Shanidar Cave: Evidence for Neanderthal Burials and Violence

Shanidar Cave against cloudy sky.

Sammy Six / CC / Flickr

The site of Shanidar Cave is located adjacent to the modern village of Zawi Chemi Shanidar in northern Kurdish Iraq, on the Zab River in the Zagros Mountains, one of the major tributaries of the Tigris River. 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.

Shanidar Cave Chronology

Shanidar cave itself measures about 13,000 square feet (1,200 square meters) in area, or 75x75 ft (53x53 m) square.

The mouth of the cave today measures about 82 ft (25 m) wide and about 26 ft (8 m) tall. The site deposits are about 46 ft (14 m) thick, which excavator Ralph Solecki divided into four major cultural layers, each separated by what Solecki's team recognized as discrete discontinuities.

Neanderthal Burials at Shanidar

The lowest, oldest, and most substantial levels at Shanidar are the Mousterian levels, which represent a period of time when Neanderthals lived there about 50,000 years ago. Within these deposits were discovered nine human interments, at least some of which were deliberate burials.

All nine of the burials at Shanidar were found beneath a cave rockfall, but the excavators were absolutely certain that at least some of the burials were purposeful.

During the 1960s, that was a shocking statement to make, because Neanderthals were not considered humans, certainly not thought to be capable of caring for their dead. Considerably more evidence for Middle Paleolithic burials has since been recovered in other caves sites—at Qafzeh, Amud, and Kebara (all in Israel), Saint-Cesaire (France), and Dederiyeh (Syria) caves.

Shanidar Burials

Some of the skeletons from Shanidar exhibit evidence for interpersonal violence among Pleistocene hunters and gatherers, a level of violence also attested at El Sidrón in Spain. Shanidar 3, a well-preserved adult male skeleton, had a partially healed injury to a rib. This injury is believed to have been caused by sharp force trauma from a stone point or blade. This is one of only a few known examples of Neanderthal traumatic injury from a stone tool—others include St. Cesaire in France and Skhul Cave in Israel. Experimental archaeology investigations by American archaeologist Steven Churchill and colleagues suggest that this injury resulted from being shot by a long-range projectile weapon.

The skeleton known as Shanidar 1 was an older adult male, who survived a crushing fracture to his left eye socket, and the loss of his right forearm and hand. Archaeologists Erik Trinkaus and Sebastien Villotte believe this individual was also deaf, based on the presence of bony growths in his ears. Not only do these skeletons exhibit interpersonal evidence, they also indicate that Neanderthals cared for individuals who had been handicapped.

Dietary Evidence

Shanidar was the focus of early floral analytical studies, which presented what became a controversial interpretation.

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 some debate about the source of the pollen, with some evidence that the plant remains may have been brought into the site by burrowing rodents, rather than placed there as flowers by grieving relatives. Recent studies by palynologists Marta Fiacconi and Chris Hunt also suggest that the pollen found in the cave is not dissimilar to pollen found outside of the cave.

Microscopic studies of the calculus deposits—also known as tartar—on teeth from the Neanderthals at Shanidar found plant remains of several starchy foods that made up the inhabitants' diet.

Those plants included grass seeds, dates, tubers, and legumes. Some evidence suggests that at least some of the consumed plants had been cooked, and preserved starch grains from wild barley were also found on the faces of some of the Mousterian tools in the cave as well.

Archaeology History

The original excavations were conducted in the cave during the 1950s directed by American archaeologist Ralph S. Solecki. Later investigations of the site and on the artifacts and soil samples recovered from the site have been conducted by Trinkaus among others. Locally, Shanidar was until recently inhabited by Kurdish shepherds, but now it is managed by the local antiquities service and has become a popular Kurdish tourist destination.

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