Conard said the horse figurine does not affect the theories one way or another, but the diving waterfowl and the lion-man are much more radical discoveries.
"The Lowenmensch shows clearly the people in this area routinely practiced some kind of system of belief in which the transitions between humans and lions were common," he said. "It fits well with the shamanism hypothesis."
The finding of the waterfowl is also significant because waterfowl are commonly depicted as helper spirits to shamans, transporting them between worlds, said Conard.
"I consider myself neutral, but people looking for evidence of shamanism will be happy about these finds," he said.
The ability to create figurines, which requires manipulation of complex tools, together with the fashioning and use of musical instruments and ornaments, is considered a sign of having reached a stage of fully developed cultural modernity.
Each of the newly discovered figurines stand between 1 and 2 inches (2.5 and 5 centimeters) tall, are intricately carved, and include refined details such as feather-like engravings on the waterfowl's back and clearly defined mouth, nostril, and eyes on the horse.
"These people knew exactly what they were doing and they were very good at it," said Conard.
Evidence for refined artistry at such an early date in humans goes against the belief that artistic skills evolved over thousands of years, said Anthony Sinclair, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool in England.
Sinclair, who wrote an accompanying commentary in Nature on the figurines, said they are "beautifully produced," suggesting that humans evolved their artistic skill rather quickly.
If the evolution of artistic skill occurred over longer time scales, crude relics ought to be present in the archaeological record. "But when you look at the first bits of evidence, they seem to be of very good quality right away," said Sinclair.
Archaeologists are exploring several lines of evidence that suggest something occurred in the course of human evolution around 40,000 years ago that allowed humans to cross the threshold towards cultural modernity.
"There does appear to be quite a different life before and after about 40,000 years ago," said Sinclair.
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