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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, the elements of the burial of flowers theory did not seem to have any value.
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 it made it to Neanderthal bunches, it would have been found under millennia-old sediments and debris, just like Neanderthal skeletons.
“For us, that was an indication that there may have been something going on in the burial of Venus,” Hunt said.
the A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences He puts forward an alternative hypothesis: rather than being brought into the cave via funerary bouquets, the pollen grains may have associated with cave-dwelling pollinators.
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.
Pollen analysis showed that it is thousands of years old, so it is not a recent pollutant. But the discovery confirmed the idea that pollen was making 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 by Chris Hunt, Professor Emeritus at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom.
Further exploration of clumps of pollen 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 they might have clumped together. When Hunt examined Leroy Gorhan’s illustrations of the pollen on Schneider 4, he saw that one of the blocks contained pollen from more than one type of plant.
“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 wouldn’t make sense for the pollen of two different types of flowers to be closely bound together.
However, there is an easy way to stick pollen from different types of flowers together: bees.
“There are a lot of accounts of foraging bees or more than one species,” Hunt said. “What the bee does is puts the pollen into a little sac that it carries on its legs. These return to the nest, and are either eaten by the bees or stored away for future food.
Courtesy Christopher Owen Hunt
A close-up of the Shanidar Z’s torso is shown during the excavation.
Hunt found examples of ancient and modern burrows in Shanidar made by ground-nesting bees. While he and his colleagues haven’t yet found traces of pollen in those burrows, he said, “I still think it’s a very likely way” of pollen arriving 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 is all the pollen crumbled and squashed together in these little clusters,” Pettitt said. From his point of view, it appears that Hunt “has already succeeded in establishing that he is probably a bee.”
Fred Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology and biological sciences at Illinois State University, said that while there is no conclusive evidence that pollen arrived by bees, “this paper makes the original flower burial hypothesis very improbable in the way Solecki formulated.” Who did not participate in the study. “And I think they proved by flattening and decomposing the pollen that the pollen is old, not introduced by modern pollution.”
While Hunt and colleagues’ work suggests that the flower burial hypothesis is incorrect, recent work on Neanderthals in Chanidar Cave supports the basic message of the ancient theory: that Neanderthals treated their dead with care.
Courtesy Christopher Owen Hunt
The excavation site of Shanidar Cave shown in May 2017.
The cave itself seems to hold some kind of meaning, as the skeletons were buried there separately, years apart. “As far as I can see, they must have had stories in their collections about, ‘Well, that’s what we did with Grandma, and now that young Joe is dead, maybe we should put him in the same place.'” Hunt said.
The skeletons found in the cave share common directions and locations, indicating that there may have been some meaning attached to how they were buried. Chandra 4 and Chandra Z, A more recent discovery of the skeleton was published in 2020They are found near scattered pieces of wood. Hunt said he wondered if the twigs came from branches that were placed over the bodies to protect them.
In particular, Hunt said that Shanidar Z was in a position as if she was asleep.
“There was tenderness there. They clearly cared about this person.” “Because why would you do that?”
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