Saturday, October 10, 2015


Shanidar Cave, in northern Iraq's mountainous Kurdistan region, is a one-of-a-kind window into the lives of Neanderthals. Excavated in the 1950s and 1960s, remains from the cave (provisionally dated to between 65,000 and 35,000 years ago) suggest that the ancient human relatives cared for the infirm, ceremonially buried their dead and waged violent conflict.

In summer 2014, archaeologist Graeme Barker of the University of Cambridge, UK, led a team to Shanidar to conduct the first excavations of the cave in decades. But in August 2014, an advance by militants fighting for the Islamist terrorist group ISIS forced the researchers to abandon the dig and leave Iraq. ISIS militants were 40 kilometers from Erbil city — the capital of the province in which Shanidar is located — before US air attacks repelled the fighters.

Last month, with support from Kurdistan's Directorate of Antiquities, Barker's team returned to Shanidar and completed a three-week dig that seeks to shed new light on the Neanderthals who once called the cave home.

Why is Shanidar Cave important? It is an iconic site in world prehistory, in particular because of the Neanderthal burials found there 60 years ago by anthropologist Ralph Solecki. They are quoted again and again in debates about Neanderthal culture: are they actual burials or are they just bodies that were killed in rock falls?

One of the bodies was badly injured in life but died later in old age, and therefore must have been looked after by the community. That's always cited when people talk about Neanderthal social organization. The other very famous find was the ‘flower burial’ — pollen from sediments around one of the bodies was interpreted as evidence that Neanderthals had brought flowers in to lay with the burial. So, Shanidar and its Neanderthal burials contribute to big debates about Neanderthal life, culture and death.

barker's team wants to return to the cave to establish the age of the Neanderthals using dating methods that were not available 60 years ago, to try to resolve the questions about Neanderthal burial. But are also interested in debates about the Neanderthal demise. To what extent was an ability to deal with dramatic and abrupt climate change a factor in the demise of Neanderthals and the more-or-less contemporary expansion of modern humans? It has been much discussed with climate evidence in Europe, but in southwest Asia we haven't had the data.

By doing quite small-scale targeted field work on the site, and by working on archival material from the old excavations, the team thinks they can get an awful lot more information about when modern humans and Neanderthals were there, how they were living, what the climate was like and how they coped with climate change. They had planned to go back in August and September of 2014 for the first major digging season, but the day after they flew out at the beginning of August, ISIS attacked nearby Erbil city.

As for the team being in danger, they were completely embedded in Kurdish society, in the heartland of the part of Kurdistan where the region's president comes from. It was remarkable how unanxious our Kurdish friends and colleagues in Erbil appeared to be, although several of them joined the Peshmerga forces defending Erbil. But for Cambridge University and friends, wives, husbands and parents of people on the team, there was great anxiety. After five or six days, the university said that we really had to come out.

Shanidar is in Erbil province but is up in the mountains, a few hours’ drive from the Turkish and Iranian frontiers. Erbil city is at the foot of the mountains, and ISIS are being held to the west and southwest on the plains that stretch westwards to Syria. Barker was able to show the university that they had good structures in place in terms of safety plans, and with its support I took a small team back in April, and that was enormously successful. On the basis of that, I was confident in taking a larger team this summer for an extended season, and the plan is to go back next Easter.

Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2015.18487


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