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Department of Archaeology


The ways Neanderthals treated their dead have been a key focus of long-standing debates about their capacities for compassion and symbolic thought, and their similarity to modern humans. These questions feed into broader questions concerning how similar Neanderthals were to ourselves, modern humans, especially in light of evidence that we interbred.

Ten Neanderthals from Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan, discovered by Ralph Solecki in 1951–1960, have played a central role in these debates. Uncertainty remains about whether some were killed by rock fall as Solecki argued, whether others were buried intentionally perhaps even with ritual components as suggested by the famous but constroversial ‘Flower Burial’ (Shanidar 4), and whether burials were carried out in “special places” and marked with stones. 

This project, as part of the wider Shanidar Cave Project led by Professor Graeme Barker, is providing new evidence on what happened to the Shanidar Neanderthals. It combines analyses of the newly accessible Solecki archives at the Smithsonian Institution, reanalyses of the fossils themselves using advances in identifying cause of death and mortuary treatment, and state-of-the-art geoarchaeological data from recent excavations at Shanidar Cave. 

Our aim is to give a clearer understanding of how the Shanidar Neanderthals treated their dead and whether this may have included a symbolic component, ultimately contributing to wider debates about Neanderthal behaviour and cognition.

The project is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grants Scheme (Grant number SRG18R1\180250).

Image: Shanidar Cave. Photograph: Graeme Barker


British Academy

Leverhulme Small Grants Scheme

Project Tags

Human Evolutionary Studies
Periods of interest: 
Geographical areas: 
Mesopotamia and the Near East
Research Expertise / Fields of study: 
Human Evolution
Biological Anthropology
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