Shanidar Cave (Iraq) - Neanderthal Violence and Purposeful Burials

Does Shanidar Cave Contain Evidence of Purposeful Neanderthal Burials?

Shanidar Cave, Kurdistan, Iraq
Shanidar Cave, Kurdistan, Iraq. Sammy Six

The site of Shanidar Cave is located adjacent to the modern village of Zawi Chemi Shanidar in northern Iraq, on the Zab River in the Zagros Mountains, one of the major tributaries of the Tigris. Between 1953 and 1960, the skeletal remains of nine Neanderthals were recovered from the cave, making it one of the most important Neanderthal sites in western Asia at the time.

Stratified occupations were identified in the cave dating to the Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic, and Pre Pottery Neolithic (10,600 BP).

The oldest and most substantial levels at Shanidar are the Neanderthal levels, (dated circa 50,000 BP). These included some accidental, and some apparently deliberate burials of Neanderthals.

Neanderthal Burials at Shanidar

All nine of the burials at Shanidar were found beneath rockfall. The excavators were certain that the burials were purposeful, a shocking statement to make during the 1960s, although more evidence for Middle Paleolithic burials has been recovered in other caves sites--at Qafzeh, Amud and Kebara (all in Israel), Saint-Cesaire (France), and Dederiyeh (Syria) caves. Gargett (1999) looked at these examples and concluded that natural burial processes, rather than cultural ones, cannot be ruled out in any of them.

Recent investigations into calculus deposits on teeth from Shanidar (Henry et al. 2011) found phytoliths of several starchy plant foods. Those plants included grass seeds, dates, tubers and legumes, and the scholars also retrieved evidence that some of the consumed plants had been cooked.

Preserved starch grains from wild barley were found on the faces of some of the Mousterian tools (Henry et al. 2014) as well.


A well-preserved adult male skeleton from the site, called Shanidar 3, had a partially healed injury to a rib. This injury is believed to have been caused by sharp force trauma from a lithic point or blade, one of only three known examples of Neanderthal traumatic injury from a stone tool--the others are from St.

Cesaire in France and Skhul Cave in Israel. The Shanidar skeleton is interpreted as evidence for interpersonal violence among Pleistocene hunters and gatherers. Experimental archaeology investigations by Churchill and colleagues suggest that this injury resulted from a long-range projectile weapon.

Soil samples taken from sediments near the burials contained an abundance of pollen from several kinds of flowers, including the modern herbal remedy ephedra. The pollen abundance was interpreted by Solecki and fellow researcher Arlette Leroi-Gourhan as evidence that flowers were buried with the bodies. However, there is debate about the source of the pollen, with some evidence that the pollen was brought into the site by burrowing rodents, rather than placed there as flowers by grieving relatives.

Excavations were conducted in the cave during the 1950s by Ralph S. Solecki and Rose L. Solecki.


This glossary entry is part of the Guide to Neanderthals and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Agelarakis A. 1993. The Shanidar cave Proto-Neolithic human populations: aspects of demography and paleopathology. Human Evolution 8(4):235-253.

Churchill SE, Franciscus RG, McKean-Peraza HA, Daniel JA, and Warren BR.

2009. Shanidar 3 Neandertal rib puncture wound and paleolithic weaponry. Journal of Human Evolution 57(2):163-178. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.05.010

Cowgill LW, Trinkaus E, and Zeder MA. 2007. Shanidar 10: A Middle Paleolithic immature distal lower limb from Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. Journal of Human Evolution 53(2):213-223. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.04.003

Gargett RH. 1999. Middle Palaeolithic burial is not a dead issue: the view from Qafzeh, Saint-Césaire, Kebara, Amud, and Dederiyeh. Journal of Human Evolution 37(1):27-90.

Henry AG, Brooks AS, and Piperno DR. 2011. Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(2):486-491. doi: 10.1006/jhev.1999.0301

Henry AG, Brooks AS, and Piperno DR. 2014. Plant foods and the dietary ecology of Neanderthals and early modern humans. Journal of Human Evolution 69:44-54. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.12.014

Sommer JD. 1999. The Shanidar IV 'Flower Burial': A re-evaluation of Neanderthal burial ritual. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9(1):127-129.