The Proto-Neolithic Cemetery in Shanidar Cave. Ralph S.
Solecki, Rose L. Solecki and Anagnostis P. Agelarakis. xvi + 234 pp.
Texas A&M University Press, 2004. $50.
During the Neolithic Age, which began about 11,000 years ago, the
prehistoric economies of our hunter-gatherer forebears changed to
include domesticated plants and animals—a shift that revamped
subsistence strategies, inspired technological developments, ended
hunting and gathering in many places, altered patterns of settlement
and rearranged social organizations. These transformations amounted
to what archaeologist V. Gordon Childe in 1936 termed a
"Neolithic Revolution," which profoundly affected human
life and made us who we are today.
Archaeological evidence indicates that agriculture developed
earliest in the Near East, specifically in the Zagros, Taurus and
Pontic Mountains of Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and on the eastern coast
of the Mediterranean, the Levant. Most of our archaeological
knowledge of the period during which the transition from hunting and
gathering to food production took place comes from the Levant. Far
less is known about the Zagros Mountains.
Thus the discovery in 1951 of Shanidar Cave in the Baradost
Mountains, one of the western folds of the Zagros, 400 kilometers
north of Baghdad in northeast Kurdistan, Iraq, gave a new geographic
perspective on the very early Neolithic period. Excavations of the
cave over the next decade yielded cultural data as well as skeletal
remains of Middle Paleolithic Neandertals and Proto-Neolithic modern
humans, representing two periods well-known for the scarcity of such
material. The last excavation, in 1960, uncovered an undisturbed
cemetery dating to around 10,600 years ago. Then investigations in
the region had to stop because of unrest, although studies of the
skeletal finds continued at the Iraq Antiquities Museum in Baghdad,
where they had been shipped. Fortunately, the human osteological
material from Shanidar Cave was spared when the museum was looted in 2003.
Now Ralph S. Solecki (who discovered the cave and led the
excavations), Rose L. Solecki and Anagnostis P. Agelarakis have
published a report on what has been learned about the artifacts and
the osteological remains recovered from the burials found in 1960.
The Proto-Neolithic Cemetery in Shanidar Cave addresses
all aspects of the archaeological record, including mortuary
practices and burial offerings as well as the human skeletal remains.
The book opens with a history by Ralph Solecki of the excavation of
the cemetery and a well-documented presentation of the geology and
the stratigraphy of the cave during the Proto-Neolithic. In chapter
2, Solecki catalogs the 26 graves in the cemetery and one grave
outside it, which together held the remains of at least 35
individuals. He describes the context of each burial in a format
resembling an archaeological diary.
The next six chapters are coauthored by both Soleckis. In chapter 3
they catalog the stone clusters and pavements and a stone wall found
in and around the cemetery, which characterize and delineate the
burials. In chapters 4 and 5, the Soleckis describe in detail the
burial offerings—bone and stone tools, an amazing collection
of beads, a number of exotic goods and miscellaneous other
objects—and analyze their function, typology and structure,
and the technique by which they were manufactured. In chapter 6,
they compare the mortuary customs of Shanidar Cave with those of the
Levant and other parts of the Near East; the result is an updated
review of mortuary behavior in the entire area. Finally, in chapters
7 and 8, they bring all the pieces of evidence together to
synthesize the big picture of the cave, both by itself and within
the broader local network, and of cultural developments in the Near
East in this period.
The Proto-Neolithic people of Shanidar Cave followed culturally
defined methods for burying their dead in a base camp, which
possibly increased the group's ties to a traditional home site. They
practiced both primary burial (interment of a mostly intact body
shortly after death) and secondary burial (final interment of
disarrayed or isolated bones or of a body that had undergone some
other burial process as a first stage). Offerings placed in the
grave included bead ornaments and favored personal objects but no
symbols of rank. The variety of materials included reveals an
extensive long-distance exchange trade. The mortuary practices are
comparable to those of other roughly contemporary Near Eastern
cultures. The material culture of the cave and the surrounding
Zagros area is characterized by chipped stone industry and such
innovations as a variety of ground stone tools, worked bone tools
and abundant personal ornaments. These suggest growing cultural
richness and elaboration, a semi-sedentary lifestyle and a mixed
subsistence strategy based both on wild species of plants and
animals and early domesticates—characteristics that imply that
the area may have been an independent center of Neolithic innovation.
In chapter 9, Agelarakis summarizes the findings of a study he made
of the human osteological remains at the museum in Baghdad in 1981.
He presents the demographic profile of the population, along with
paleopathological conditions, stress markers and evidence of overall
biocultural adaptation. He points to a high prevalence of child
mortality, expected for this time period, and to a population that
was physically and physiologically stressed as it adapted to new
sociocultural, technoeconomic and environmental processes.
Furthermore, Agelarakis makes an interesting case for very early
agriculture. The results of his isotopic analyses of human bone
collagen and carbonate apatite clustered within a range that
suggests a plant-based diet, and corroborating evidence was supplied
by distinct tooth wear related to food preparation techniques
involving grinding stones, which were found in abundance at the site.
The authors stress the importance of this site as the first cemetery
east of the Mediterranean—probably the first in the entire
Mediterranean region. In very early Neolithic times, the dead were
usually buried within habitation areas and not in cemeteries, in the
sense of special, separate, segregated areas devoted exclusively to
burial. Cemeteries first appeared in the Neolithic, following
sedentism, population increase and consequent competition for land
or vital resource exploitation. Archaeologists, who have long
studied the development of cemeteries, believe they were likely used
to validate claims on land or critical resources. The
Proto-Neolithic cemetery in Shanidar Cave is an early precursor of
Comprehensive summaries at the end of each chapter point to the most
significant results and give meaning to the necessary descriptions
of the archaeological material, which lay readers are likely to find
boring. The authors, in their painstaking efforts to draw
conclusions from this small and secluded sample, conducted an
extensive bibliographic search for parallels, and they provide
details about those they found. Archaeologists are traditionally
notorious for slips to conjecture when making such comparisons and
proceeding to interpret the material, but in this book we see a
balance between facts and contextual data on the one hand, and
interpretation on the other. The authors do not speculate in the
absence of persuasive evidence.
The book displays the authors' sense of duty, deep knowledge of the
period and great respect for the uniqueness of the material.
Although the book is intended primarily for a professional audience,
it should be fairly easy to follow for lay readers, who will
appreciate the many pages of maps, graphs, drawings and
photos—80 figures in all, plus 17 tables.
I concur with the Soleckis' conclusion that "more archaeological
investigations in the Zagros region are badly needed." But with the
publication of this long-awaited book, we can be satisfied that at least
everything uncovered up to now has been described and analyzed in great
detail.—Anastasia Papathanasiou, Ephory of Speleology and
Paleoanthropology of Southern Greece, Greek Ministry of Culture