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Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel

Prehistoric ivory carving
Dated: 38,000-33,000 BC

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Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (Löwenmensch figurine)
Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (head and upper body). World's oldest known figurative carving. Image by Dagmar Hollmann. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The World's Oldest Sculpture

The ivory carving known as "The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel" is one of the greatest treasures of prehistoric sculpture in the archaeological record.

It marks an important point in Stone Age culture in general, and human cognitive development in particular.

The therianthropic Lion Man is carbon-dated to between 38,000 and 33,000 BC, and belongs to the era of Aurignacian art.

It is the world's oldest figurative sculpture (along with the Venus of Hohle Fels), as well as the oldest known evidence of religious belief in history.

Archaeologists speculate it had a shamanic or totemic role for the inhabitants of the region. For more, see: Shamans in Paleolithic Art.

In 2017, Stadel Cave became a World Heritage Site.

Note: In Germany, the Lion Man carving is commonly referred to as the "Löwenmensch" figurine, meaning "lion-person" or "lion-human". This is due to uncertainty over its gender.

Note: For the world's oldest wood carving of the Stone Age, see the Russian Shigir Idol (10,000 BC).

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Discovery and Reassembly

The carving was recovered from Hohlenstein Mountain, in 1939, in the Swabian Jura of southwest Germany, during excavations directed by paleontologist Robert Wetzel (1898-1962).

Fragments of the carving were unearthed in the limestone cave of Stadel-Hohle, by archaeologist Otto Völzing (1910-2001).

Put aside for three decades, because of World War II and its aftermath, the fragments were partly reassembled in 1969, by Joachim Hahn, a professor at the University of Tubingen.

But it took another twenty years before the humanoid figure was reunited with its lion-like head.

The Swabian Jura harbours a large number of paleolithic caves and rock shelters, including the Vogelherd, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels caves, as well as Hohlenstein-Stadel.

These sites have yielded several important items of mobiliary art, including:

Similar examples of Upper Paleolithic art discovered across the border, in Austria and the Czech Republic, include: the Venus of Galgenberg and the Venus of Willendorf (both dated 28,000 BC), and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (27,000 BC).

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Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel: Description & Characteristics

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How Old is the Lion Man?

The carving was not dated directly but with reference to the stratigraph layers of material between which it was sandwiched. These were carbon-dated to between 38,000 and 33,000 BC. This makes the Lion Man the oldest prehistoric art of its type in the world.

Cultural Significance

The Lion Man's therianthropic appearance - part animal, part human - is quite unique for its age. Shamanic figures occur more often during the Magdalenian.

According to the British Museum, the Lion Man is "the oldest known representation of a being that does not exist in physical form but symbolises ideas about the supernatural."

The length of time devoted to the Lion Man's creation strongly suggests it was regarded as an important symbol, possibly used in shamanic rituals and ceremonies.

This masterpiece of paleolithic art was recovered from a cold, dark inner chamber, carefully stashed away with only a few fox teeth and reindeer antlers for company.

References

(1) "Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art". Conard, Nicholas J. (2003). Nature. 426 (6968): 830–832.
(2) "A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany". Conard, Nicholas J. (2009). Nature. 459 (7244): 248–252.
(3) "The Lion Man: an Ice Age masterpiece." Jill Cook, British Museum Blog. 10 October 2017.

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