THEY'VE long been seen as our brutish ancient cousins, sporting furrowed brows and hands that dragged behind them as they walked.
But it appears Neanderthals, a human ancestor who died out 40,000 years ago, were a lot smarter than we thought.
Archaeologists have unearthed a 70,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton in Iraq that they hope will prove once and for all that the archaic were sophisticated enough to perform death rituals.
The remains, consisting of a crushed but complete skull, rib cage and both hands, were found at the Shanidar Cave site 500 miles north of Baghdad.
Although its gender is yet to be determined, early analysis suggests the skeleton, named Shanidar Z, has the teeth of a "middle- to older-aged adult".
The cave has also been home to remains of 10 other Neanderthal people excavated around 60 years ago, with clumps of ancient pollen surrounding one of the skeletons.
The presence of pollen was seen by some archaeologists as evidence that these hominid species not only buried their dead but did so with flowers, challenging the widely-held belief that Neanderthals were dumb and animalistic.
The discovery of pollen captured the public imagination and the Shanidar Cave became famous as the "flower burial" site.
Chris Hunt, a professor of cultural paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University, described Shanidar Z as "a truly spectacular find".
He said: "The upper remains are staggeringly complete, although the skull was flattened by compression under many tons of cave sediment.
Who were the Neanderthals? Our mysterious extinct cousins explained
Here's what you need to know…
- The Neanderthals were a mysterious human ancestor who died out around 40,000 years ago.
- Thousands of their tools, weapons and other artefacts have been found, as well as several nearly complete skeletons.
- Neanderthals were the original 'cave men', thought for decades to be dumb and animalistic compared to humans.
- However, a growing body of evidence suggests we've been selling Neanderthals short.
- Their brains were bigger than ours and they indulged in cultural activities like cave painting and body art.
- Our heavy-browed cousins even had funerary rituals, meaning they buried their dead with an afterlife in mind.
- Having lived in Africa for many millennia, Neanderthals began to move across to Europe around 400,000 years ago.
- Early humans followed suit far later, arriving just 60,000 years ago.
- Neanderthals mysteriously died out shortly afterwards, possibly due to a disease pandemic or hunting by humans.
- It's also thought our ancestors outcompeted their newfound rivals for food and shelter, eventually wiping them from the planet.
"The body was placed in a depression on the cave floor in a semi-reclining position, with a big stone lying behind the head."
Four of the 10 Neanderthals at the site were positioned in what the researchers described as a "unique assemblage", raising a question as to whether they were returning to the same spot to lay their dead.
Prof Hunt said: "We have four bodies within an area the size of a small dinner table and chairs.
"If we were dealing with modern people, this might merit the use of the word 'graveyard', but this is a step too far for our understanding of Neanderthal behaviour."
Professor Graeme Barker, from Cambridge University, said: "The new excavation suggests that some of these bodies were laid in a channel in the cave floor created by water, which had then been intentionally dug to make it deeper.
"There is strong early evidence that Shanidar Z was deliberately buried."
The team is also analysing sediment samples from Shanidar Z, along with traces of pollen and charcoal from the site, to find out more about the life of the Neanderthals.
Dr Emma Pomeroy, from Cambridge University and lead author on the study, said: "In recent years we have seen increasing evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought, from cave markings to use of decorative shells and raptor talons.
"If Neanderthals were using Shanidar cave as a site of memory for the repeated ritual interment of their dead, it would suggest cultural complexity of a high order."
The findings were published in the journal Antiquity.
In other news, Neanderthals weren't killed off by early humans but instead went extinct due to inbreeding, according to a recent report.
In fact, our ancient ancestors are thought to have had frequent, rampant sex with Neanderthals.
The brains of our brutish ancestors were apparently just as big as early humans'.
What do you think of the incredible cave find? Let us know in the comments!
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