Ancient Figurines Found—From First Modern Humans?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 17, 2003

Humans have had a refined artistic bent for at least 33,000 years, according to the discovery of three deftly carved ivory figurines in a cave in southwestern Germany. The miniature statues include a horse, a diving waterfowl, and a half-man, half-lion.

The figurines come from an ongoing excavation of Hohle Fels Cave in the Ach Valley and are dated to a time when some of the earliest known relatives of modern humans populated Europe, an era known as the Aurignacian.

The discovery complements similarly dated ivory sculptures recovered from three other Aurignacian caves in the Ach and Lone Valleys of Germany, adding support to the belief that by 30,000 years ago humans were culturally modern.

The half-man, half-lion figurine, known as a Lowenmensch, was of particular excitement for Nicholas Conard, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, who describes the figurines in tomorrow's issue of the science journal Nature.

"I'm usually very calm actually; I've been digging for a long time," he said. "But that got my heart pumping a bit."

The Lowenmensch is the second such figurine found. German archaeologists discovered one in 1939 at an Aurignacian site in the Lone Valley. "If there are two, there must be hundreds of these things, they must have been part of daily life," said Conard.

The newly discovered Lowenmensch is of comparable age. These ivory figurines from these four sites in Germany are among the oldest examples of figurative art known worldwide, added Conard.

Cultural Significance

The figurines are each well polished from heavy handling, suggesting that rather than sitting on a shelf as an artifact to be admired they played a central role in the culture of these early Europeans.

For decades, archaeologists have debated the cultural significance of the figurines. The new finds, said Conard, place some constraints on the interpretations.

One of the main theories, championed by the late German archaeologist Joachim Hahn, is that they represent powerful, fast, and aggressive animals, reflecting admiration, fear and respect for them.

Another theory, supported by South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, among others, is that the figurines are evidence of shamanism.

Continued on Next Page >>


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