Neanderthal skull: A story ancient and modern

This Neanderthal skull, though flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, caused a flurry of excitement when it was recovered from Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan last year.

It is now on loan to the University of Cambridge in the UK, where it is being conserved and scanned to help build a digital reconstruction as more layers of silt are removed, and archaeologists have published the first paper on what they’re finding about this Neanderthal skull, in the journal Antiquity. 

Early analysis suggests “Shanidar Z” is more than 70,000 years old, and while the sex is yet to be determined, it has the teeth of a “middle- to older-aged adult”.

But what happened just a few decades ago is an equally important part of the story.

In the 1950s, US archaeologist Ralph Solecki uncovered partial remains of 10 Neanderthals in the cave. Some were clustered together, with clumps of ancient pollen surrounding one of them, which Solecki said showed Neanderthals buried their dead and conducted funerary rites with flowers.

The “flower burial”, as it became known, captured the public’s imagination and sparked a decades-long controversy over what it actually showed, and whether Neanderthals were really capable of such cultural sophistication.

There was no further excavation at the site until earlier this decade, so the subsequent discovery of Shanidar Z and other bones is a significant bonus.

“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,” says lead author Emma Pomeroy.

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