Sunday, July 21, 2013


Article by John Taggart for the Wall Street Journal:

Discovering my first Neanderthal skeleton in Iraq's Shanidar Cave in the spring of 1957 took my breath away. Neanderthals tended to be shorter and stockier than modern humans and their faces had low brow ridges, wide noses and less pronounced chins. But they were hardly the dumb brutes of cartoons.

In 1950, I was a graduate student at Columbia University. As part of my thesis, I began to explore caves in the Middle East in search of an ideal excavation site. When I arrived in Iraq's Greater Zab valley in 1950, locals suggested I hike an hour up to the Shanidar Cave. The interior was as spacious as a single-family house—roughly 3,000 square feet with a 20-foot ceiling. The cave seemed ideal for excavation—but first I had to be sure. In '51, I tested soil deposits to see if they contained archaeological material, and they did.

In '52 I continued testing—digging a small hole down about 45 feet to bedrock and sifting the soil. But I had to put my excavation plans on hold in '53. I had started my postgraduate studies, and in '55 I was married. When I traveled back to Iraq in the fall of 1956, my wife, Rose, an archaeologist, accompanied me. While I worked at the Shanidar Cave, Rose excavated a riverbank site in the valley that dated back 10,000 years.

During this time, we lived in a local fieldstone-and-cement police barracks. Our accommodations were spare. There wasn't any running water or toilet facilities, and we slept on cots we had brought with us, covering ourselves with sleeping bags. We had a cook, but most of the food was simple—dried okra, pickles, tinned cheese and meat.

As excavation sites go, the Shanidar Cave had enormous potential. There was a water source nearby, and the cave faced southeast, so when the sun came up in the morning, it heated the space. If there were remains buried in the cave, they'd probably be intact—since they would have been shielded from thousands of years of rain and snow.

I hired a group of about 30 local workers, and we were at the site from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. We began by digging a 10-by-20-foot hole in the cave's center. Less than two feet down we encountered broken pottery, clay pipes and iron tools. Farther down we found only stone and bone tools.

In the spring of '57, we reached bedrock. I began carefully cleaning the interior walls of the excavation hole with a trowel and brush. I also examined soil strata with a gas lamp to see how they had changed over time. That is when I spotted my first Neanderthal skull sticking out slightly through the soil.

This was a major find because Neanderthal remains hadn't yet been found in this region. After I carefully exposed the skull, I removed it right away so it wouldn't crumble or crack. Up on the floor of the cave, I encased it in burlap and plaster of Paris to ensure it wouldn't shatter. Then we dug down from the surface to expose and excavate the full skeleton. What we found were the remains of an adult male who was missing his right arm below the elbow. His front teeth were worn—evidence that he had been using them to replace his missing hand. I named him "Nandy"—short for Neanderthal.

Nandy had lived to be about 40, which would have made him roughly 80 in today's years. To survive that long was remarkable. Given his old age and infirmity, he must have been a valued member of Neanderthal society, since they took care of him. He probably had been asleep in the cave when an earthquake struck and a rockfall killed and buried him.

Once we found Nandy, we widened the excavation hole in search of other Neanderthals. Eventually I found another male who had been buried by other Neanderthals and the remains of a third male who may have been killed by an early human rival. When Rose and I returned to Iraq in 1960, I found a fourth Neanderthal with traces of pollen—meaning he had been buried with flowers.

Today, the four Neanderthals' remains are at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. From the excavation, we know that the region's Neanderthals hunted and took care of their wounded and older members and that they buried their dead. They also used fires for cooking and other social activities.

All in all, Neanderthals did pretty well for themselves considering there were no clothing or shoe stores, hot showers or heating systems. Life was hard 40,000 years ago—which made it tough for Rose and me to complain much about our Iraqi accommodations there.

—Retired archaeologist Ralph Solecki, 95, lives with his wife Rose, 87, in northern New Jersey. He spoke with reporter Marc Myers.


Post a Comment

<< Home