Groundbreaking Neanderthal remains reignite the death rite debate

A Neanderthal skeleton, the first to be excavated in 25 years, has thrown preconceptions around the so-called Neanderthal burial debate back into disarray, suggesting funeral rites may not be a uniquely homo-sapien affair. Further exploration of remains in Shanidar Cave, a remote cache of Neanderthal bones in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, built on speculation from the mid-20th Century that our assumptions about the extinct species may be incorrect.

Neanderthals are believed to have gone extinct through a combination of climate change, disease, and modern humans immigrating to the Eurasian region they lived in during the middle to late Pleistocene era. Stockier than modern humans, with shorter limbs but a more barrel-like chest and a larger nose, Neanderthals' use of technology and their societal rituals have long been points of controversy in the academic community.

One significant difference of opinion has centered on burial rites, and is closely tied to remains found in Shanidar Cave. First uncovered in 1960, by archaeologist Ralph Solecki, the cave has the remains of 35 different people, placed there over a span of 10,000 years. Of that 35, a full 10 – men, women, and children – were Neanderthal.

Investigations into the remains at the time suggested Neanderthals were more sophisticated than many had given them credit for. That included signs that a disabled man had been supported until a late age, while a cluster of four skeletons found with ancient pollen led to theories of Neanderthal burial rites. However the theories remained divisive.

A new and unexpected Neanderthal skeleton

Now, new research has reopened the discussion. Though Solecki died in 2019, his efforts to resume excavations at Shanidar Cave repeatedly blocked, a team led by the University of Cambridge was invited by the Kurdistan Regional Government to explore further at the site. However the expectation wasn't to discover new remains.

"The Neanderthals had been found by Solecki between three and seven meters down," Fred Lewsey at the University of Cambridge writes, "and the idea was to reopen the trenches to get samples of soil, in the hope of pulling new evidence for age or climate from microscopic mineral and animal fragments."

Instead more bones were unearthed, including a seemingly complete – but flattened – skull, along with upper body bones almost to the waist. The left hand was curled under the head. The remains are believed to be more than 70,000 years old, and those of a middle- to older-aged adult. With sex still undetermined, the archeologists are referring to the remains as Shanidar Z.

How connected to Neanderthals is modern man?

Whether Neanderthal burial behaviors were similar to today's funeral rites or not remains unclear. "We can't yet be absolutely sure if Neanderthals were actually digging holes for the dead, then covering them over," Dr Emma Pomeroy, one of the archaeologists on the project, explains. While some of the evidence indicates the remains were placed into natural dips in the cave floor, there are also signs that there was "intentional digging" around them too.

The 1960s theory of a flower burial is set to be reinvestigated, meanwhile, by using modern-day techniques on a slice of resin-imbued sediment, taken from the cave.

What could prove most illuminating, however, is one small, dense bone. The petrous bone is a wedge at the base of the skull, located behind the ear, and can act as a vital cache of DNA. It's prized by scientists, because it can preserve ancient DNA for millions of years. Scans of Shanidar Z show that the petrous bone is present and intact.