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.

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.

Cultural Modernity

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.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.