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Shanidar Cave

Text and photographs by Ralph S. Solecki

Scientific American Nov 1957


shanidar cave outside


Shanidar Cave


Photo: Ralph Solecki



shanidar cave inside


Inside Shanidar Cave


The floor is covered with simple shelters for its Kurdish inhabitants and corrals for their animals. In this photograph Kurdish workmen have just begun the excavation of the earthen floor of the cave. Bedrock was reached at a depth of 45 feet.
Photo: Ralph Solecki



shanidar cave plan


Shanidar Cave Plan


The excavation in the cave is marked in grey. The broken line within it is the first test trench done in 1951.


Photo: Ralph Solecki



In a mountainside in the Zagros Mountains of northern Iraq is a human dwelling place known as "The Big Cave of Shanidar." It is a high-vaulted natural cave about the size of four tennis courts-capacious enough to house a considerable band of people. The cave has a warm southern exposure and is well protected from winter winds. Nearby are springs and a stream to supply water. Remnants of wild game and the few stands of still-undisturbed virgin forest on the hillsides testify that the place has long had a fertile and livable climate. Today the Cave of Shanidar is inhabited by a clan of Kurdish goatherds and their animals. It is not hard to imagine that men have lived in this commodious, sun-warmed shelter for generation after generation. Out of scientific curiosity we have dug into the floor of the cave, and found to our delight that this conjecture is a feeble understatement. The inhabitation of the Shanidar Cave apparently goes back at least 100,000 years! Remains unearthed from deep beneath its trampled floor give evidence that Neanderthal man once lived here, and that the cave has been a home of man more or less continuously for something like 3,000 generations.

Needless to say, the Shanidar Cave has become one of our most important and fruitful sites for tracing the early history of mankind. Rarely do archaeologists have a chance to see so clear a succession of man's development over so long a period as we have in t , he layers that make the pages of the story of Shanidar. The story is not lessened in interest by the fact that Shanidar Cave is close to the birthplace of the first great civilizations in Mesopotamia [see "The Sumerians," by Samuel Noah Kramer, beginning on page 1451.

Mesopotamia itself is a poor place to look for the Stone Age cultures that preceded its ancient civilizations. A hunting and foraging people would have found little food in its marshes and deserts; moreover, it would be difficult to discover or to date any of their camp sites in this sea-flooded and river-washed plain. Archaeologists have long realized that the best chance of finding Stone Age human remains lay in the foothills and mountains north of the Tigris and Euphrates. In 1928 a small party led by Dorothy Carrod of the University of Cambridge found such remains in two eaves near a town called Suleimaniyah in the Zagros foothills [see map on next page]. There were no other serious excavations until Robert Braidwood of the University of Chicago began his explorations of Stone Age sites in the same vicinity in 1950 [see the article "From Cave to Village," by Robert J. Braidwood, beginning on page 671. Braidwood discovered evidences of the beginnings of human agriculture and village settlements. But the dream of archaeologists looking into man's distant past is to find a site where the stages of his development are piled layer upon layer so that we can get a consecutive, slow motion picture, so to speak.

In 1951, while working in Iraq with a University of Michigan expedition, I heard about Shanidar Cave and decided to stay on, after the expedition went home, to do some exploratory digging in the cave. These first soundings were so promising that I returned in 1953, and again in 1956, for two more full seasons of excavation. The investigations have been conducted on behalf of the Iraq Directorate-General of Antiquities and the Smithsonian Institution, with support from several other organizations.

The Zagros Mountains resemble the highlands of Scotland; their foothills look like the hills of the U. S. Southwest. Shanidar Cave is in a mountain called Baradost, overlooking Shanidar Valley. From the cave mouth one can see the Greater Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris. The cave, now some 2,500 feet above sea level, was dissolved out of the mountain's limestone rock, originally laid down by an ancient sea. It has a flat earthen floor, about 11,700 square feet in area, and a high ceiling (45 feet at the highest point) blackened with a centuries-old deposit of soot. The Kurdish goatherds and their families, who live in the cave all winter from November to April, have built individual brush huts inside it, each with a small fireplace, and corrals for goats, chickens, cows and horses [see drawing on page 451. The Kurds are a proud, self sufficient, but backward people. They make fire with flint and steel and grind wheat by hand with circular stones. The women cut hay in the mountain meadows with short iron sickles and toil barefooted up a mountain trail with goatskins to fetch water from the springs. Compared with modern Baghdad, only 250 miles away, the present dwellers in Shanidar Cave could just as well be living in the days of the Assyrian herdsmen 2,500 years ago.

It was from this level of culture, then, that we began our digging journey into man's early history. We marked off a small area in the center of the cave and started our slow, careful excavation down through the floor. In three seasons of work we have cut through the full depth of the cave's earthen accumulations, down to bedrock at 45 feet, and have sifted about a tenth of the total bulk of its deposits. The excavations have yielded a rich record of human occupation-ancient hearths, tools, animal bones, even Neanderthal skeletons-going back some 100,000 years.

We found four main layers, distinguishable by soil color and the types of artifacts they contained. Each corresponded to a recognizable stage of man's development. I shall first review briefly the general contents of these layers, which are identified, according to an archaeological convention, by the letters A to D from the top down [see drawing on page 461.]

Layer A, averaging about five feet thick, is a black, greasy soil, compacted by many generations of feet. It dates from the present back to some time in the Neolithic (New Stone) Age, perhaps 7,000 years ago. This layer covers the revolutionary period in man's way of life when he emerged from mere hunting to food gathering, agriculture and animal herding. Throughout Layer A we found ash beds of communal fires, bones of domesticated animals and domestic tools such as stone mortars (which the Kurds still use for cracking nuts). The circular millstones with which they still grind wheat showed up only in the upper part of Layer A; apparently these are a comparatively recent development. About a foot below the surface we found some primitive clay tobacco bowls-mute evidence that the tobacco habit came to this part of Asia about 300 years ago. A little f arther down was a bit of burnished pottery similar to the kind known as "Uruk" ware, named for the city of Erech in ancient Mesopotamia. This pottery dates from the time of the invention of cuneiform writing in Sumer.

Layer B, just below A , is a f airly thin, brown-stained deposit which, according to carbon-14 measurements, dates back to the Middle Stone Age, about 12,000 years ago. it contains the primitive artifacts of a people who knew neither agriculture nor animal domestication nor pottery making. There is no sign that they even collected edible nuts. Apparently snails made up a considerable part of their diet, for there are heaps of snail shells strewn about. Animal bones are relatively scarce in this layer: there are no domestic animals and few wild ones. Possibly it was a period of game scarcity in Shanidar Valley.

Nonetheless the prehistoric people of Layer B seem to have thrived and even to have had some leisure. They made exquisitely chipped projectile points, and bone awls which must have been used for sewing or lacing. What is more, there are engraved pieces of slate, and also fragments of well-rubbed coloring stones which suggest that these people may have made paintings or decorations.

Below Layer B we come to a gap of some 17,000 years during which the cave apparently was not occupied. The next layer, C, dates from about 29,000 to more than 34,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon measurements of charcoal in its firebeds. Near the top of the layer are many boulders, which probably fell from the ceiling during an earthquake and may well have discouraged residence in the cave. The soil layer itself, a yellowish deposit about eight feet thick with the remains of many fires, bespeaks a long occupation by the late Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) people who had lived in the cave in this period.

Now these people are an anomaly in the Iraq region. Their flint tools - so called "blade tools"-were like the implements of a late Paleolithic culture in Europe known as the Aurignacian (which used to be identified with Cro Magnon man). But no such culture has been found anywhere in Iraq except at Shanidar, although other sites in the area have yielded earlier and later cultures. To the distinctive culture of Layer C we therefore gave the name " Baradostian," after the name of the mountain on which Shanidar Cave is located.

The people of Layer C, like their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, must have been good woodworkers, for their deposits contain many flint woodworking tools, including scrapers and gravers. Of course none of their wood products has survived in the soil of the cave, but we know from the reports of ancient explorers that Stone Age peoples were capable of a wonderful wood technology.

In Layer D of the cave, a 29-foot thick series of deposits extending from about 16 feet below the surface to bedrock at 45 feet, we arrived at a distinct break in the human line. The peoples above were presumably all Homo sapiens: here, some 45,000 years ago and earlier, we discover the extinct Homo neanderthalensis. Not only do we recognize his crude tools, but by incredibly good luck the Shanidar Cave yields up no fewer than three skeletons of Neanderthal man, including the first Neanderthal infant!

First, a brief word about his artifacts, of which, naturally, there are not many. The flint implements of Neanderthal man are called Mousterian, after a site in France where,typical ones were found. Like those unearthed elsewhere, the Neanderthal tools in Shanidar Cave are simple flakes of flint with one worked face, struck to form a cutting edge or a point. Apparently Neanderthal man was smart enough to make the most of his material, because every flint core we found had been hacked down to the last flake that could be extracted from it.

We have no clue to what clothing he wore, but he must have wrapped himself in some sort of covering, for this was a cold period in the history of Shanidar Cave-the height of the last Ice Age. In Layer D there is a dark, eight-foot stratum with an especially heavy concentration of fire remains, probably representing a period when the cave was continually occupied because of the cold outside. Apparently the occupants kept a constant fire going, for warmth and to repel wild animals. The period was not only cold but also very wet: there is a layer of stalagmitic lime-drippings from the ceiling which marks the only era of appreciable dampness in the history of this cave.

Although the cave afforded protection from the miserable climate, it was not without its hazards to the Neanderthal occupants. From time to time there were terrific rockfalls from the ceiling, probably caused by earthquakes. We found firebeds and an animal buried under such falls, and the skeletons of both of the Neanderthal adults lay crushed under boulders which may have crashed down and killed them.

Neanderthal man has been found in a number of places in Europe, but he is a rarity in Asia. Shanidar Cave is only the fifth site in Asia where his bones have turned up. (The nearest to Shanidar is Mount Carmel in Palestine.) This alone gives the skeletons in our cave extraordinary interest, for we may learn something about man's evolution by comparing these skeletons with Neanderthals elsewhere. And added to this is the f act that one of the Shanidar finds is a year-old baby, the only infant Neanderthal yet unearthed.

The three skeletons lay at three different levels, separated by thousands of years [drawing on opposite page]. The most recent, and best preserved because its bones were least crushed by rocks and the overburden, is that of an adult estimated to have lived in the cave about 45,000 years ago. A rockfall shattered some of its bones badly, but the skeleton is fairly complete, and much of the skull is intact. The second adult skeleton was found about 23 feet below, the surface and is believed to be about 60,000 to 65,000 years old. It was considerably more damaged than the first: a rockfall. crushed not only its bones but also its skull. The child lay at a still lower level, perhaps 70,000 years old. Its skeleton was found doubled up, with the legs tucked under the chin and the arms folded close to the body. Most of the fragile skeleton, including the head, was crushed under the earth overburden, and only its teeth and the hand and foot bones are in good condition.

Every frequenter of museums is familiar with the classic picture of Neanderthal man of Europe: the low, sloping forehead, the bulging brow ridges, the massive, prognathous jaw, the receding chin, the worn teeth. Our best-preserved specimen, the Shanidar 45,000-year-old, is generally faithful to this picture. He was what anthropologists call a "conservative" type-almost fully Neanderthaloid, with few suggestions of progress toward the features of Homo sapiens. But he does show one feature which is more human than Neanderthaloid: his brow bulge is not one continuous ridge running across the forehead but has a depression in the middle between the eyes, and it flares at the sides. This skeleton is about five feet three inches long-the typical height of Neanderthal man. Two of the front teeth are missing, and he evidently lost them while he was alive, because there is some replacement of tissue in the jawbone where they were rooted. The teeth of both of our Neanderthal adults show heavy wear: they were worn quite flat.

It will take time to analyze the skeletons, to relate them to the Neanderthals of Europe and of other sites in Asia, to discover whether the three Neanderthals of different eras at Shanidar differ from one another, to reconstruct their posture and other attributes and to read any clues they may offer to the evolution of early man in the Middle East. It is possible that the still unexcavated part of Shanidar Cave will yield more skeletons; indeed, we have found two human skeletons from the Neolithic Period and one from the time of Mohammed.

Meanwhile the priceless hoard of remains in Shanidar Cave is being studied by archaeologists, physical anthropologists, zoologists, geologists, climatologists and other specialists. With the combined insights of all these investigators we can hope to translate the scraps of evidence into a comprehensive account of the peoples who lived in the cave and of how they wrested a living from nature in various times and conditions. The Kurdish families who still live at Shanidar are, of course, a vivid and illuminating part of the picture. Stone Age archaeology would be a vague and frustrated science were it not for the assistance that anthropologists and their living subjects are able to give in enriching the meaning of artifacts. As a prehistorian once put it, in anthropology "one catches one's archaeology alive." We see an excellent illustration of what this may mean when we look at the remarkable products made by "primitive" tribes with seemingly crude and limited tools. An archaeologist unearthing a prehistoric wood-scraper made of stone or a shell has no idea of what its users manufactured with it, for the wood objects have long since decayed. But when we discover what living aborigines have done with similar tools, we begin to realize that prehistoric man may well have been far more resourceful, and capable of more exquisite workmanship, than his tools suggest.

We still know comparatively little about the history of the Big Cave of Shanidar. But standing before the deep cut that we have sliced into its floor, we can see the general outlines of that history. We see Neanderthal man crouching over a fire nearly 100,000 years ago, and looking out from the cave mouth at a valley landscape not too different from the one today. He goes forth to hunt tortoises, wild goats and wild pigs (which still roam the valley but are now untouched by the Kurds because of a religious taboo). Apparently he does not try to catch the swift deer or tackle the dangerous bear, wolf or leopard (at least their bones are practically absent in the deposits of Shanidar cave). The splintered bones of his game show that he cracked open the bones to suck out every bit of marrow.

For tens of thousands of years Neanderthal man hangs on at the cave, surviving the Ice Age, rockfalls and unremitting rains. Although he is a backward type, he lingers on -in this mountain fastness for thousands of years after physically more "progressive" Neanderthals have died out in Palestine, only 600 miles away. Century after century his life continues with a monotonous sameness; even his flint tools do not change. Eventually he is succeeded by Homo sapiens. Now the curve of culture begins to rise gradually: the new men improve their hunting weapons, fashion tools for woodworking and sit around a communal fire. Thousands of years later the inhabitants of the cave have advanced to finely chipped tools, sewing and painting. But the curve of progress still clings low on the horizon. Then, some 7,000 years ago (only yesterday in the long history of the cave), the curve suddenly begins to shoot up with a burst of power. The people of Shanidar Cave learn to domesticate animals, till the soil, grind wheat, make pottery, spin thread. They remain, however, an isolated, pastoral people, in spite of the successive Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian civilizations that rise and fall in nearby Mesopotamia.

So the story of Shanidar Cave ends just a little beyond the Stone Age. Soon, it seems, its story will come to a final end, because the Iraq Government plans to build a dam on the Greater Zab which will flood Shanidar Valley and cut off access to the cave. Fortunately it was discovered in time to tell us its history.






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