Digging Up Our Past

It’s easy for us to take certain things for granted.

Even when we’re sound asleep, for example, we don’t take into consideration all the work that was done, generation after generation, to get to where we are atop that comfortable mattress and under our architecturally sound roof, breathing non-toxic air and not having to worry about the innumerable hazards of yesterday.

All the more easy it is to take for granted our own neurological predispositions and qualities, those which we often proclaim to make us human in the first place. As flawed as we may tend to consider ourselves, we’re inevitably the products of millions of years’ worth of evolution — six, arguably — that has progressed to equip us with the kinds of mental faculties that we possess today.

But why would we need to really appreciate this anyway?

Apart from due reverence, we can extract tremendously useful information from being aware of our development; sort of how it helps to know of the why’s and the how’s beyond, strictly, the what's.  

The interesting thing about all this is that it’s sort of a self-developing loop. The more we understand ourselves, the better we can continue to further understand ourselves (so long as we admit that there’s never enough we can know).

And so certain fields of study, like archaeology, live by this eternal loop. The more we dig and discover, the more we piece together our history and unravel the mysteries of our evolution, the better we can understand why we are the way we are; equipped with this understanding, we can then continue on to dig better, discover deeper, and understand more expansively.

Under this context, I sought to get some insight from someone stationed at the front lines such discoveries, having eventually come upon Dr. Emma Pomeroy — an archaeologist very familiar with the past and present findings at a particularly important cave in Kurdistan, whereby many paradigm-breaking remains have been unearthed since the mid 20th Century. 

Such discoveries have been helping contribute to a multitude of redefinitions and new interpretations relating to our own evolution — something that Dr. Pomeroy knows plenty about.

Her studies regarding our evolutionary processes and our own morphology have resonated into a greater bioarchaeological understanding of who we are – something that we can never know with full certainty, no matter how deep we dig or how much we discover.

Below is a brief Q&A from my correspondence with Dr. Emma Pomeroy.

Q. Shanidar Cave, located in Iraqi Kurdistan, is in your words an ‘iconic Palaeolithic site’ due to the numerous remains that have been excavated in the region following Ralph Solecki’s mid twentieth-century discovery of Neanderthal remains.

One incredible aspect of these finds consists of the mortuary practices (like ritualistic burials) that are evident, providing us with a rather intimate glimpse into the sentimentality held by our long-ago-passed ancestors.

Why do you think it’s important for us, today, to be able to understand ourselves from yesterday — or, in other words, what do you think we’re gaining from a better understanding of our past?

I think it is important to understand what characterizes all humans as a species, and how those characteristics evolved. Things like compassion for one another, emotional attachment, and the ability for creative and symbolic thinking are all very central to what it means to be human, and it’s intriguing to consider how, when and why we evolved these behaviours and capacities. 

In doing so, we can better appreciate why we behave the way we do, and what it is that unites us as humans. While we might look at evidence for things like symbolic behaviour in the treatment of the dead, it’s of course almost impossible to know exactly what it meant to those people at that time and what their beliefs were, but such symbolic acts speak to a commonality of ways of thinking and feeling on a broader level, and that is what is exciting.

Q. Archaeology itself works to reveal things about us that we may be quick to assume but don’t know with absolute certainty.

For instance, we may know certain aspects of Neanderthal biology and behaviour but we may not know exactly how certain aspects of said behaviour took shape. We may deduce from, say, puncture wounds, that interpersonal violence had been evident; or from flower burials that notions of love and mourning were demonstrated ritualistically.

What has been the biggest thing that archaeology revealed to you about our current human nature — whether it’s that we’re inherently ritualistic creatures or that violence amongst ourselves is an inevitability, etc.

One thing that strongly strikes me as an archaeologist and a biological anthropologist is our creativity and the cultural variation that generates. 

I have always been fascinated by how different cultures interpret the world and express their ideas through art, dress, customs etc. The archaeological record augments the variation we can observe and its patterning across both time and space. 

What’s exciting, when looking at Neanderthal behaviour, is looking for similar variability in that behaviour through time and in different regions. For example, rather than a simple ‘did they or did they not bury their dead’ question, looking at how treatment of the dead varied over time and space, and whether this might include ritualised or symbolic components. 

We know that Neanderthals in other regions and at other times treated the dead very differently, sometimes defleshing and dismembering the body (just as some populations of our own also did, so they are not unusual in that!), sometimes burying individuals in caves, and perhaps doing a range of other things (since we have found the remains of only a tiny proportion of Neanderthals who ever lived). 

Understanding what this variation may mean, and whether we can see evidence for what we might consider ‘cultural’ variation in our closest evolutionary relatives helps us to better understand them and, ultimately, our own species.

Q. In your article relating to the findings at Shanidar cave, you state that: “Recent evidence for interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans, and the likelihood that this occurred in South-west Asia bring new relevance to the archaeology of Shanidar Cave.

How important is the inter-relatedness and cooperation of different archaeological efforts from around the world and, in your experience, do you find there to be a lot of cooperation or difficulty or competition amongst different groups of study or different entities?

Collaboration is absolutely critical to modern archaeology and projects like ours — we rely on the expertise of a whole range of specialists that is far beyond what one person or small team could encompass, and multiple lines of evidence are vital to achieving accurate, detailed data and nuanced interpretations. 

We're extremely fortunate to work with expert professional excavators from Canterbury Archaeological Trust, UK; specialists in dating archaeological materials from the University of Oxford, in ancient shell remains from Queens’ University Belfast, in animal bones from Cambridge, in ancient charcoal analysis from Liverpool University, UK, in ancient DNA from Cambridge and Copenhagen, in analyses of stone tools from Cambridge, Birkbeck London and Italy. 

Inevitably there can be differences in ideas amongst us– there are always different priorities, interests, opinions etc among different people — but so there should be, this is another central part of being human, and debate and discussion are the lifeblood of academic progress. 

Dr. Pomeroy would like to thank the Kurdistan General Directorate of Antiquities and the Directorate of Antiquities Soran Office for the opportunity to work at Shanidar Cave and for their ongoing support and collaboration.

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak