Home Science Neanderthal flower burial debunked: Here’s what really happened 75,000 years ago

Neanderthal flower burial debunked: Here’s what really happened 75,000 years ago


Researchers discovered Shanidar Cave, located among the Zagros Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, more than 50 years ago. Several Neanderthal graves have been found here; one of them – Shanidar 4 – was known as the “flower burial”. It got its name when researchers found clumps of pollen from flowering plants in the soil beneath an adult Neanderthal man. From this they concluded that members of his tribe had deliberately covered the burial pit with flowers. However, new excavations have revealed the real culprits of this mistake.

Where did the pollen in the grave come from?

The Shanidar Cave burials, excavated in the 1950s and 1960s, were the first evidence that Neanderthals, our cousins ​​on the evolutionary tree, engaged in ceremonial burial of dead bodies. Today, evidence of Neanderthal burials is no longer controversial among scientists, but the interpretation of pollen as evidence of a floral burial is still hotly debated.

In a new study published August 28 in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team led by paleoecologist Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom looked at pollen evidence from Shanidar 4 and found: Burrowing bees are a more likely explanation for pollen than Neanderthal burial ritual.

  • Soil samples above and below the burial were first examined by two pollen experts in 1975 and determined to come from five known and two unidentified taxa or biological groups. These plants are assumed to be all ready to be picked at the same time, probably between late May and early June.
  • Hunt and his team agree with the preliminary identification of plant species, but say they actually grow at different times of the year. This makes it impossible to collect them all in one grave.

So the most likely explanation is that the insects disturbed the graves as soon as they emerged, carrying pollen to their underground burrows and causing researchers to draw incorrect conclusions thousands of years later. Most interestingly, there is additional evidence of this near Shanidar 4:

  • First, mixed pollen clusters do not indicate that the flowers were laid as a whole. Instead, it shows that the material was collected, assembled and deposited “by hand”, grain by grain, by the insects.
  • Secondly, the bees themselves were found on the ground next to the graves. However, the source does not specify whether these are ancient fossilized remains or modern nests with live bees.

A lone bee digging a nest in Shanidar Cave / Photo: E. Pomeroy, September 4, 2022

Hunt and his team believe the pollen is probably old. Perhaps even closer to the time when Neanderthals were buried. However, the history of neither pollen nor bees can be determined directly.

Although some successful experiments for direct dating of pollen grains are known to science, dating bee exoskeletons using the radiocarbon method is not easy. Additionally, Shanidar 4’s age exceeds the capabilities of this method: Radiocarbon dating can reliably date organic matter up to 50,000 years old, while its burial was 75,000 years ago.

Source: 24 Tv



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