70,000-year-old Neanderthal remains may be evidence that 'closest human relative' buried its dead

The steep entrance to Shanidar Cave.
The steep entrance to Shanidar Cave, where the newly discovered Neanderthal remains were unearthed. (Image credit: Graeme Barker)

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.

Related: See images of this Neanderthal's remains from Shanidar Cave

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."

The excavation 

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.

Related: In photos: Neanderthal burials uncovered

The Neanderthal 

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

Originally published on Live Science.

OFFER: Save at least 53% with our latest magazine deal!

OFFER: Save at least 53% with our latest magazine deal!

With impressive cutaway illustrations that show how things function, and mindblowing photography of the world’s most inspiring spectacles, How It Works represents the pinnacle of engaging, factual fun for a mainstream audience keen to keep up with the latest tech and the most impressive phenomena on the planet and beyond. Written and presented in a style that makes even the most complex subjects interesting and easy to understand, How It Works is enjoyed by readers of all ages.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.

  • Urquiola
    Neanderthal are not 'the closer human relatives', but some of the oldest humans. H sapiens may have just 250'000 years, but other human species were here more than one or two million years before.
    Attributing us as a gratuity, Us, as all true Europeans have at least 2% Neanderthal genetics, the condition of 'humans', is in the line of old semites, who went glad after: 'Fell, fell, fell, the arrogancy of giants!'
    Giants were probably a mixed population from whoever are the descendants of Abrahan and older populations there; that National Geographic Geno2.0 stated: 'NG will track Neanderthals', in the beginning of study, when it was not yet realized the size of populations with Neanderthal genetics, points to an insane revival of the spirits who sent giants to extinction, who sent men and women caught in adultery and any offender to lapidation. What if in the end, truth is that all these 'evildoer catchers' are actually 'Amalek', and deserve the end in 1Sam 15, 3?
    Carolus once wrote: 'Those in faction should not take from their landlords anything beyond bread, salt, and a place in front of fire, those who abuse of host will be punished in proportion to excess', and also: 'The caporal will assure, with frequent watching, his troop follows him in the obliged silence and good order'. Mene, Thecel, Phares!
  • netdragon
    Elephants also mourn their dead and sometimes gather the bones and visit them repeatedly. Yes, it is rare, but not exclusively human.
  • Wanda
    As a H. sapiens with an unusually high Neanderthal DNA content, I consider the Neanderthals my greatly valued ancestors, not a separate species. I am very proud of a bloodline strong enough to extend back that far. Today we have many technical alternatives for disposing of our dead (I myself will be cremated) but if our Neanderthal forebears were burying their dead, I take that to mean that they were practicing hygienic disposal first and ritualistic tribute second -- just as we do today with our cemeteries and crypts! The Neanderthals faded away to a great extent, as will H. sapiens. At least the Neanderthals had the decency to leave a viable planet behind for all those species who would follow them.
  • Wanda
    admin said:
    These are the most complete articulated Neanderthal remains to be found in more than 25 years.

    Neanderthal burial suggests the ancient humans had symbolic thought : Read more
    Thank you for acknowledging that they were ancient HUMANS.
  • Ront5353
    It was proven years ago by DNA that Neanderthal man was at best a distant cousin of Homospaiens not even close.
  • Wanda
    Ront5353 said:
    It was proven years ago by DNA that Neanderthal man was at best a distant cousin of Homospaiens not even close.
    And so 23andMe has advised that I have approximately 3% Neanderthal DNA, more than 97% of its subscribers because WHY??
  • Ront5353
    In 2010 the Government Accountability Office lambasted 23 and other DNA companies for fraudulently deceiving the consumer. Believe what you want.
  • Urquiola
    I have similar 2% Neanderthal DNA background as Wanda (A fish name?), plus 2% Denisovich (Denisova), tests by National Geographic Geno2.0, but Leipzig Human Genetics Institute said no Denisovich DNA found ever in contemporary Europeans (some publications may contradict this) and that Geno2.0 overestimates Denisova genetics. My teeth are Neanderthal.

    it seems some had ancestors who enjoyed: 'Fell, fell, fell, the arrogancy of Giants' (also fell 'the arrogancy of the city in the heights', Jerusalem or Hattusa), and are looking for an occasion to repeat that genocide.
    Beware of dog!, or: 'The dog dead, rabies is cured', or: 'Who gives bread to alien dog, loses bread, and loses dog', or: 'Who approach a bad tree, a bad shadow covers them'. Agur.