Ancient skeletons reveal  Neanderthal death rites

A research paper, based on Neanderthal skeletons discovered in Irag proves that Neanderthals also had rituals to mourn their death. Previously it was thought that only homo sapiens were the only one had practised rituals. 

The notion that after-death rituals were only practised by homosapiens was challenged for the first time when archaeologist Ralph Solecki found the remains of 10 Neanderthal men, women and children in Shanidar Cave of Iraqi Kurdistan back in the 1950s. In those remains, they identified traces of pollen from flowers such as yarrow, cornflower, ragwort, grape hyacinth and hollyhock. Professor Solecki had concluded that they may have been picked for burial rites.

Shanidar Cave

Now, a paper published in the journal Antiquity reports the unearthing of new neanderthal skeletons at the same burial site. The team behind the discovery says that is the most intact discovered anywhere in the world over the past 25 years.

“It’s almost the entire top half of a body from the waist upwards,” said Emma Pomeroy, an archaeologist from the University of Cambridge who led the discovery.

“We’ve got the skull, we’ve got the left arm and hand fairly complete, the right shoulder and the right hand, then the spinal column down to about the waist level and all of the ribs as well.”

The quality of these skeletons have astonished the researchers and they believe further analysis can help gather more information like the gender and accurate age of the subject. When considered along with with the previous samples collected from the cave the intriguing question of whether the neanderthals returned to this cave routinely to bury their dead. To further support the thought the team has also found a large triangular rock prominently placed near the skull of Shanidar Z; it could be a grave marker.

CT scans revealed that the petrous bone is still intact at the base of the skull, which means there exist a possibility of finding ancient DNA inside. Plant material was also found over the rib fragments, and an analysis of it is currently underway. 

Based on the findings the researchers say that Shanidar Z was placed on their back, head rotated to the left side and resting on its hand, with the head and shoulders raised. Unfortunately, the lower half of the skeleton is missing, but researchers haven’t ruled out that it could be elsewhere in the cave.

“In recent years we have seen increasing evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought, from cave markings to use of decorative shells and raptor talons,” Pomeroy said.

“If Neanderthals were using Shanidar cave as a site of memory for the repeated ritual interment of their dead, it would suggest cultural complexity of a high order.”


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