Neanderthal’s “Body Was Archaic” but “Spirit Was Modern”

(p. B14) Starting in the mid-1950s, leading teams from Columbia University, Dr. Solecki discovered the fossilized skeletons of eight adult and two infant Neanderthals who had lived tens of thousands of years ago in what is now northern Iraq.

Dr. Solecki, who was also a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist at the time, said physical evidence at Shanidar Cave, where the skeletons were found, suggested that Neanderthals had tended to the weak and the wounded, and that they had also buried their dead with flowers, which were placed ornamentally and possibly selected for their therapeutic benefits.

The exhumed bones of a man, named Shanidar 3, who had been blind in one eye and missing his right arm but who had survived for years after he was hurt, indicated that fellow Neanderthals had helped provide him with sustenance and other support.

“Although the body was archaic, the spirit was modern,” Dr. Solecki wrote in the magazine Science in 1975.

Large amounts of pollen found in the soil at a grave site suggested that bodies might have been ceremonially entombed with bluebonnet, hollyhock, grape hyacinth and other flowers — a theory that is still being explored and amplified. (Some researchers hypothesized that the pollen might have been carried by rodents or bees, but Dr. Solecki’s theory has become widely accepted.)

“The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension to our knowledge of his humanness, indicating he had a ‘soul,’” Dr. Solecki wrote.

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts.  “Ralph Solecki, 101, Archaeologist Who Uncovered the Inner Life of Neanderthals.”  The New York Times  (Wednesday, April 17, 2019):  B14.

(Note:  the online version of the obituary has the date April 11, 2019, and has the title “Ralph Solecki, Who Found Humanity in Neanderthals, Dies at 101.”)

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