An Ancient Burial In A Famous Cave

17:29 minutes

fossilized remains of a skull buried in the ground
The Neanderthal skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: Graeme Barker

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, archaeologists explored a site known as Shanidar Cave, located in what is now Kurdistan. Among the finds were Neanderthal remains. Mixed among the bones of one individual, known as Shanidar 4, was a quantity of pollen. That pollen led some researchers to theorize that the remains were intentionally buried with flowers. Others argued that the pollen may have come into the cave in some other way, such as contamination by people or animal activity.

Recently, modern archaeologists returned to the cave and found more Neanderthal remains, including a partial “articulated” skeleton that appears to have been deliberately positioned in a trench near the earlier discoveries. 

Emma Pomeroy, a lecturer in the department of archeology at Cambridge University, was the osteologist on the recent archeological team. She says the new find could provide insights into how Neanderthals viewed their dead, their sense of self, and more.

a landscape photo of greenery and a smallish mountain rising in the center of it
View of the entrance to Shanidar Cave, in the foothills of the Baradost Mountains of North-East Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: Graeme Barker

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Segment Guests

Emma Pomeroy

Emma Pomeroy is a Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge University in Cambridge, UK.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, archaeologists explored a site known as Shanidar Cave, located in what is now Kurdistan. Among the finds were Neanderthal bones, and mixed among the bones of one individual, known as Shanidar IV, was a quantity of pollen. And when you find pollen, what does that mean? Perhaps the remains were intentionally buried with flowers.

That assumption by some archaeologists sparked an ongoing controversy among them. Did the pollen get there via contamination by people or animals? Or was it a significant burial behavior we never knew Neanderthals had? Recent modern archaeologists returned to the cave and found even more Neanderthal remains, which, of course, provided some answers and raised more questions.

Joining me now to discuss the find is Dr. Emma Pomeroy, a lecturer in the Department of Archeology at Cambridge University in the UK. She’s an osteologist and was on the team at Shanidar Cave. Dr. Pomeroy was also one of the authors of the paper published in the journal Antiquity that reported the find. Welcome to the program, Dr. Pomeroy.

EMMA POMEROY: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Can you set the scene for us here? Where is this cave, and why is it so significant?

EMMA POMEROY: So the cave itself is in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s just in the foothills of the Baradost Mountains. So there’s quite marked relief in the geology. It looks quite mountainous. And you have a number of these natural caves in the region. And the cave where we’ve been working, Shanidar Cave, is actually quite a large cave.

And as you mentioned, it was first excavated by an American archaeologist, actually, Ralph Solecki, between 1951 and 1960. And he found these remains of 10 Neanderthals. And it has been central to debates about Neanderthals ever since. But unfortunately, he was never able to go back and continue his excavations because of the political situation. So in the last few years, we’ve been really lucky to be able to go there and start re-excavating the site and continue Solecki’s work.

IRA FLATOW: And your team was invited by the government, correct, to take a second look?

EMMA POMEROY: Yes. Yes, that’s right. So, and they initially approached Professor Graeme Barker in the Department of Archeology at Cambridge, who had previously excavated similar sites in other parts of the world. And they asked him whether he would be interested in excavating Shanidar. And as he sort of says it, he absolutely jumped at the chance because it’s such a famous and such an important site.

So yes, the team tried to start excavations in 2014, but there was some security issues. But since 2015, the excavations have been ongoing. And that’s when I joined the project, when they started to find Neanderthal remains and needed a specialist in human bones.

IRA FLATOW: And you as a specialist, I’m thinking now it’s, what, 60 years since people were in the cave looking at it. We must have new technology to examine the bones now.

EMMA POMEROY: Exactly, and that’s exactly why the Kurdish regional government were keen. Actually, the excavations started again because, obviously, any field has moved on immensely in those 60 years. And archeology is, no less, one of those fields.

So we have a whole host of techniques that we can use, not only to study the bones themselves, but actually to better understand what we call the context, so the sediments that they lie in and the soils, and to look for the kinds of clues that give us more detailed information about perhaps how they lived.

And when we find a skeleton like this, perhaps what happened to our individual once they had died. So it’s a really exciting opportunity, and we’re so grateful to the Kurdish general director of antiquities and their foreign office for both the opportunity and actually the support and the collaboration we have with them. It’s really an amazing site.

IRA FLATOW: Well, tell me why it’s so amazing. Why are you so excited about this new partial skeleton that you found?

EMMA POMEROY: Well, to put it in context, so I mentioned before that Ralph Solecki and his team found the partial remains or some fairly complete of 10 Neanderthal individuals in the cave. And these have been important. So there’s one Shanidar IV that you mentioned, who they found clusters of pollen near the bones, and that was interpreted as a intentional burial with flowers put in the grave.

But other individuals there have been really important in shaping our understanding of Neanderthal behavior, too. So for example, Shanidar I was found to have had quite a severe head injury, which probably left him blind in one eye. He had his right arm was completely paralyzed. And he probably lost it just above the elbow. He had severe arthritis in his feet. He’d suffered fractures to the bones in his feet. He had an infection in one of his collarbones.

And yet, he survived a long time, into his– probably to about the age of 50, which was a good age at that time. So the implication is he must have had some help and support from his group. Because he wouldn’t have been able to survive too well on his own. I should have mentioned as well that he was also going deaf. We could see bony growths in his ear canals. So that’s been used as an example of– to argue for the fact that Neanderthals probably were capable of compassion and of caring for one another.

And then one of the other individuals there, Shanidar III, actually has evidence of a projectile injury, so probably a spear injury or similar in his ribs. And it didn’t kill him immediately, but he survived for weeks to months because there’s some healing around it.

So again, that suggests both violence, interpersonal violence, and some people have said maybe that was more the humans because the kind of tool that’s probably the sort of tools that our species used rather than theirs, but also, again, suggesting some care that allowed him to survive some time with the injury and potentially with a punctured lung as a result.

IRA FLATOW: So when you see the evidence that these two individuals were taken care of, there was compassion shown to them, possibly help in there, whatever medicines or whatever bindings they could help in their injuries, is that the kinds of things that lead you to think, well, if the people were passionate, so passionate to keep these people alive– and I’m calling them people, Neanderthals, alive– then they might– then the flowers might have been some sort of burial ceremonial– something like that.

EMMA POMEROY: Yes, so that contributes to the overall picture. Because obviously, Neanderthals have had somewhat of a bad press, especially in the earlier 20th century, and were kind of your archetypal caveman, if you like, quite unintelligent, uncaring, brutal. And so that combination of evidence for caring and compassion– and perhaps we might extend it to caring and compassion for the dead as well as the living– it certainly starts to build a picture of a very different kind of person, if you like, than that kind of old stereotype.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me about the bones themselves, how they were found and what conditions. And I understand there’s a– I’m going say an amusing story about how they were excavated and brought back for studying.

EMMA POMEROY: Yeah. So I don’t know if you’re talking about the ones that were excavated in 1960. Because they have more of a story behind them.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

EMMA POMEROY: Yeah. OK, so these were the remains of Shanidar IV, which then became sort of the flower burial. Now when they exposed the skeleton at first, it was sort of lying on its side. But the bones were very fragile. And so the decision was taken to remove the skeleton, what we call on block. So actually, you cut out a whole block of sediment intact with the skeleton in it.

And so it’s quite difficult, yes, to cut all the way around the edges. Shore it up with boards, put plaster of Paris over the skeleton itself, then try and dig underneath, get another board underneath, and lift the whole thing out. And so that’s what they did. They then had to get it up to the top of the trench, so these remains were about 7 and 1/2 meters from the surface of the cave, all the way down the side of the cave.

And then perhaps the bit they did in the least favors, part of the way it was taken back to the museum in Baghdad was strapped to the roof of a taxi. And as you can imagine, that probably was not an easy ride for this, especially considering that the roads were even more difficult than they are today back in 1960.

So what they didn’t realize, as they were cutting that block, a few extra bones started trickling down. And they knew that they must be from a different Neanderthal. But they didn’t have time to investigate further. So when they actually investigated these remains back in the Baghdad museum, of finished excavating that block, they actually found there were partial remains of two more adults, plus the partial remains of a baby in that block, too.

Now the new remains are directly next to where they took that block out. And the new individual, which we, for the moment, call Shanidar 0 because it may well be part of some of those original individuals from 1960, it was actually cut through at the waist, where they had to move this block.

So it seems to indicate that the legs of this individual were actually in that block of sediment that was moved in 1960. And the rest of Shanidar 0 is probably still down in the Baghdad museum. So we hope to do more work in the future, where we can actually look at the remains from the 1960 excavations and see if we can figure out who’s who in conjunction with the new remains as well.

IRA FLATOW: So are you going to try to unite the two top and bottom of the individual?

EMMA POMEROY: Well, we’ll have a go. I mean, the remains are all quite delicate and fragmentary. And obviously where they cut that block out, they would have damaged the bits that joined them up, if you see what I mean.


EMMA POMEROY: So it was already a quite complex jigsaw puzzle. And it’s just got a bit more complex, but we’ll certainly give it a go because it’ll be very interesting just to see who’s who and how the individuals relate to each other.

IRA FLATOW: So tell me what– we talked about there being a 60-year gap between the two dates. What kind of new technology is at your disposal now to study the new remains that you didn’t have? And what can they do for you?

EMMA POMEROY: So one of the things we’ve done, for example, that we report in the paper is a technique called soil micro morphology. Now what this involves is taking a block of sediment from the wall of the excavation intact. So it’s quite a tricky thing to do. But then what we do is impregnate it with resin and slice it very thinly, so that you can look at the structure of the soils under a microscope. And that can be really informative.

So what we’ve been able to say about the new individual that we’ve found is that there seems to be evidence that the depression the body was in was actually intentionally dug. So if you imagine when you dig a hole in the ground, whatever you’re using to dig, you sort of push down on the soil underneath, that you don’t actually remove and compress it a bit. And we can actually see that in the layer of sediment directly under the one with the bones in.

What we can also see in the sediment that contains the bones is two really important things. That sediment seems to have accumulated pretty quickly, compared to the rest in other areas. So that suggests maybe the body was actually intentionally covered up with soil at the time. But also, we’ve got mineralized some ancient plant remains within that sediment that surrounds the bone.

And that’s really significant when we come back to the question of the flower burial. Because as you mentioned in your intro, some people have suggested, oh, it’s just modern contamination and so forth. But this is some evidence that we are getting ancient plant remains.


EMMA POMEROY: So that’s just one example, but I mean, for the bones themselves, there’s all other kinds of techniques we can apply in the lab as well, looking at sort of diets from the chemical composition of the bones and perhaps even getting some ancient DNA, although it may be a bit of a long shot.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Dr. Emma Pomeroy of Cambridge University in the UK on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I was interested in that digging technique. So that the compression of the soil tells you that the depression the bones were in were purposely dug there to put someone in, is that what you’re saying?

EMMA POMEROY: Yeah, exactly. Because as I said, if you imagine when you’re digging, you do actually push down on the soil as you’re trying to remove– take soil out. The soil just below what you dig out gets pushed down a bit. And we can actually see by looking at the microscopic structure of the soil that that had actually happened–


EMMA POMEROY: –which there’s not really any other way to kind of account for that.

IRA FLATOW: Exciting.

EMMA POMEROY: Yeah, I know. It’s amazing stuff.

IRA FLATOW: I can see from your excitement, you must be excited about how famous this site is, right? And you’re digging there.

EMMA POMEROY: Oh, it’s absolutely incredible, you know? When I was an undergraduate student, I learned about Shanidar Cave and about the various Neanderthals. And I never imagined in a million years that I would ever go there, let alone be there and be the one that’s excavating new Neanderthal remains.

And I still stand at the bottom of the hill before we walk up to the cave every morning and just think, wow, how does this happen? This is such an incredible opportunity and such a privilege. The site is famous amongst archaeologists, but it’s also so culturally important to the Kurdish people.

And it’s such a privilege to be able to excavate and contribute to some of their heritage and their history. It’s great fun on a Friday because we get busloads of Kurdish tourists turn up to come visit the site. And so there’s music blaring and families having picnics. And yeah, it’s really special to be able to be working at a site that’s so important to the people there.

IRA FLATOW: Is it near a war zone at all, or is there access to it?

EMMA POMEROY: Yes, so it’s not too difficult to access. And the site itself is actually guarded. Because of its cultural importance, it has its own Peshmerga guards all the time. And the roads between Erbil, which is the main city, and Shanidar Cave are well guarded and have a number of road blocks. So yeah, there is a risk, but it’s–

IRA FLATOW: It’s so exciting, it’s–

EMMA POMEROY: –as minimal as it can be, I think. Yeah, and it is just incredible to be there. It’s an amazing place.

IRA FLATOW: How long do you have access to it?

EMMA POMEROY: So we just found a permit last year for another five years of excavations, which is really exciting. And yep, lots more work to do. We are in the process of applying for the funding to make sure that we can actually get back out there and do the excavation.

IRA FLATOW: Coming 60 years later, is there part of you that says, let’s not touch some of it because 60 years from now, someone will come here with better technology than I have?

EMMA POMEROY: Oh, absolutely. And that’s actually a really important point about archeology. So basically, what we’ve done, Ralph Solecki, back in sort of the 1950s, dug quite a large trench, but it was just in the middle of the cave. So it’s probably not even sort of 10% of the whole of what’s in the cave.


EMMA POMEROY: And in our work, what we’ve been doing is actually going back and not opening up big areas like that.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, we lost–

EMMA POMEROY: No, I’m still here.

IRA FLATOW: That’s all right. Well, we’ve ran out of time. But I’ll make you a deal. Let’s meet back here in 60 years, OK? And we’ll talk about your next dig. It sounds like it’s very, very exciting. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

EMMA POMEROY: No problem at all.

IRA FLATOW: Good luck to you, Dr. Emma Pomeroy, Department of Archaeology at Cambridge University in the UK.

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