Next Score View the next score

    Ralph Solecki, who found humanity in Neanderthals, 101

    NEW YORK — 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, 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 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.

    Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
    A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    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,” 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, 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 widely accepted.)

    “The association of flowers with Neanderthals adds a whole new dimension to our knowledge of his humanness, indicating he had a ‘soul,’ ” Dr. 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 Dr. Solecki’s first book, published in 1971, made his rehabilitative effort clear. It was called “Shanidar: The First Flower People.”

    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).

    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, where his discovery of remains and artifacts would make it a singular Neanderthal site in Western Asia.


    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.

    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 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. He and his friends would search for Native American 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.

    In 1951, as an associate curator at the Smithsonian Institution (his archeologist’s trowel is now part of the collection), Dr. Solecki surveyed historic sites in Iraq.

    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 archeology from 1958 to 1959. He taught at Columbia from 1959 to 1988. In 1990, he and his wife, who also has a doctorate in archeology, joined the faculty of Texas A&M University. They moved to New Jersey in 2000.