A new view of the ‘Lion Man’

De laatste versie van de “Leeuwenman” heeft een brede en geprononceerde snuit, maar geen spoor van de snorharen die je bij een leeuw mag verwachten. Foto: Neil Harrison/Dreamstime

The Lion-man (German: Löwenmensch) is a prehistoric ivory figure, 31.1 cm tall. Depicting a man with the head of a lion, it is considered to be the oldest known example of anthropomorphic art in the world. The traditional explanation of this object can be found in an article on this site: https://www.hunebednieuwscafe.nl/2019/01/the-lion-man-of-hohlenstein-stadel-germany/.

However, an article by Elle Clifford and Paul Bahn in a recent issue of the magazine Current World Archaeology may turn this traditional view on its head.

The ‘Lion Man’ in the Museum Ulm, found in fragments in a German cave. Photo: O Kuchar © Museum Ulm

A question of dating

The figurine was discovered during excavations in a German cave in 1939. A few days later the Second World War began and all work at the site came to an end. The finds were removed to the Museum of Ulm and forgotten about until they were rediscovered in the 1960’s.

The figure is reputed to have been carved about 35,000 years ago. However, the original excavations within the cave in 1939 revealed two key phases of Ice Age activity, in the Aurignacian (c.40,000-35,000 years ago) and Magdalenian (perhaps c.13,000 years ago) periods. Because the finds were removed from the cave so quickly, there was no proper analysis of the sediments in which they were discovered. Further excavations carried out by Eberhard Wagner in 1983 found that the old holes from 1939 had been backfilled with excavation debris, making any new analysis impossible. So it is by no means certain whether the ‘Lion Man’ is 35,000 or 13,000 years old.

Hundreds of tiny fragments

The Lion-man was not discovered as one single statuette, but shattered into many hundreds of tiny ivory fragments. With war looming, these fragments were quickly gathered together and taken to the Museum of Ulm, where they were rediscovered twenty years later by archaeologist Joachim Hahn in a box of animal bones. Working with two colleagues, and using ordinary UHU glue, Hahn made a sort of 3-D jigsaw, putting together about 200 fragments (out of 260) in the form of a man with a lion’s head.

The head was very incomplete, but the position of the ears led Hahn to see it as either a bear or a feline. Years later in 1982, after more fragments had been added to the figure by palaeontologist Elisabeth Schmid, especially to the head, Hahn claimed that the head was sicher (‘certainly’) that of a lion. Schmid came to the same conclusion, and her chosen interpretation was then enhanced with putty or modelling wax to fill in the gaps.

From August 1987 to May 1988, using the same glue as before, about 230-250 fragments were fitted together. This reconstruction made the head broader but left gaps in the face which were filled in using a mixture made from wax and chalk. By this point, say Clifford and Bahn in their article, there was almost as much wax as there was ivory in the head.

Between 2009 and 2013, 575 more small fragments (most only measuring a few millimetres) were found in new excavations and assumed to be from the figure. There now seemed to be a total of 758 fragments to deal with so, once again, the carving was dismantled and the old glue removed (as it was now harder than the ivory). Alas, it was only possible to fit some of the new fragments, while many remain ‘homeless’ – and restorers have suggested that perhaps more than one carving were found at the site.

Why a lion?

In their article, the authors question why prehistoric man – whether 35,000 or 13,000 years ago – should choose to depict a human with a lion head. They suggest that 20th century archaeologists, on the other hand, would be very familiar with lion-headed statues in the form of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet.

Sekhmet, the lion-headed Egyptian goddess from the Temple of Mut at Luxor. Photo: National Museum Copenhagen

Did this familiarity perhaps influence their assumption that the figure has a lion’s head?

God or toy? Lion or … ?

Elisabeth Schmid and others have pointed out the similarity between the Lion-man and other prehistoric carvings of lions’ heads. Clifford and Bahn dispute this similarity and ask why, in any case, would a lion be depicted standing up? Lions do not normally stand up in the wild. Moreover, in the most recent reconstruction of the figurine, the newly-modelled snout is clearly broader and more pronounced, making it even less like a lion.

The authors conclude that the figure is not a lion-man, but a bear standing upright – as bears do. They argue that bears are more like humans than any other species and may well have been of significance to Palaeolithic people because of their similarity to humans in terms of their anatomy, their habits and their behaviour. For instance, bears used shelters and caves to sleep, to give birth, and to hibernate. Palaeolithic people used the skins, claws and teeth of bears as clothing and for decoration. And who knows, perhaps one loving father made a model of a bear for his child – the first known teddy-bear!

The latest version of the ‘Lion Man’ has a broad and pronounced snout, but no traces of the whisker pads that might be expected on a lion. Photo: Neil Harrison / Dreamstime
A standing brown bear. Photo: Volodymyr Byrdyak / Dreamstime

Further information

A more detailed exploration of this subject, entitled ‘If the Cat Fits… a new look at the so-called “Lion Man” from Hohlenstein-Stadel’ will be published soon in a special issue of Die Kunde.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 100 of Current World Archaeology. Click here to read the full article. And Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

Text Alun Harvey


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