Researchers have described the first “articulated” remains of a Neanderthal to be discovered in a decade.
An articulated skeleton is one where the bones are still arranged in their original positions.
The new specimen was uncovered at Shanidar Cave in Iraq and consists of the upper torso and crushed skull of a middle-aged to older adult.
Excavations at Shanidar in the 1950s and 60s unearthed partial remains of 10 Neanderthal men, women and children.
During these earlier excavations, archaeologists found that some of the burials were clustered together, with clumps of pollen surrounding one of the skeletons.
The researcher who led those original investigations, Ralph Solecki from Columbia University in New York, claimed it was evidence that Neanderthals had buried their dead with flowers.
This “flower burial” captured the imagination of the public and kicked off a decades-long controversy. The floral interpretation suggested our evolutionary relatives were capable of cultural sophistication, challenging the view – prevalent at the time – that Neanderthals were unintelligent and animalistic.
Before the most recent specimen uncovered in Iraq, the last articulated Neanderthal remains were unearthed at Sima de las Palomas in 2006-7 and at Cova Forada in 2010 [Link in Spanish]. Both sites are located in south-east Spain.
But Dr Emma Pomeroy, from the University of Cambridge, said the new skeleton – dubbed Shanidar Z – is more substantial and more completely articulated than those previous finds.
Dr Pomeroy is the lead author of a paper in Antiquity journal describing the find and was part of the excavation team working at the cave in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“So much research on how Neanderthals treated their dead has to involve returning to finds from 60 or even a hundred years ago, when archaeological techniques were more limited, and that only ever gets you so far,” said Dr Pomeroy.
“To have primary evidence of such quality from this famous Neanderthal site will allow us to use modern technologies to explore everything from ancient DNA to long-held questions about Neanderthal ways of death, and whether they were similar to our own.”
Ralph Solecki died last year aged 101, having never managed to conduct further excavations at his most famous site, despite several attempts.
In 2011, the Kurdish Regional Government approached Prof Graeme Barker from Cambridge’s McDonald Institute of Archaeology about revisiting Shanidar Cave.
With Solecki’s support, initial digging began in 2014, but had to be stopped after two days when Islamic State got too close. It resumed the following year.
“We thought with luck we’d be able to find the locations where they had found Neanderthals in the 1950s, to see if we could date the surrounding sediments,” said Prof Barker. “We didn’t expect to find any Neanderthal bones.”
In 2016, in one of the deepest parts of the trench, the researchers identified a rib, followed by a lumbar vertebra – part of the spine. Then, they uncovered the bones of a clenched right hand. However, metres of sediment needed carefully digging out before the team could excavate the skeleton.
During the 2018-19 excavation, team members went on to uncover a complete skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment, and upper body bones almost to the waist – with the left hand curled under the head like a small cushion.
Early analysis suggests the specimen is more than 70,000 years old. While the sex has yet to be determined, the discovery has relatively worn teeth, suggesting the individual was a “middle- to older-aged adult”.