Who first buried the dead?

A discovery in 1960 in Shanidar cave in Iraq illustrates the dangers involved in inferring Neanderthal behaviour and in trying to understand their cognitive processes from sketchy remains. Excavators studying fossils at Shanidar uncovered evidence of multiple Neanderthal burials. One burial appeared particularly interesting: soil samples from the area surrounding that individual, named Shanidar IV, revealed pockets of pollen. Ralph Solecki, the leader of the team and an anthropologist at Columbia University, viewed this pollen as evidence that colourful flowers were placed in the grave when the Neanderthal was buried, in a very modern human style.

In Solecki’s view, this ‘flower burial’ suggested that Neanderthals had an appreciation of beauty – the first time such a sentiment had been found to extend beyond the boundary of our own species. He argued that scientists could no longer deny that Neanderthals experienced the ‘full range of human feelings’. But Solecki’s ideas collapsed when the pollen surrounding Shanidar IV was shown to have been transported by burrowing rodents, which disturbed the soil in distinctive patterns. The collapse of the flower-burial hypothesis caused scientists to be more cautious when asserting human beliefs based on limited fossil evidence – and perhaps on wish-fulfilment. Looking back on the incident, later scientists remarked that it was probably no coincidence that the error occurred during the ‘great decade of flower-power’.