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World Ralph Solecki’s research found humanity in Neanderthals

A photo provided by Columbia University shows professor Ralph Solecki measuring a flint scraper, an artifact uncovered in ancient caves in Lebanon, in 1970.

Columbia University via The New York Times

Ralph Solecki, an archeologist 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, Mr. 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.

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Mr. 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 tended to the weak and wounded, and also that they 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 was blind in one eye and missing his right arm but 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Solecki’s theory has become widely accepted.)

“The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension to our knowledge of his humanness, indicating he had a ‘soul,’ ” Mr. Solecki wrote.

In addition, he told the New York Academy of Sciences in 1976, if the flowers were confirmed to have been selected for their medicinal value, the discovery would indicate that “the Neanderthals possessed a mutually comprehensive communication system, in short a spoken language.”

The very title of Mr. Solecki’s first book, published in 1971, made his rehabilitative effort clear. It was called Shanidar: The First Flower People.

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He also wrote Shanidar: The Humanity of Neanderthal Man (1972) and, with his wife and fellow archeologist, Rose L. Solecki, and Anagnostis P. Agelarakis, The Proto-Neolithic Cemetery in Shanidar Cave (2004).

Scientists remain awed by what Mr. Solecki discovered and, armed with the latest technology, are still interpreting precisely 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,” archeologist 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.”

Novelist Jean M. Auel was inspired by Mr. 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, Mr. 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, where his discovery of remains and artifacts would make it a singular Neanderthal site in Western Asia.

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In 1955, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 archeologists have a chance to see so clear a succession of man’s development over so long a period,” he told Scientific American in 1957.

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.

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When he was about 10, his interest in archeology 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.

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, Mr. Solecki leaves another son, John, a UN refugee official who was abducted and held for two months in Pakistan in 2009; and two grandchildren.

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