Unearthing new Neanderthals

25 February 2020

Interview with 

Emma Pomeroy, University of Cambridge

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Have you got your trowel ready? Let's dig into some archaeology! Because one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons discovered to date has been unearthed in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan, at a place called Shanidar Cave. This new finding, published in Antiquity, is an exciting insight into how Neanderthals lived, and - crucially - what they did with their dead. Cambridge University's Emma Pomeroy is part of the project, and joined Chris Smith and Adam Murphy to tell them about it...

Emma - So the Neanderthals are basically our closest evolutionary cousins. They evolved in Europe about 350,000 years ago, the same time we evolved in Africa. And they spread across into central Asia. But went extinct about 40,000 years ago, soon after we spread from Africa into Europe.

Adam - And then can you tell us a little bit about what it is you found?

Emma - So what we've found is the upper body, so from about the waist, upwards of an older adult Neanderthal. We're not sure if it was a man or a woman yet, and the bones are articulated, so that means they're in their original anatomical positions. So that's very exciting, because it's also in the place where it was placed soon after death. And we can look at, for example, what was done with the body and what that might tell us about how the other Neanderthals thought.

Adam - So on that, what was done with the body?

Emma - Well, what our evidence is suggesting is that the body was placed into a purposefully dug depression, and that it was probably covered over with soil quite quickly. And that there may also have been plant remains placed into the grave or placed in around the body as well.

Adam - That sounds like it's not a million miles away from how we treat a lot of our dead now.

Emma - Yeah, it sounds very familiar, but it's actually been very controversial. So right next to where this individual is, in 1960 the American archeologist Ralph Solecki found another Neanderthal known as Shanidar IV, and in soil samples from around the bones they found clusters of pollen. And they argued that that was evidence of flowers having been put with the body. But it's been really, really controversial over the years.

Adam - So then what does this tell us definitively about what the Neanderthals used to do with their dead?

Emma - So it does seem to be that they have intentionally buried this individual. It's also intriguing, we're still analyzing some of the evidence, but one of the counter arguments for the flower burial was that the pollen was all modern contamination or had been dragged in by borrowing rodents. But, because we can actually see that we've got mineralized plant material, so ancient plant material with the bones, that's actually very suggestive that the plant material could genuinely be old.

Adam - And you mentioned that you'd found the top half of the body. What happened to the bottom half?

Emma - When they found this other individual, the flower burial Shanidar IV in 1960, the bones were very, very delicate. So when they uncovered them, they decided they would cut out a whole block of soil and remove it all in one big block to the museum in Baghdad so that they could excavate it under much more controlled conditions. What they didn't realise was that there were other individuals directly underneath and to the side of that individual. So in cutting out that block, unfortunately they cut off the bottom half, but they didn't discover that until a couple of years later when they excavated it in the museum in Baghdad. And the team never got to go back and excavate the site.

Chris - I bet there were sorry about that, weren't they? But if this is Neanderthals burying their dead, and obviously this is speculative, what do we know about their contemporaries that were anatomically modern humans? Our direct ancestors, homo sapiens, from the same time? Were they doing the same sort of thing, or did it take longer for us to embrace similar sorts of behaviours?

Emma - Well, that's a really good question and actually it's around this same time that we do see some similar behaviours. They do date back a little earlier actually in modern humans, but it's significant because when treatment of the body involves some degree of symbolism that suggests a kind of level of abstract thought, and it was argued for a long time that Neanderthals just weren't capable of that kind of complex thought. So this evidence would help build that argument that actually they weren't so cognitively different from ourselves.

Chris - Lee Berger from South Africa was on this programme when he discovered Homo Naledi. This is a small brained ancestor. He suggested that these individuals were burying their dead. So does this suggest something about the way in which we have evolved? We naturally tend to embrace these sorts of behaviours. It doesn't matter whether you're Neanderthal, anatomically modern human, or a much smaller brained ancestor like Homo Naledi?

Emma - We don't have a great deal of evidence for intentional treatment of the dead prior to the advent of Neanderthals and modern humans. We do have some other evidence from another site in Spain called Sima de los Huesos , where they seem to have been putting whole individuals into a cave, as well. And that dates to over 400,000 years ago. But these seem to be very isolated incidents. Whereas when we get modern humans and Neanderthals, we see these patterns recurring. So we have examples of Neanderthal probable burials from also France and other parts of the world, but also evidence that they did other things with the bodies. So in some cases, we know they de-fleshed the bodies and perhaps even consumed some of the remains, as did some of their contemporary modern humans.

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