It is hard not to think of you as a person when I look at your bones.
That may sound rude (of course you're a person!), but you're also dust and rough fragments. You’re not as smooth as you used to be, not as person-like as you once were. Writing you like this feels a little awkward, almost like I am writing fan mail rather than a message to a friend.
But I keep trying to imagine what life was like for you, wishing it was possible to just talk. I suppose a letter will have to do for now.
What would you say if your bones had words? Did your shadow jump across the walls of Shanidar cave, at first a child's dance, then a man's ritual to frighten away the beasts? 60,000 years later, our shadows speak to us and comfort us; we fill our museums and theaters with them, so that they don't disappear even after the sun has set.
I was studying anthropology when I heard about you—or your bones—surrounded by wildflowers carried from another valley by those who knew you and cared for you. Only the pollen of those wildflowers had remained, the seed of life lying dormant for so long by your dead body. It must have been a beautiful ceremony: perhaps they spoke of memories of you and of the others whose bones were kept there, weaving their stories together in death. Others who were buried alongside you had not been well, but we know that they were cared for, and were therefore able to live a while longer with their wounds. When he was first found, your companion “Shanidar 1” (did you know him?) quickly became famous as the 'first evidence for compassion in the human evolutionary record.' He was paralyzed, and probably blind, but he survived. We modern humans like to put ourselves in the past and believe that you cared for Shanidar 1; perhaps we tell this story to get away from the all too immediate pain of our own violent ways.
But the flowers were for you. Shanidar 1 may have received the instrumental care he needed to survive, but you! They cared for your soul. They mourned, I imagine, the way we mourn today, flowers in hand, a fire nearby, remembering the dark flash of your shadow on the wall. You were a person, a Neanderthal, but you’ve become the one we look to for our answers about the origins of culture, of art, and religion.
Here is what is really troubling to me and the reason I want to write this letter: My own ancestors may have been the ones who created that wound in your side, shattering your ninth rib. You didn't die right away, but it may have killed you in the end.
I want to understand. I wish your bones could leap up and tell me themselves because now I bear the responsibility to narrate this moment in our shared history. And I want it to be a story of life—a story that sews us together with a thread of compassion and not of violence. When I look at the ways we care and mourn today, I have hope that we humans learned something from you at Shanidar cave.
Yours are not the only bones that tell tales and keep secrets. Across Japan each year, at the peak of the summer heat, the souls of the dead return home and are greeted by flowers, food, and drink. It is a chance for us to let them know that they are not forgotten, that our lives are still entangled, and that our stories belong to one another.
One woman I visited last summer, Ms. Terada, invited me into her house, which was not so different from a cave—comfortingly dark and cool. She lives alone, since her husband died three years ago, just before we first met. She sat on the floor in front of his photograph, like a shadow, and said, “He looks so nice in that picture, doesn’t he?”
I sat beside her, quietly. "I want to show you something," she finally said, leaning forward and opening a small cabinet beneath the photo. She brought out what looked like a small ceramic cookie jar, glazed robin's egg blue.
When she lifted the lid, both of us instinctively greeted the bones. Unlike your bones, they were smooth and clean, curving and elegant like shards of a finely crafted vase. "This is my husband," she said, picking up a small piece of paper that was resting on top of the bones.
On it, she had written his Buddhist name (given after death), the date, and her own name. Ms. Terada explained: “Each year I write one of these and place it in here with him, and then on the holiday for the souls, I burn it, right out here in the garden. It is my way of sending him a message.”
She seemed to blush, like a schoolgirl telling me about sending love letters to a crush.
"I don't want to put him in the grave yet," she said. "When I die, then we will both go together," she added with a slight, self-conscious giggle.
As I write this letter to you, I put my hands on my chest and count the ribs to trace your wound: ...7-8-9. The bones are reassuring and protective. They will remain and remind us of our human capacities for both compassion and violence. They will hold me responsible for telling these stories in ways that not only continue, but also enhance life.
And so, like Ms. Terada, I write my own message to you. Just a start, but written in gratitude, in grief, and in hope.
Since this is a letter, I didn’t put references in the text but I list them below.
Churchill, Steven E., Robert G. Franciscus, Hilary A. McKean-Peraza, Julie A. Daniel, and Brittany R. Warren. 2009. ‘Shanidar 3 Neandertal Rib Puncture Wound and Paleolithic Weaponry’. Journal of Human Evolution 57 (2): 163–178.
Dettwyler, Karen. A. 1991. ‘Can Paleopathology Provide Evidence for “compassion”?’ American Journal of Physical Anthropology 84 (4): 375–84. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330840402.
Tilley, Lorna. 2015. Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Springer.
Trinkaus, Erik, and M. R. Zimmerman. 1982. ‘Trauma among the Shanidar Neandertals’. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 57 (1): 61–76.