Shanidar Neanderthals and religion

Glenn R. Morton (
Sun, 26 Jul 1998 09:07:45 -0500

I just began reading a book by Jeffrey Schwartz, What the Bones Tell Us.
There is an excellent passage about the excavation in Shanidar Iraq, in
which Schwartz goes into the details of the chain of reasoning that leads
one to the conclusion that the Neanderthals had a compassion for their
fellow man and engaged in intentional burial. After the brief discussion
John McKinness and I had about fire at Zhoukoudien, one must remember that
NO ONE doubts that Neanderthal mastered fire, yet still Christians want to
include as spiritual beings, those who look exactly like us. Neanderthal,
thus, viewed as nothing but a mammal. (See Hugh Ross, "Link with
Neanderthals Cut by Computer," Facts & Faith, 9:3, 3rd Qtr. 1995, p. 22)
This of course implies that somehow the Image of God must reside in our
morphological form, which I find unacceptable. Below is the chain of
reasoning that indicates that the inner being of the Neanderthal was not
much different than ours.

Jeffrey H. Schartz writes:

"When T. Dale Stewart, a physical anthropologist/human osteologist from
the Smithsonian Institution, studied the bones of Shanidar I, he found, to
his surprise, that the Neandertal's right scapula (shoulder blade),
clavicle (collar bone), and humerus (upper arm bone) were all smaller and
less developed than their counterparts in the left shoulder and upper arm.
crippled. Curiously, the lower part of the right humerus was missing, as
were all of the bones of the right arm below the elbow joint. As Shanidar
I had been found lying under a huge rock that had fallen from the roof of
the cave, and every other bone of his skeleton was in place, you would
expect that the skeleton would have been preserved as it had been in life.
As such, Stewart thought that the only reasonable explanation for the
missing arm bones was that the lower part of Shanidar I's right arm had
been amputated intentionally some time earlier, perhaps because of
problems arising from the congenital malformation of this arm.
"But not only had Shanidar I been crippled in his right shoulder and arm
since birth, and sometime later had lost the lower part of this arm, he
also appears to have survived other assaults on his well-being. For
instance, the left side of his facial skeleton was severely scarred-which
led Stewart and Solecki to speculate that the left eye of this Neandertal
may have been damaged, maybe even to the point of being blinded. In
addition, the top of this hapless Neandertal's skull showed signs of bone
healing and scarring, which indicates that he had received a rather serious
clonk on his head-perhaps from an earlier mini-cave-in. (the fact that the
injury showed signs of healing and scarring indicates tht the incident had
happened a number of years before Shanidar I's death.) And, as if this
hadn't been enough to endure, Shanidar I had a healthy case of degenerative
arthritis, which seems to have been a common affliction among Neandertals.
"In spite of his ailments, Shanidar I had managed to live to the age of
forty years, which, for a Neandertal, was a very old age. But Shanidar I
probably couldn't have done it on his own. As Solecki pointed out, given
the disability he ahd been born with and the afflictions that later beset
him, Shanidar I must have been taken care of by his companions. Indeed,
Shanidar I must have belonged to a group that had had a sense of
cooperation and unity-a group with interpersonal dynamics that we,
modern-day humans, could understand and to which we could relate.
"When Solecki and his crew uncovered Shanidar II, it was obvious that he
also had been killed by a rock fall from the cave's ceiling. His skeleton
was covered with rubble and his skull had been crushed. Interestingly, it
appears he had been given a ceremonial sendoff of sorts. Solecki found a
small pile of stones with some worked stone points (made out of chert,
which is related mineralogically to flint) on top of Shanidar II's 'grave.'
There also had been a large fire by the grave. In addition, Solecki found
a concentration of split and broken animal bones nearby, which he thought
represented the leftovers of a feast that had taken place as part of the
funeral ceremony.
"Shanidar III had actually been discovered before the other two
Neandertals but could not be excavated until later. This male individual
had been wounded, as had Shanidar I. However, Shanidar III fell victim to a
rockfall before his injury had mended. But, before his demise, it seems
that the wounded Shanidar III had been taken care of by his companions.
"Upon returning to the site in 1960, Solecki and his crew excavated an
additional four Neandertal skeletons. Instead of being the victims of
rockfalls, it seems that these individuals had been buried-intentionally-by
other Neandertals: A hole had been dug into the floor of the cave and the
skeletons of these individuals were in it. Solecki could tell he was
excavating a hole because the soil around the skeletons was softer than
the soil elsewhere in the cave. Soil consistency is one of the best clues
for the existence of a hole. No matter how hard you try, you cannot fill
in a hole-especially a hole containing bodies that will eventually decay-to
the same compactness and consistency as undug earth.
"The second clue that this might be a burial came when Solecki found a
series of stone blocks around the hole. The positions of the rocks around
and on top of the rockfall victims were much more random than were those of
these rocks. These rocks looked as if they had been purposefully arranged.
"The third clue came from laboratory analyses, conducted in Paris, of soil
samples taken from the general excavation layers as well as from the
potential grave itself.
"As is done more commonly these days, Solecki collected soil samples so
that the seeds and pollen in them-and thus the plants from which they
came-could be identified. The paleobotanical expert to whom Solecki sent
these samples was Madame Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, who at times had
collaborated with her husband, Andre, a French prehistoric archeologist. As
expected, Madame Leroi-Gourhan found pollen of trees and grasses common to
the area of Shanidar Cave. But, to everyone's surprise, she also
identified the pollens of flowers in the samples from the suspected group
burial. These pollens were represented in such high concentrations that it
seemed extremely unlikely that they had been blown into the cave by wind or
carried in on an animal's fur. A better explanation was that bunches of
flowers had been placed purposefully--in the grave with the Neandertals.
"Some pollens were from plants similar to small and brightly colored
wildflowers, such as grape hyacinths and bachelor's buttons. Other pollens
came from larger plants, similar to hollyhock and yellowflowering
groundsel. The hollyhock, in particular, would have taken quite a bit of
time to be picked, because it grows as individual plants scattered across
the mountainside.
"While reviewing the field data on the samples she'd analyzed, Madame
Leroi-Gourhan realized that the pollen of each species of flower had come
from a separate soil sample taken from the common grave. From this she
concluded that individual clusters of each type of flower had bee placed in
the grave. Because she knew when the modern analogs of these plants
flowered, and pollen is produced on when a plant flowers, Madame
Leroi-Gourhan was able to calculate that the bouquets had been picked
between late May and Early July-which would have been when the deceased
Neandertals had been laid to rest in their shared grave.
"At least one of the flowers Madame Leroi-Gourhan identified, the yarrow
or milfoil, was known to have been used in the recent past as a medicinal
herb to promote the healing of wounds. Another flower she identified,
belonging to the woody horsetail group, was still being used in Iraq as a
medicinal plant. Perhaps, as Solecki would speculate, the medicinal
properties of these flowers had also been known to the Neandertals of
"Neandertals inhabited Shanidar Cave around 45,000 or 50,000 years ago.
Thus, if all the evidence has been interpreted correctly, some kind of
human relative-an extinct human variant or, possibly, a separate species of
uncertain human affinities-had carried out purposeful, contemplated burial
practices." ~ Jeffrey H. Schwartz, What the bones Tell Us, (New York: Henry
Holt, 1993), p. 12-15

The only thing Schwartz left out was the fact that Leroi-Gourhan also found
flower anthers in the grave dirt, anthers were found no where else in the
cave other than in the burial pit. (See Brian Hayden "The Cultural
Capacities of Neandertals ", Journal of Human Evolution 1993, 24:113-146,
p. 120; Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, "Comments" Current Anthropology,
30:2(April 1989), pp 157-190, p. 182)

Adam, Apes and Anthropology
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