The Lion-man (German: Löwenmensch) figurine is a prehistoric ivory sculpture discovered in 1939 in a German cave called the Hohlenstein-Stadel. It was carved out of mammoth ivory using a flint knife. The cave is in the Geopark Schwäbisch Alb in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, to the south of Stuttgart. Some of the oldest human artefacts have been found in the caves here, including the earliest known musical instruments (click here to read about the instruments.)
The Lion Man in particular raises far-reaching questions about our understanding of prehistoric cultures and in particular our view of early man as primitive hunter-gatherers whose lives focussed on finding enough food to eat. The answers to these questions may well turn that view on its head.
The lion-headed figurine is the oldest-known zoomorphic (animal-shaped) sculpture in the world, and may be the oldest-known example of figurative art. Carbon dating of the layer in which it was found shows that it is between 35,000 and 40,000 years old. This means that it is associated with the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Paleolithic.
The figurine lay in a chamber almost 30 metres from the entrance of the Stadel cave and was accompanied by many other remarkable objects. These included bone tools and antlers, along with jewellery consisting of pendants, beads, and perforated animal teeth. A smaller lion-headed human sculpture was found in the nearby Vogelherd Cave, together with other animal figurines and several flutes.
The fragmented mammoth-ivory Löwenmensch was originally found during excavations in August 1939. The outbreak of World War II just one week later meant that the finds were not analysed and the fragments lay forgotten in a drawer in the nearby Museum of Ulm until 1987. Further excavations in the cave from 2008 revealed further fragments and in 2012 the figurine was disassembled into its individual parts and newly-discovered fragments were added along with the old ones. Work was completed in late 2013 and the figurine is currently on display in the Ulm Museum in Germany.
The significance of the Lion-man
The figurine raises a number of interesting questions, not least about the importance of religion and belief during the early prehistoric era. The Lion-man may be the oldest-known example of figurative art and it is recognisable to us as a human figure with a lion’s head. We are familiar with such zoomorphic depictions because we have seen them before, for instance on wall-paintings in Egyptian tombs. But the Lion-man was carved around 35,000 years ago, many thousands of years before the Egyptians.
Whoever made the figure was carving something that he or she had never seen. Discounting science fiction and the works of Erich von Däniken (Chariots of the Gods), as far as we know humans with lion heads have never existed. So the carver was depicting something which existed only in his or her imagination. Was it a unique vision, or was this how the community as a whole visualised some other-worldly higher being?
Furthermore, carving the figurine from hard mammoth tusk would have been a complex and time-consuming task. The reconstruction process itself in 2012 took more than 370 hours in total. Did the carver work on the piece in the evenings as a hobby? Or was the person relieved from all other tasks in order to create something which was important to the community? In October 2017, Jill Cook of the British Museum in London was asked: “Why would a community living on the edge of subsistence, whose primary concerns were presumably finding food, keeping a fire going and protecting children from predators, allow someone to spend so much time away from those tasks?” She replied that it was about “a relationship to things unseen, to the vital forces of nature, which you need to perhaps propitiate, perhaps connect to, in order to ensure your successful life”.
The same explanation could of course be offered for other remarkable ancient sites – Stonehenge, constructed partly with stones brought from many miles away (c 3,000 BC); the enormous Gobekli Tepe temple complex in Turkey (c 9,000 BC); and the cave paintings at Lascaux (c 15,000 BC). But the question remains – what motivated a hunter-gatherer in central Germany 35,000 years ago to imagine and carve such an amazing object?
Text Alun Harvey