Funerary rites are part of the complex symbolic behavior considered a hallmark of Homo sapiens’ humanity: all modern cultures practice such rituals and often dedicate special places to the dead. Whether Neanderthals, our closest evolutionary relatives, behaved like us towards their dead is very controversial, but has important implications for understanding the evolutionary origins of complex symbolic behavior, compassion and sentiment. The controversy arises partly because the debate relies heavily on ‘re-reading’ old archeological excavations, e.g. those at Shanidar Cave (SC) by Ralph Solecki in 1951-1960, as new substantial/articulated Neanderthal remains are exceptionally rare finds. Our new excavations at SC (2015-2019) have revealed such remains, offering a unique opportunity to significantly advance the debate. We will excavate the further remains and meticulously study their sedimentary contexts for evidence of the contributions of natural and/or human processes in depositing and covering the body. We will analyze the new and the 1950s skeletons with state-of-the-art approaches to Neanderthal mortuary activity, biological relationships and health. We aim to document whether there is evidence for treatment of the dead, e.g. intentional burial in a cut ‘grave’ or the deposition of flowers/plant materials with the body (controversially argued by Solecki for one of the SC Neanderthals found directly beside the new remains), and whether they might have returned multiple times to the same exact spot to deposit their dead. We will disseminate the work through high-impact international academic publications and public media including museum displays. By bringing the armory of modern archeological science to bear on the unique assemblage of SC Neanderthals, the project will transform understanding of Neanderthal mortuary activity, enable us to re-evaluate this much disputed aspect of their behavior, and reassess when key signatures of humanity evolved.
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