[Marxism] Ralph Solecki, Who Found Humanity in Neanderthals, Dies at 101
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Wed Apr 17 10:46:56 MDT 2019
NY Times, April 17, 2019
Ralph Solecki, Who Found Humanity in Neanderthals, Dies at 101
By Sam Roberts
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 on 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, Dr.
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.
Dr. 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 the
wounded, and that they had also buried their dead with flowers, which
were placed ornamentally and possibly selected for their therapeutic
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,” Dr. Solecki
wrote in the magazine Science in 1975.
Large amounts of pollen found in the soil at a grave site suggested that
bodies might have been ceremonially entombed with bluebonnet, hollyhock,
grape hyacinth and other flowers — a theory that is still being explored
and amplified. (Some researchers hypothesized that the pollen might have
been carried by rodents or bees, but Dr. Solecki’s theory has become
“The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension
to our knowledge of his humanness, indicating he had a ‘soul,’” Dr.
Moreover, if the flowers were confirmed to have been selected for their
medicinal value, he told the New York Academy of Sciences in 1976, the
discovery would indicate that “the Neanderthals possessed a mutually
comprehensive communication system — in short, a spoken language.”
The very title of Dr. Solecki’s first book, published in 1971, made his
rehabilitative effort clear. It was called “Shanidar: The First Flower
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 Dr. Solecki discovered and, armed with
the latest technology, are still interpreting what the physical evidence
of the skeletons and the multiple burials implies.
“What is clear is that the cluster of bodies at the ‘flower burial’ came
to rest in a very restricted area, but not quite at the same geologic
level, and therefore likely not quite at the same time,” the
archaeologist Christopher Hunt was quoted as saying in Science this
year. “So that might point to some form of intentionality and group
memory as Neanderthals returned to the same spot over generations.”
The novelist Jean M. Auel was inspired by Dr. Solecki’s research to
write “The Clan of the Cave Bear” (1980), the first in her “Earth’s
Children” series of narratives on the evolution of humankind. Ms. Auel
said Shanidar 3 was the inspiration for the character Creb.
In the early 1950s, Dr. Solecki was a Columbia graduate student on
another excavation in the mountainous Kurdish region of Iraq. Seeking a
potentially fruitful dig site, he was directed by locals to the rugged
Great Zab River valley and Shanidar Cave, in the Zagros Mountains.
The cave’s portal, 2,500 feet above sea level, opened onto a cavernous
3,000-square-foot interior with 20-foot-high ceilings. His discovery of
remains and artifacts there would make it a singular Neanderthal site in
In 1955, Dr. Solecki married Rose M. Lilien and returned with her to
Iraq, where the couple lived in a stone police barracks without running
water or toilets.
Their quarters were barely better than the natural cave that Dr. Solecki
estimated had been home to some 3,000 generations. It provided
researchers with what he described as “a consecutive, slow-motion
picture” of humanity’s evolution.
“Rarely do archaeologists have a chance to see so clear a succession of
man’s development over so long a period,” he told Scientific American in
He unearthed the bones in a stratum beginning 16 feet beneath the
surface of the cave and reaching to 45 feet below it, where the bedrock
The first skeleton Dr. Solecki found was of a man who had probably been
asleep in the cave when he was struck and killed by limestone rocks
loosened by an earthquake.
Another man appeared to have been buried by fellow Neanderthals. A
third, excavated in 1957, lived between 35,000 and 45,000 years ago. He
was almost 50 years old and, with signs of a deep cut in his left rib
from a pointed stone or blade, might be the oldest known murder victim.
(His remains are now at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of
When Dr. Solecki and his wife returned to the site again in 1960, they
found a fourth skeleton, with evidence of funerary flowers or pollen
from herbs possibly used as medicine.
“Someone in the last ice age must have ranged the mountainside in the
mournful task of collecting flowers for the dead,” Dr. Solecki wrote.
“It seems logical to us today that pretty things like flowers should be
placed with the cherished dead, but to find flowers in a Neanderthal
burial that took place about 60,000 years ago is another matter.”
The Neanderthals survived until roughly 28,000 years ago, when the more
adaptable Cro-Magnon population of Homo sapiens began to predominate.
Stefan Rafael Solecki was born on Oct. 15, 1917, in Brooklyn to Polish
immigrants. His father, Casimir, sold insurance. His mother, Mary
(Tarnowska) Solecki, was a homemaker.
When he was about 10, his interest in archaeology was piqued by
newspaper reports of treasures being unearthed from King Tutankhamen’s
tomb in Egypt. He began his own excavations after his father bought a
house in Cutchogue, N.Y., on Long Island’s North Fork. After spring
plowing, he and his friends would search for Native American arrowheads
and other artifacts.
After graduating from Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Queens, he
received a bachelor of science degree in geology from City College of
New York in 1942.
During World War II he served in the Army in Europe, where he was
wounded. He received a master’s degree from Columbia University; his
thesis was on the 17th-century Fort Corchaug, near the family’s Long
Island home, which was later designated a National Historic Landmark.
Dr. Solecki began surveying historic sites in Iraq in 1951, as an
associate curator at the Smithsonian Institution. (His archaeologist’s
trowel is now part of its collection.) He returned on three expeditions,
one on a Fulbright fellowship. He received a doctorate in anthropology
from Columbia in 1958.
Dr. Solecki, who was also renowned for his excavations in Sudan and
Alaska and led Columbia expeditions in the Middle East and Africa, was
the Smithsonian’s curator of archaeology from 1958 to 1959. He taught at
Columbia from 1959 to 1988. In 1990, he and his wife, who also has a
doctorate in archaeology, joined the faculty of Texas A&M University.
They moved to New Jersey in 2000 to be closer to their sons.
In addition to his wife and his son William, a geographer, professor at
Hunter College and founder and director emeritus of the City University
of New York Institute for Sustainable Cities, Dr. Solecki is survived by
another son, John, a United Nations refugee official who was kidnapped
and held for two months in Pakistan in 2009; and two grandchildren.
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