Ralph Solecki, 101, archaeologist found humanity in Neanderthals
Ralph Solecki, an archaeologist whose research helped debunk the view of Neanderthals as heartless and brutish half-wits and inspired a popular series of novels about prehistoric life, died March 20 in Livingston, N.J. He was 101.
The cause was pneumonia, his son William said.
Starting in the mid-1950s, leading teams from Columbia University, Solecki discovered the fossilized skeletons of eight adult and two infant Neanderthals who had lived tens of thousands of years ago in what is now northern Iraq.
Solecki, who was also a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist at the time, said physical evidence at Shanidar Cave, where the skeletons were found, suggested that Neanderthals had tended to the weak and wounded, and buried their dead with flowers, which were placed ornamentally and possibly selected for their therapeutic benefits.
The exhumed bones of a man, named Shanidar 3, who had been blind in one eye and missing his right arm but who had survived for years after he was hurt, indicated that fellow Neanderthals had helped provide him with sustenance and other support.
“Although the body was archaic, the spirit was modern,” Solecki wrote in the magazine Science in 1975.“The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension to our knowledge of his humanness, indicating he had a ‘soul,’” Solecki wrote.
The very title of Solecki’s first book, published in 1971, made his rehabilitative effort clear. It was called “Shanidar: The First Flower People.”
His other books include “Shanidar: The Humanity of Neanderthal Man” (1972) and “The Proto-Neolithic Cemetery in Shanidar Cave” (2004), the latter book written with his wife and fellow archaeologist, Rose L. Solecki, and Anagnostis P. Agelarakis.
Scientists remain awed by what Solecki found and, armed with the latest technology, are still interpreting what the physical evidence of the skeletons and multiple burials implies.