps of pollen found alongside the skeletons casts further doubt on the original hypothesis. Some of the pollen came from flowers that bloom at different times of the year, making it difficult to know how they might have clumped together. When Hunt examined Leroy Gorhan’s illustrations of the pollen on Schneider 4, he saw that one of the blocks contained pollen from more than one type of plant.
“This is a red flag,” he said, because the anthers only contain pollen from those species. Even if there were two different types of flowers in the same bouquet, it wouldn’t make sense for the pollen of two different types of flowers to be closely bound together.
However, there is an easy way to stick pollen from different types of flowers together: bees.
“There are a lot of accounts of foraging bees or more than one species,” Hunt said. “What the bee does is puts the pollen into a little sac that it carries on its legs. These return to the nest, and are either eaten by the bees or stored away for future food.
Courtesy Christopher Owen Hunt
A close-up of the Shanidar Z’s torso is shown during the excavation.
Hunt found examples of ancient and modern burrows in Shanidar made by ground-nesting bees. While he and his colleagues haven’t yet found traces of pollen in those burrows, he said, “I still think it’s a very likely way” of pollen arriving near Neanderthal graves.
“It’s a perfect piece of science,” said Paul Pettit, a professor of Paleolithic archeology at Durham University in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the new study.
“The big problem is why is all the pollen crumbled and squashed together in these little clusters,” Pettitt said. From his point of view, it appears that Hunt “has already succeeded in establishing that he is probably a bee.”
Fred Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology and biological sciences at Illinois State University, said that while there is no definitive evidence of pollen arriving by bees, “this paper makes the original flower burial hypothesis very improbable in the way Solecki formulated.” who did not participate in the study. “And I think they proved by flattening and degradation of the pollen that the pollen is old, not introduced by modern pollution.”
While Hunt and colleagues’ work suggests that the flower burial hypothesis is incorrect, recent work on Neanderthals in Chanidar Cave supports the basic message of the ancient theory: that Neanderthals treated their dead with care.
Courtesy Christopher Owen Hunt
The excavation site of Shanidar Cave shown in May 2017.
The cave itself seems to hold some kind of meaning, as the skeletons were buried there separately, years apart. “As far as I can see, they must have had stories in their collections about, ‘Well, that’s what we did with Grandma, and now that young Joe is dead, maybe we should put him in the same place.'” Hunt said.
The skeletons found in the cave share common directions and locations, indicating that there may have been some meaning attached to how they were buried. Shanidar 4 and Shanidar Z, a more recent structural discovery published in 2020, were found near cracked pieces of wood; Hunt said he wondered if the twigs came from branches that were placed over the bodies to protect them.
In particular, Hunt said that Shanidar Z was in a position as if she was asleep.
“There was tenderness there. They clearly cared about this person.” “Because why would you do that?”