Graeme Barker, (Senior Fellow, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research), explains in this week's edition of the journal Nature why he felt it was important to take a team back to the Shanidar Cave in Northern Iraq. The goal was to complete a three-week dig, following the abandonment of an earlier attempt in 2014, when ISIS attacked nearby Erbil city.
Describing it as an iconic site in world prehistory, in particular because of the Neanderthal burials found there 60 years ago, this latest research aims to establish the age of the Neanderthals using dating methods. These previously unavailable techniques will try to resolve questions about Neanderthal burial, and also further debate about the Neanderthal demise.
Says Barker: "By doing quite small-scale targeted field work on the site, and by working on archival material from the old excavations, we think we can get an awful lot more information about when modern humans and Neanderthals were there, how they were living, what the climate was like and how they coped with climate change."
In terms of danger, he explained that safety plans were in place, and the team was 'embedded in Kurdish society’. Even if Shanidar is in Erbil province, it is high up in the Kurdish mountainous region, a few hours drive from the Turkish and Iranian frontiers. ISIS are being restricted to the west and southwest on the plains that stretch westwards to Syria. He added: ''People say to me they won’t go on holiday where I choose to work next, but in both cases we embarked on the excavations in conditions of stability and then events took over! These excavations are enormous intellectual opportunities. They are ways of tackling big, fundamental questions about the human past, using the techniques of modern archaeological science."