Some Neanderthals may have buried their dead. That's according to the discovery of a partial Neanderthal skeleton found deep in a cave in Iraqi Kurdistan alongside a possible grave marker.
Neanderthals, our closest extinct human relative, lived in Eurasia from about 250,000 to 40,000 years ago. The roughly 70,000-year-old bones of this newfound individual included a squashed skull and upper body, making it the most complete articulated Neanderthal skeleton to be found in more than 25 years, the researchers said.
If Neanderthals did indeed bury this individual, then perhaps some Neanderthals had mortuary practices, an idea that is still debated among anthropologists, said study co-lead researcher Emma Pomeroy, a human-bone specialist and a lecturer of the evolution of health, diet and disease in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge in England.
The so-called Neanderthal "burial debate" continues because the practice of mortuary activities suggests the capacity for symbolic thought, an ability that seems to be almost exclusively human, Pomeroy told Live Science.
"It's evidence for perhaps compassion and care towards other members of your group, and mourning and feelings of loss," she said. "It tells us something about the way Neanderthals were thinking; whether they experienced the kind of emotion that we do and had the kind of cognitive ability to think abstractly about the world."
Researchers discovered the Neanderthal's remains in Shanidar Cave, an archaeological hotspot in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan. The site became famous in the 1950s, when American archaeologist Ralph Solecki unearthed the remains of 10 Neanderthal men, women and children there.
"Solecki argued that while some of the individuals had been killed by rocks falling from the cave roof, others had been buried with formal burial rites," the researchers wrote in the new study. The latter group included the famous "flower burial," named for the clumps of pollen grains found in the sediment, which Solecki saw as evidence for the intentional placement of flowers with the body.
While the interpretation of the flower burial remains controversial, it sparked the decades-long controversy about whether Neanderthals had the cultural sophistication to bury their dead.
In the years following Solecki's excavations, goat herders intermittently used the cave for shelter, Pomeroy said. Then, in 2014, archaeologists returned at the invitation of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. An ISIS threat, however, delayed the project until 2015.
Unfortunately, Solecki never made it back, despite many attempts. He died in March 2019 at age 101, the researchers reported.
The new team didn't expect to find any more Neanderthal remains, but that's exactly what they discovered. "It was really unexpected," said Pomeroy, who joined the project at that point. "It was kind of mindblowing."
The Neanderthal's head was rested, pillowlike, on its curled left arm. The right arm was bent at the elbow. But everything below the Neanderthal's waist was missing. It's likely that the lower body was part of a large block removed by Solecki and colleagues in the early 1960s, Pomeroy said. That block is currently at Baghdad Museum, and the researchers hope to study it soon, she said.
The newfound Neanderthal, dubbed Shanidar Z, was likely an adult of middle age or older, based on its worn teeth, the researchers said.
The skeleton is currently on loan in Cambridge, where it is being conserved and digitally scanned with CT (computed tomography). Analyses of Shanidar Z's bones and teeth will also be a gold mine for researchers; they plan to look for ancient DNA, study the Neanderthal's dental plaque to see what it ate, and examine the chemical signatures in its teeth to see where it lived as a youth. Moreover, traces of pollen and charcoal in the sediment around the bones could provide clues about Neanderthal cooking and burial practices, Pomeroy said.
During the dig, the researchers found the tooth of another Neanderthal, as well as bones of other Neanderthal individuals beneath Shanidar Z. This raises the question of whether Neanderthals used this cave as a burial ground over the years, the researchers said, especially because Shanidar Z had a prominent rock at its head that may have served as a grave marker.
Other clues also hint that Shanidar Z was intentionally buried. For instance, if the body had been abandoned in the cave, scavengers would have likely chomped down and left bite marks on the bones, Pomeroy said.
Moreover, "the new excavation suggests that some of these bodies were laid in a channel in the cave floor created by water, which had then been intentionally dug to make it deeper," study senior author Graeme Barker, director of the Shanidar Cave project and professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement. "There is strong early evidence that Shanidar Z was deliberately buried."
So far, the evidence for burial looks convincing, said João Zilhão, a professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) at the University of Barcelona, who was not involved in the study.
"Of course it was [buried]," Zilhão told Live Science in an email. "There can be no question about that." He noted that while some scientists question whether Neanderthals buried their dead, this line of thought is "based on captious arguments that essentially boiled down to 'all those instances of burial are from old excavations that were not up to standards and so do not represent valid evidence.'"
But new analyses of previously studied Neanderthal sites support the idea that these beings buried their dead, including at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France, Zilhão said.
The new study was published online Tuesday (Feb. 18) in the journal Antiquity.
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Originally published on Live Science.
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