Ralph Solecki, 101, ar­chae­ol­o­gist found hu­man­ity in Ne­an­derthals

The Buffalo News - - OBITUARIES - Oct. 15, 1917 – March 20, 2019 – New York Times

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.

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