The Neanderthal flower burial theory has been called into question by a new study

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The discovery of a grave in 1960 led researchers to hypothesize that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, challenging the prevailing view that ancient humans were stupid and brutal. Scientists now say that a key piece of evidence from the site, which helped shape the study of Neanderthals, may have been misinterpreted.

The burial flower, as it became known, was discovered by archaeologist Ralph Solecki while exploring Shanidar Cave in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. He found several Neanderthal specimens in the 1950s, and in 1960, he identified a male skeleton that became known as Shanidar 4. The 65,000-year-old remains were surrounded by clumps of pollen.

Arlette Leroy-Gurhan, an archaeologist and pollen expert, hypothesized at the time that these masses were anthers, the structures that contain pollen in flowers. She and Solecki suggested that Neanderthals would have placed flowers on the grave, in the same way that many humans do today.

“You will find this story in many archeology textbooks to this day,” said Chris Hunt, an emeritus professor at Liverpool John Morris University in the UK and lead author of a new study on the Shanidar site. “It was one of the things that convinced Solecki that Neanderthals were not just evil and brutal, which is what people had basically thought up to that point. But in fact, they were caring individuals, and they looked out for each other.”

Over the years, scientists have found additional evidence of Neanderthal intelligence and complexity, including… art, stringAnd tools. However, elements of the flower burial theory do not seem to have any value.

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Hunt and his colleagues were working in Shanidar Cave in 2014 when they found traces of ancient pollen on the surface of the cave floor. Had they reached the Neanderthal bouquets, they would have been found under sediments and debris thousands of years old, just like Neanderthal skeletons.

“That to us was an indicator that maybe there was something going on in the flower burial,” Hunt said.

the A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences He puts forward an alternative hypothesis: Instead of arriving at the cave via funerary bouquets, the pollen may have been associated with pollinators living in the cave.

Hunt said he initially assumed the relics were remnants of decades-long excavations.

“My immediate thought was that Solecki had contaminated the site,” and may have been carrying pollen in his shoes for decades, Hunt said.

Analysis of the pollen showed it was thousands of years old, so it was not a recent contaminant. But the discovery proved the idea that pollen made its way into the cave independently of humans or Neanderthals.

Courtesy Christopher Owen Hunt

Shanidar Cave in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq in May. The site is where Neanderthal remains were found as well as ancient pollen. Their presence is due to the activity of bees and not to the burial of flowers, as indicated by a study conducted by Chris Hunt, an honorary professor at Liverpool John Morris University in the United Kingdom.

Further exploration of the pollen clumps found alongside the skeletons casts further doubt on the original hypothesis. Some of the pollen came from flowers that bloom at different times of the year, making it difficult to know how it might come together. When Hunt examined Leroy Gourhan’s illustrations of pollen found at Shanidar 4, he saw that one of the blocks contained pollen from more than one species of plant.

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“This is a red flag,” he said, because the anthers only contain pollen from those species. Even if there were two different types of flowers in the same bouquet, it would not make sense for the pollen of two different types of flowers to be closely stuck together.

However, there is an easy way for pollen from different types of flowers to stick together: bees.

“There are a lot of accounts of bees foraging for food or more than one species,” Hunt said. “What the bee does is puts the pollen in a little pouch that it carries on its legs. These go back to the nest, and they are either eaten by the bees or stored away for future food.”

Courtesy Christopher Owen Hunt

A close-up of Shanidar Z’s torso is shown during excavation.

Hunt found examples of ancient and modern burrows at Shanidar made by ground-nesting bees. While he and his colleagues have not yet found traces of pollen in those burrows, he said, “I still think it’s a very likely way” for pollen to arrive near Neanderthal graves.

“It’s a perfect piece of science,” said Paul Pettit, a professor of Paleolithic archeology at Durham University in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the new study.

“The big problem is why all the pollen is broken up and squashed together in these little clusters,” Pettit said. In his view, Hunt “has already succeeded in proving that bees are more likely to exist.”

Fred Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology and biological sciences at Illinois State University, said that although there is no conclusive evidence that pollen arrived via bees, “this paper makes the original flower burial hypothesis very improbable in the way Solecki has formulated it.” Who did not participate in the study. “And I think they proved by the flattening and decomposition of the pollen that the pollen is ancient, and was not introduced by modern pollution.”

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While the work of Hunt and colleagues suggests that the flower burial hypothesis is incorrect, recent work on Neanderthals at Shanidar Cave supports the core message of the ancient theory: that Neanderthals treated their dead with care.

Courtesy Christopher Owen Hunt

The Shanidar Cave excavation site seen in May 2017.

The cave itself seems to hold some sort of meaning, as the skeletons were buried there separately, years apart. “As far as I can see, they must have had stories in their groups about, ‘Well, this is what we did with Grandma, and now that Young Joe’s dead, maybe we should put him in the same place.'” Hunt said.

The skeletons in the cave share common orientations and locations, suggesting that there may have been some meaning attached to how they were buried. Shander 4 and Shander Z, A more recent skeleton discovery was published in 2020They were found near scattered pieces of wood. Hunt said he wondered if these twigs came from branches placed over the bodies to protect them.

In particular, Hunt said Shanidar Z was in a position as if she were asleep.

“There was tenderness there. They clearly cared about this person.” “Because why would you do that?”

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