Chris O. Hunt et al, “Shanidar and his flowers? Reflections on the palynology of the Neanderthal ‘Flower Burial’ hypothesis”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 159 (2023).
The Shanidar site is well known in prehistory, being one of the earliest sites where Neanderthal burials have been unearthed, raising questions about possible symbolic practices on the part of Neanderthal Man. One particular burial, that of the male individual named Shanidar 4, raises questions, as according to researchers at the time, he was buried on a bed of flowers. This conclusion is based on the analysis of pollens taken from inside the tomb, belonging to different species of flowers currently present around the site.
However, a new palynological study (the study of pollen in archaeological contexts) published in November 2023 in the Journal of Archaeological Science calls this scenario into question.
Indeed, the researchers put forward several arguments against the idea of an individual being laid on a bed of flowers:
- First of all, the different flower species identified are not present in the vicinity of the cave at the same time (at least not at present, and climatic and environmental conditions have changed little). Consequently, it seems unlikely that Neanderthal individuals could have collected these flowers and placed them in the burial site at the same time;
- The burial site remained open for a year before being excavated, giving ample time for contemporary contamination by pollen from the surrounding flowers;
- According to the researchers, the mixture of pollens is more likely the result of an accumulation by solitary bees, which accidentally deposited the pollen they were carrying in the soil. In fact, numerous bee burrows have been discovered in the cave floor.
Consequently, it seems unlikely that the presence of pollen in this burial is the result of a bed of flowers on which the Neanderthal individual would have been laid. This does not, however, detract from the archaeological importance of this burial site.