Debate Continues over Shanidar Cave Burial Flowers

A view of Shanidar Cave

A view of Shanidar Cave

Between 1957 and 1961, Ralph Solecki and an archeology team from Columbia University discovered the first adult Neanderthal skeletons in Iraq. Known as the Shanidar Cave site, the two most famous skeletons include Shanidar I, an elderly male aged between 40-50 years, and Shanidar IV, otherwise known as the “flower burial.” It was once thought that Shanidar IV provided the best evidence for Neanderthal burial ritual, but debate continues over the evidence of flowers found at this site.

Shanidar IV was an adult male between 30-45 years, and found in a fetal position. The team gathered routine soil samples to analyze the vegetational history of the site, and clumps of pollen outside the normal range of pollen were found from those soil samples. Originally, scholars believed that flowers were used in a burial ritual, as the samples yielded plants that contained medicinal properties.

Some of the site samples included: Yarrow, Cornflower, Bachelor’s Button, St. Barnaby’s Thistle, Ragwort or Groundsel, Grape Hyacinth, Joint Pine or Woody Horsetail and Hollyhock. These plants are known among many as having curative powers as diuretics, stimulants, astringents and anti-inflammatory properties. This knowledge led to the belief that Shanidar IV might have had shamanic powers or that he was a medicine man, since no other burial site contained this pollen.

Since that time, more scholars have analyzed the Shanidar site and its resulting hypotheses and have offered some debate over earlier conclusions. One such argument centered on the introduction of pollen by native rodents. The Persian Jird is known to store seeds and flowers, so the site might have had natural and not cultural orgins.

Timothy Taylor, in his book, The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death (pgs 32-33), wrote:

The ‘grave of flowers’ was one of a number of remarkable finds at Shanidar. Among nine skeletons recovered was one of an adult who had sustained crippling injuries and who could not have survived without the constant attention of a close-knit community. In Shanidar: The First Flower People, published in 1971, Ralph Solecki argued not only that his Neanderthals had a kind of spirituality, but that they had belonged to a peaceful, loving society, hwere even the disabled wree valued. Solecki provocatively implied that Neanderthals were morally superior to us – or at least to those modern humans who were at that time leading the United States in its bloody losing battle over Vietnam.

Taylor also stated that even Solecki admitted that the ‘burials’ were not clear-cut, as the bones were discovered in an area where many people were killed by cave-ins or roof-falls. The absence of obvious grave goods other than the pollen at many sites, including Shanidar, opens the possibility that the excavated skeletons – many of which were incomplete – “were no more than the result of random preservation following accidental death.”

Scholars study burial habits to learn more about a culture, as scholars often believe that burials point to spirituality, which – in turn – might point to a more intelligent population. However, as Taylor argues in his book, burials sometimes do not point to spirituality or even to humane situations.

With that said, flowers have become a ritual for modern burials in many cultures. But, seldom do you see herbal plants in funeral flower arrangements. Perhaps by adding the Shanidar plants listed above to your next funeral arrangement, you can alter history – or, at least encourage debate among future scholars.

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