Revealed: face of 75,000-year-old female Neanderthal from cave where species buried their dead

June 20, 2024

Credit: Netflix Professor Graeme Barker from the University of Cambridge, who leads the current Shanidar cave excavations. However, remains from Shanidar Cave still show signs of an empathetic species. Illustration of the possible burial position of the new Neanderthal remains from Shanidar Cave. Illustration of the possible burial position of the new Neanderthal remains from Shanidar Cave. “The body of Shanidar Z was within arm’s reach of living individuals cooking with fire and eating,” said Pomeroy.

While remnants of at least ten separate Neanderthals have now come from the cave, Shanidar Z is the fifth to be found in a cluster of bodies buried at a similar time in the same location: right behind a huge vertical rock, over two metres tall at the time, which sits in the centre of the cave.

The rock had come down from the ceiling long before the bodies were interred. Researchers say it may have served as a landmark for Neanderthals to identify a particular site for repeated burials.

“Neanderthals have had a bad press ever since the first ones were found over 150 years ago,” said Professor Graeme Barker from Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, who leads the excavations at the cave.

“Our discoveries show that the Shanidar Neanderthals may have been thinking about death and its aftermath in ways not so very different from their closest evolutionary cousins – ourselves.”

The other four bodies in the cluster were discovered by archaeologist Ralph Solecki in 1960. One was surrounded by clumps of ancient pollen. Solecki and pollen specialist Arlette Leroi-Gourhan argued the finds were evidence of funerary rituals where the deceased was laid to rest on a bed of flowers.

This archaeological work was among the first to suggest Neanderthals were far more sophisticated than the primitive creatures many had assumed, based on their stocky frames and ape-like brows. 

Members of Ralph Solecki’s team, Dr T. Dale Stewart (right) and Jacques Bordaz (left) at Shanidar Cave in 1960, working on removing the remains of Shanidar 4 (the ‘flower burial’). Credit: Ralph Solecki

Members of Ralph Solecki’s team, Dr T. Dale Stewart (right) and Jacques Bordaz (left) at Shanidar Cave in 1960, working on removing the remains of Shanidar 4 (the ‘flower burial’). Credit: Ralph Solecki

Decades later, the Cambridge-led team retraced Solecki’s dig, aiming to use the latest techniques to retrieve more evidence for his contentious claims, as well as the environment and activities of the Neanderthals and later modern humans who lived there, when they uncovered Shanidar Z.

“Shanidar Cave was used first by Neanderthals and then by our own species, so it provides an ideal laboratory to tackle one of the biggest questions of human evolution,” said Barker.

“Why did Neanderthals disappear from the stage around the same time as Homo sapiens spread over regions where Neanderthals had lived successfully for almost half a million years?”

Professor Graeme Barker from the University of Cambridge, who leads the current Shanidar cave excavations. Credit: Netflix

Professor Graeme Barker from the University of Cambridge, who leads the current Shanidar cave excavations. Credit: Netflix

A study led by Professor Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University now suggests the pollen was left by bees burrowing into the cave floor. However, remains from Shanidar Cave still show signs of an empathetic species. For example, one male had a paralysed arm, deafness and head trauma that likely rendered him partially blind, yet had lived a long time, so must have been cared for.  

Site analysis suggests that Shanidar Z was laid to rest in a gully formed by running water that had been further hollowed out by hand to accommodate the body.

Posture indicates she had been leant against the side, with her left hand curled under her head, and a rock behind the head like a small cushion, which may have been placed there.

Illustration of the possible burial position of the new Neanderthal remains from Shanidar Cave. Credit: Emma Pomeroy.

Illustration of the possible burial position of the new Neanderthal remains from Shanidar Cave. Credit: Emma Pomeroy.

While Shanidar Z was buried within a similar timeframe as other bodies in the cluster, researchers cannot say how contemporaneous they are, only that they all date to around 75,000 years ago.

In fact, while filming onsite for the new documentary in 2022, the team found remains of yet another individual in the same burial cluster, uncovering the left shoulder blade, some ribs and a fairly complete right hand.  

In the sediments several feet above, another three Neanderthals dating to around 50,000 years had been found by Solecki, more of which have been recovered by the current team.

Further research since Shanidar Z was found has detected microscopic traces of charred food in the soil around the older body cluster. These carbonised bits of wild seeds, nuts and grasses, suggest not only that Neanderthals prepared food – soaking and pounding pulses – and then cooked it, but did so in the presence of their dead.

“The body of Shanidar Z was within arm’s reach of living individuals cooking with fire and eating,” said Pomeroy. “For these Neanderthals, there does not appear to be that clear separation between life and death.”

“We can see that Neanderthals are coming back to one particular spot to bury their dead. This could be decades or even thousands of years apart. Is it just a coincidence, or is it intentional, and if so what brings them back?”

“As an older female, Shanidar Z would have been a repository of knowledge for her group, and here we are seventy-five thousand years later, learning from her still,” Pomeroy said.  

The source of this news is from University of Cambridge

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