Wednesday, July 09, 2008

No flutes at Shanidar

...but the cave there did provide the first evidence that Neanderthals conducted funeral rites; the large concentration of pollens from medicinal plants in one of the burial sites in the cave led paleontologists to conclude that the body had been buried with flowers.

James Gordon, who's apparently working as a photographer with the Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq, where Shanidar is located, has this nice shot of the cave up on his Flikr stream (via John Hawks). Gordon notes that:

Neanderthal habitation going back 60,000-80,000 years have been unearthed is this very large cave in Iraqi Kurdistan. ...
Of all the skeletons found at the cave, it is Shanidar IV which provides the best evidence for Neanderthal burial ritual. The skeleton of an adult male aged between 30-45 years was discovered in 1960 by Ralph Solecki and was positioned so that he was lying on his left side in a partial fetal position. Routine soil samples which were gathered for pollen analysis in an attempt to reconstruct the palaeoclimate and vegetational history of the site from around the body were analysed eight years after its discovery. In two of the soil samples in particular, whole clumps of pollen were discovered in addition to the usual pollen found throughout the site and suggested that entire flowering plants (or at least heads of plants) had entered the grave deposit. Furthermore, a study of the particular flower types suggested that the flowers may have been chosen for their specific medicinal properties. Yarrow, Cornflower, Bachelor’s Button, St. Barnaby’s Thistle, Ragwort or Groundsel, Grape Hyacinth, Joint Pine or Woody Horsetail and Hollyhock were represented in the pollen samples, all of which have long-known curative powers as diuretics, stimulants, astringents as well as anti-inflammatory properties. This led to the idea that the man could possibly have had shamanic powers, perhaps acting as medicine man to the Shanidar Neandertals. However, recent work into the flower burial has suggested that perhaps the pollen was introduced to the burial by animal action as several burrows of a gerbil-like rodent known as a Persian jird were found nearby. The jird is known to store large numbers of seeds and flowers at certain points in their burrows and this argument was used in conjunction with the lack of ritual treatment of the rest of the skeletons in the cave to suggest that the Shanidar IV burial had natural, not cultural origins.
Then again, a region like the Zagros foothills would have several thousand flowering plant species, of which only about 5 or 10% would be medicinal. It is unlikely that Neanderthals collected medicinal plants. But it is even less likely that jirds do.

He has some more shots up, so go take a look.


Much of Gordon's note is actually taken verbatim from the Wikipedia article on Shanidar, which gives a provides a good account of the site and discusses its significance.

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