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New Pollen Study Disproves Neanderthal ‘Flower Burial’

Neanderthal. Homo Neanderthalensis Adult Male Reconstruction. Neanderthal
Researchers reevaluate Neanderthal burial rituals in light of a pollen study. Credit: John Gurche and Chip Clark, CC-ZERO. / Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are pointing the finger at an unexpected culprit in the disruption of a 75,000-year-old Neanderthal flower burial: digging bees.

A recent study suggests these little insects might have concealed pollen beneath the remains of a Neanderthal, leading researchers to mistakenly believe the Neanderthal had been interred with a bed of flowers.

The idea of a “flower burial” first took root more than fifty years ago at the Shanidar Cave site. Shanidar is a rocky cave nestled in the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where several Neanderthal burials were uncovered.

Among them, Shanidar 4, an adult male Neanderthal, earned his nickname as the “flower burial” when scientists stumbled upon clusters of pollen from flowering plants beneath the remains.

The excavations at Shanidar, conducted during the 1950s and 1960s, provided the earliest evidence that our Neanderthal relatives, positioned along our evolutionary lineage, practiced ceremonial burial rituals for their deceased.

The ongoing debate

While the notion of Neanderthal burials is widely accepted in the field of archaeology, the idea that pollen signifies a burial adorned with flowers remains a subject of ongoing debate.

In a recent study published on August 28th in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a group of researchers led by Chris Hunt, a paleoecologist hailing from Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom, revisited the pollen evidence linked to Shanidar 4.

Their findings suggested that burrowing bees provided a more plausible explanation for the presence of pollen than the notion of a ceremonial Neanderthal funeral ritual.

Soil samples from Neanderthal burial site

In 1975, two pollen experts, known as palynologists, examined soil samples taken from both above and below the Neanderthal flower burial site.

They identified five known plant groups and two unknown ones, suggesting that all these plants could have been collected simultaneously, probably from late May to early June.

Although Hunt and his team generally concur with the earlier identification of these plant species, they uncovered a crucial detail: these plants actually bloom at slightly different times of the year. This discovery raises doubts about the previous belief that Neanderthals gathered flowers to place on the deceased.

Radiocarbon dating

During their 2016 excavations, Hunt and his team made an interesting observation. They spotted ancient mud-lined bee burrows in proximity to Shanidar 4. These bees, which nested in the ground, could have dug into the soil and left behind collected pollen as they moved through these burrows.

The researchers explained in their article that the mixed clumps of pollen don’t suggest that entire flowers were placed there. Instead, they propose it’s much more likely that “bees collected and left pollen in clumps.”

Hunt and his team believe the pollen is quite old, possibly from the same time as the Neanderthal burial.

Dating bee exoskeletons presents difficulties, and the Shanidar 4 site is older than what radiocarbon dating can reliably determine, as it goes back about 75,000 years. (Radiocarbon dating is dependable for dating organic materials up to 50,000 years old.)

Pollen introduction through burrowing bees

Angie Perrotti, a palynologist who heads the Palynology and Environmental Archaeology Research Lab (PEARL) and was not involved in the study, shared her thoughts.

She confirmed that Hunt and his colleagues have presented a convincing argument regarding the introduction of pollen through burrowing bees.

She also highlighted the importance of precise sampling and systematic storage of sediment and pollen samples, emphasizing the need for research reproducibility.

While Hunt and his team’s work hasn’t confirmed the flower aspect of the flower burial, they emphasize the enduring significance of the closely grouped burials at Shanidar for our understanding of Neanderthals.

They also point out that samples of “woody tissue” collected from the site might hold crucial clues about Neanderthal burial practices.

“I favour the idea that the Neanderthals put branches and other vegetation over the bodies,” Hunt shared. He suggested that placing the spiky Centaurea solstitialis (yellow star-thistle) species on top of the Neanderthals, rather than beneath them, could have served as protection against scavengers.

However, Hunt acknowledged the evidence is somewhat inconclusive, and further research is ongoing.

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