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Secrets of the Neanderthals

Dr. Emma Pomeroy: “It is very painstaking, and that’s for good reason. You get one go. Archaeology is by its very nature, destructive. Once you’ve excavated it, you can’t do it again.”

Episode description: ”A unique excavation unravels the complex and creative nature of Neanderthals, shattering preconceptions through the lens of a landmark discovery – the best-preserved Neanderthal skeleton found in over 25 years.”

This documentary of an hour and twenty minutes catches us up with research into Neanderthals. As this is a documentary, I will discuss some of their findings. In other words, below there be spoilers!

Neanderthals were the dominant human species in Europe and parts of Asia and the Middle East for something like 300,000 years. So, even though they no longer exist – well, many of us carry some of their DNA – we can’t dismiss them as a failure. Homo sapiens, our species, appears to have evolved 300,000 years ago – the archaic version – while modern Homo sapiens appeared 160,000 years ago. However, Homo sapiens were mostly in Africa while the Neanderthals were in Eurasia.

Let’s turn now to the show. Sir Patrick Stewart narrates, and we start with scenes from Shanidar. Excavated by Dr. Ralph Solecki back in 1961, he caused a stir by reporting how grains of pollen had been discovered buried with one of the skeletons. This led to the idea that Neanderthals buried their dead with blossoms, which seemed highly similar to the use of flowers in modern-day funerals.

The idea of burials with flowers has been discounted. Over millennia, the cave has been used by more than just Neanderthals. Apparently burrowing animals – who eat flowers and will carry the blossoms into their burrows – disturbed the burial and brought in the pollen.

As we said earlier, Ralph Solecki excavated Shanidar most recently in 1961. As the Shanidar cave is located in a Kurdish area of Iraq, conflicts broke out and archaeological work was impossible for decades. The excavations now continue under the leadership of Dr. Emma Pomeroy. And a “new” skeleton was discovered, the first in something like 25 years.

As my knowledge of Neanderthals is limited, I picked up quite a bit during the 80 minute documentary. Here are some highlights:

Cannibalism! That’s an aspect of the Neanderthals that was new to me – although probably not to others – but the proof is pretty good. Many of the bones show that they were thoroughly defleshed, as evidenced by the striations. Some bones were clearly broken in ways that would let people access the bone marrow, considered a delicacy even today (well, not human bone marrow). Although this is generally shocking today, cannibalism has been practiced throughout history.

Facial reconstruction. Also frequently used in forensics, this means taking bones from a head and then adding back layers to create a head. In the show we meet the two guys who do this, a pair of identical twins in the Netherlands. Their work is what is shown above. How realistic is it? We don’t know, but I have seen people today who resemble her. The skull which has been used to create this is from the skeleton called Shanidar Z (zed, not zee, the way Patrick Stewart pronounces it).

Bruniquel circles. There’s an ancient cave in France; analysis shows this area was occupied 176,500 years ago. At the time, the area’s humans were Neanderthals and only Neandethals. So the remainders of circles show elegant design by them. Then the documentary postulated that these circles might be associated with religious practices. This annoyed me a bit; I imagine spaces like these would probably have multiple purposes, like they do today.

The Gibraltar caves were the last stronghold. The documentary postulates that climate change is what did in the Neanderthals, and that their way of hunting no longer worked when the world had few trees. Again, this is speculation.

Title musings. “Secrets of the Neanderthals” is the title of the episode, and it does reveal new findings (at least some that were new to me). Let’s take a look at the word Neanderthal. The German word “Thal” – now “Tal” as updated by the German orthography reform of 1996 (Reform der deutschen Rechtschreibung von 1996) – means valley. We have a cognate in our word “dale.” Neander is a specific valley, which is where the first Neanderthal skeleton was discovered. English, for the most part, has kept the H – sometimes you will see it without – but German has not.

Bits and pieces

Dr. Ralph Solecki died in 2019, at the ripe old age of 101+. As far as I can tell, his widow, Rose Solecki – also an archaeologist, and I don’t know why they don’t mention her, because she was with her husband at all these sites – is still alive at 98+. Perhaps she just wanted to keep quiet.

The techniques in this show make me think of the show Bones, and how the protagonist gleaned so much information from the skeletons of murder victims. Of course, these skeletons are much, much older.

The documentary is narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart, who is most famous for his role as Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, reprised in Star Trek: Picard. Jean-Luc Picard had a well-developed love of archaeology.

Herodotus, in his Histories, talks about the attitudes of different groups of people. Some thought, that in order to show respect, you had to eat your family members when they died, while others thought the opposite.

Pollen is hardy stuff, so it lasts.

Watching them squeeze through passages to get into the cave at Bruniquel reminded me of the spelunking I did in my teens. I don’t think I need to do it again.

At one point, Patrick Stewart says we all carry some Neanderthal DNA. However, that is not true if your ancestors are limited to sub Saharan Africa.


Note that some of the names were not given at the IMDB database. Patrick Stewart, of course, is the narrator.

Narrator: Though severely injured, it appears that Shanidar 1 and Shanidar 3 had been cared for by the people around them. This was a radical new view of Neanderthal life.

Croatian female archaeologist: What kind of cannibalism? What did it mean to them?

French male archaeologist: “Bruniquel est la plus ancienne construction dans le monde qu’on peut voir.” (Translation: Bruniquel is the oldest construction in the world that we can see.)

Overall rating

This documentary was relaxing to watch, and a nice escape from our current situation. And, although would still take some of their conclusions with several grains of salt, I learned quite a bit. Two and a half out of four skeleton shards.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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