A possible explanation for a Neanderthal flower burial is intriguing scientists.
Since the 1950s, archaeologists have shown interest in the Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq. That’s because it holds the remains of nine Neanderthals and features a “flower burial” site.
The flower burial was due to a large amount of pollen around one of the skeletons. This led to speculations about whether the pollen was part of a human burial ritual. If so, this would indicate that Neanderthals were far more complex than we previously imagined.
But recent research has introduced a new player into this ancient whodunit: bees.
What is the Neanderthal Flower Burial?
The initial interpretation of the pollen suggested a ceremonial “flower burial,” positing that the Neanderthal in question was of considerable importance, perhaps a shaman.
If true, this finding would assign attributes like empathy and ritualistic behavior to Neanderthals, traits previously thought exclusive to Middle Palaeolithic Homo sapiens.
However, some people contest the theory, arguing that other animals could have deposited the pollen by dragging flowers to their burrows, or that the pollen presence could be a mere coincidence.
Studying Pollen for Answers
Palynology, the scientific study of pollen, spores, and microscopic plankton, has provided new insights. Researchers studying the evidence from Shanidar Cave noticed that the mix of pollen species was unlikely to be in bloom at the same time.
This casts doubt on the “flower burial” theory, implying that the pollen didn’t all deposit at once.
Moreover, the mixed nature of the pollen suggests a different deposit vector, rather than placement of whole flowers in the grave.
This led to a unique hypothesis: could bees be the agents of this intriguing pollen placement?
Were Bees Responsible for the So-Called Neanderthal Flower Burial?
The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Bees, especially solitary bees, gather pollen from multiple flower species. They create burrows lined with a mix of pollen for their larvae to feed upon. We’ve discovered such burrows in Shanidar Cave. Interestingly, the ancient pollen around the grave appears corroded and flattened, indicating great age and coinciding with the Neanderthals’ era.
Researchers incline toward the belief that nesting bees deposited the pollen, given their capability to forage multiple flower species simultaneously. The presence of bee burrows in the less-trafficked areas of the cave near the rear wall supports this theory. Moreover, ancient silty clay-lined insect burrows excavated from the cave further corroborate the idea that bees were active in that region during the Neanderthals’ time.
Were Other Animals Involved?
Identified immature pollen grains could have come through a different mechanism—perhaps humans, other animals, or even the wind carried them in.
It’s interesting to note that researchers have observed giving “floral funerals” to bees. However, these acts likely store food or waste rather than serve as ceremonies. This recursive loop in nature, where animals engage in practices mirroring human cultural behaviors, adds another layer to the study.
The recent study’s authors conclude that nesting bees probably deposited the mixed pollen, making the “Flower Burial” hypothesis seem unlikely.
This new perspective redirects the debate to a broader and arguably more significant question. Namely, “What does this cluster say about their sense of space, place, and perhaps, community?”
The bee hypothesis may not completely settle the mystery surrounding the Neanderthal “flower burial.” But it does open up new avenues for understanding the behaviors and interrelationships among ancient species—both human and insect—that shared the environment thousands of years ago.