Antiquity Prize awarded for study into Neanderthal cave skeleton

‘Most significant new Neanderthal remains for a generation’

St John's Fellow Professor Graeme Barker is leading a team of archaeological scientists who have won the 2021 Antiquity Prize for their outstanding research into the remains of a Neanderthal unearthed in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Professor Barker has been jointly awarded the annual prize for the paper New Neanderthal remains associated with the ‘flower burial’ at Shanidar Cave with colleagues Dr Emma Pomeroy, Professor Paul Bennett, Professor Chris O. Hunt, Dr Tim Reynolds, Dr Lucy Farr, Professor Charles French, Marine Frouin, James Holman and Ross Lane.

Published in the Antiquity journal last year, the study detailed the astonishing discovery of an articulated Neanderthal partial skeleton in one of the most important sites of mid-20th century archaeology: Shanidar Cave in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Neanderthal remains, Shanidar Cave
Ribs and spine of the Neanderthal emerging from the sediment in Shanidar Cave. Top photo: View of the entrance to Shanidar Cave. Photo credits: Graeme Barker.

Professor Barker, who is Disney Professor of Archaeology Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, said, “Antiquity is the premier journal in archaeology and publishes around 100 papers a year, so to be selected as their top paper for 2020 is a huge accolade, reflecting both the importance of our discoveries - the most significant new Neanderthal remains for a generation - and also the quality of the team of archaeological scientists involved in their study.”

Dr Pomeroy, lead author of the study and Lecturer in the Evolution of Health, Diet and Disease in the University of Cambridge Department of Archaeology, said: "We’re absolutely delighted to be awarded the Antiquity Prize for 2021. Antiquity is renowned for the huge diversity of world-leading archaeological research it publishes, spanning all time periods and regions of the globe, so to receive this prize is a real honour.”

Shanidar Cave was first excavated in the late 1950s when the late archaeologist Ralph Solecki discovered partial remains of ten Neanderthal men, women and children clustered together, with ancient pollen surrounding one of the bodies. Solecki believed this showed the Neanderthals buried their dead and conducted funerary rites with flowers – and the ‘flower burial’ prompted a reappraisal of the species as more sophisticated than previously thought.

Professor Graeme Barker
Professor Graeme Barker on site inside Shanidar Cave, with the emerging Neanderthal behind him. He’s holding a soil block to be analysed microscopically in Cambridge. Photo credit: Shanidar excavation team.

In 2011, the Kurdish Regional Government approached Professor Barker about re-excavating the famous cave. The team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, Liverpool John Moores University, Birkbeck University of London, Canterbury Archaeological Trust, University of Oxford and Canterbury Christ Church University began digging in 2014, but the summer fieldwork had to be stopped after two days when ISIS got too close, and resumed the following year.

They unearthed the crushed skull and torso of another Shanidar Neanderthal, and named the discovery Shanidar Z.

The work was conducted in conjunction with the General Directorate of Antiquities and the Directorate of Antiquities for Soran Province in Iraqi Kurdistan and the find was announced in the award-winning paper published in Antiquity in February 2020.

At the time, Professor Barker said: “We thought with luck we’d be able to find the locations where they had found Neanderthals in the 1950s, to see if we could date the surrounding sediments with techniques that were not developed in Professor Solecki's time. We didn’t expect to find any Neanderthal bones.”  

Read more about the Antiquity Prize for the Shanidar research on the University of Cambridge Department of Archaeology website.

Watch the Department of Archaeology 2020 Garrod Lecture about the Shanidar Cave discoveries below:

Published: 18/06/2021

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