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Ice Age Lion Man is world’s earliest figurative sculpture

Work carved from mammoth ivory has been redated and 1,000 new fragments discovered—but it won’t make it to British Museum show

40,000 years old: Lion Man sculpture. Photo: Thomas Stephan, © Ulmer Museum

The star exhibit initially promised for the British Museum’s “Ice Age Art” show will not be coming—but for a good reason. New pieces of Ulm’s Lion Man sculpture have been discovered and it has been found to be much older than originally thought, at around 40,000 years. This makes it the world’s earliest figurative sculpture. At the London exhibition, which opens on 7 February, a replica from the Ulm Museum will instead go on display.

The story of the discovery of the Lion Man goes back to August 1939, when fragments of mammoth ivory were excavated at the back of the Stadel Cave in the Swabian Alps, south-west Germany. This was a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War. When it was eventually reassembled in 1970, it was regarded as a standing bear or big cat, but with human characteristics.

The ivory from which the figure had been carved had broken into myriad fragments. When first reconstructed, around 200 pieces were incorporated into the 30cm-tall sculpture, with about 30% of its volume missing.

Further fragments were later found among the previously excavated material and these were added to the figure in 1989. At this point, the sculpture was recognised as representing a lion. Most specialists have regarded it as male, although paleontologist Elisabeth Schmid controversially argued that it was female, suggesting that early society might have been matriarchal.

The latest news is that almost 1,000 further fragments of the statue have been found, following recent excavations in the Stadel Cave by Claus-Joachim Kind. Most of these are minute, but a few are several centimetres long. Some of the larger pieces are now being reintegrated into the figure.

Conservators have removed the 20th-century glue and filler from the 1989 reconstruction, and are now painstakingly reassembling the Lion Man, using computer-imaging techniques. “It is an enormous 3D puzzle”, says the British Museum curator Jill Cook.

The new reconstruction will give a much better idea of the original. In particular, the back of the neck will be more accurate, the right arm will be more complete and the figure will be a few centimetres taller.

An imaginative sculptor

Even more exciting than the discovery of new pieces, the sculpture’s age has been refined using radio-carbon dating of other bones found in the strata. This reveals a date of 40,000 years ago, while until recently it was thought to be 32,000 years old. Once reconstruction is completed, several tiny, unused fragments of the mammoth ivory are likely to be carbon dated, and this is expected to confirm the result.

This revised dating pushes the Lion Man right back to the oldest sculptures, which have been found in two other caves in the Swabian Alps. These rare finds are dated at 35,000 to 40,000 years, but the Lion Man is by far the largest and most complex piece. A few carved items have been found in other regions which are slightly older, but these have simple patterns, not figuration.

What was striking about the sculptor of the Lion Man sculptor is that he or she had a mind capable of imagination rather than simply representing real forms. As Cook says, it is “not necessary to have a brain with a complex pre-frontal cortex to form the mental image of a human or a lion—but it is to make the figure of a lion-man”. The Ulm sculpture therefore sheds further light on the evolution of homo sapiens.

Conservators experimented by making a replica of Lion Man, calculating that it would take a highly skilled carver at least 400 hours using flint tools (two months’ work in daylight). This means that the carver would have had to be looked after by hunter-gatherers, which presupposes a degree of social organisation. There is an ongoing debate on what the Lion Man represents, and whether it is linked to shamanism and the spirit world.

Initially, it was hoped that the original of the Lion Manwould be presented at the British Museum’s exhibition, but this has not proved possible because conservators need further time to get the figure reconstructed as accurately as possible. The Ulm Museum now plans to unveil it in November.

"Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind", British Museum, London, 7 February-26 May and “The Return of the Lion Man: History, Myth, Magic”, 16 November-9 June 2014, Ulmer Museum, Ulm.

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Comments

13 Nov 13
15:9 CET

JAMES LIVELY, EASTHAMPTON

I think it more likely a bear since they were native to the area it was found. I would like to believe that it is a lion and representative of the age of Leo, however, Leo is not "standing" in the sky, he his laying on his front paws. I would think that a figurine of leo would be carved as it was seen. However, a "bear" coincides not only with indigenous life of that area, it is also, argumentatively, the oldest known constellation to man. Ursa Major is recognized as a bear in both ancient European and American cultures, putting it long before the last ice age ended. They would have been exposed to this real threat verses a threat more common to Africa. I am not suggesting the lions did not exist or could not have migrated that far north, just that it seems more likely that they would carve something seen every day. Perhaps as a visual representation of one of the more major threats outside the cave. A bear typically stands on its hind legs when it is gearing up to attack.

12 Nov 13
17:45 CET

JAMES LIVELY, EASTHAMPTON

I think it more likely a bear since they were native to the area it was found. I would like to believe that it is a lion and representative of the age of Leo, however, Leo is not "standing" in the sky, he his laying on his front paws. I would think that a figurine of leo would be carved as it was seen. However, a "bear" coincides not only with indigenous life of that area, it is also, argumentatively, the oldest known constellation to man. Ursa Major is recognized as a bear in both ancient European and American cultures, putting it long before the last ice age ended. They would have been exposed to this real threat verses a threat more common to Africa. I am not suggesting the lions did not exist or could not have migrated that far north, just that it seems more likely that they would carve something seen every day. Perhaps as a visual representation of one of the more major threats outside the cave. A bear typically stands on its hind legs when it is gearing up to attack.

4 Sep 13
18:20 CET

MICHAEL CARSON, SHEBOYGAN FALLS

Am I the only one who still sees a bear on its hind legs? Is it true this piece was discovered in a cave while looking for bear bones? Just because the sculptor carved "human-like" features into this piece doesn't have too mean this was on purpose. I think most of this is hyped to get someone into a history book. You cant tell me for sure that this sculptor was the Michaelangelo of his time or that the quality of the ivory and tools enabled elaborate detail. I know that there were animal headed humanoid depictions in cave paintings, but not everything is so abstract. Why couldn't it have been a totem for warding off bears or other bumps in the night? what characteristics tell us this is a lion or lioness? The porportions seem off for both and the leg length seems short for a humanoid. Does anyone else agree?

13 Mar 13
13:58 CET

LEROY, SURABAYA

This is a truly fascinating story...it is a shame the journalism isn't on a par. So much speculation and sensationalism presented as near certainty. Is the writer really suggesting that a patriarchal society wouldn't make any female figures or likenesses....erm no. Every single society that ever carved or painted made multiple female images and likenesses. The less said about the 400 hours/2 months theory...it could equally have been any of the other theories presented by the readers or countless others. To make such a leap and conclude that it implies societal organisation is absurd. I wonder if an even older sculpture will ever be found. Let's hope so. Maybe we will get some more considered answers and theories after the museum reconstruct it. Personally, I think it was made by aliens who crash-landed on Earth. Lion-headed aliens. It is a self-sculpture of the leader of the crashed ship. Maybe. That means they were pretty advanced and good at creating things like intersteller travel.

20 Feb 13
18:50 CET

MARY FROM NEW YORK, NEW YORK

A lot of carving and art was created over long winter months. Look at sailors' carvings or the Inuit peoples, or even quilts and other elaborately stitched textiles from recent ages. I hate the condescending slash sensationalist ways journalism treats the peoples of the ancient past, like they can be slotted into this or that pigeon-hole. It's so reductionist. It's like colonializing the human past is what it is. . It's how to get published and get ahead in academia too I suppose. Glad to see the finds, read information about them, but the conclusions --- are sometimes boring and unbelievable!!!

19 Feb 13
15:35 CET

RAYVI KUMAR , INDIA

'NARASIMHA" The Indian Deity and the AVATAR of Vishnu!

19 Feb 13
15:35 CET

STEVE MORAN, LONDON

Perhaps it's just a lion, not a lion-man. After all if you start with a tusk and carve the head of a lion to that scale, it might be almost impossible to make a lion on all fours. The shoulders also appear leonine, not human, which leaves the limbs. Maybe the sculptor struggled with the anatomical details and supposed that a lion might have elbows turned like ours and the "rear" legs look very vague. Don't forget they probably didn't hunt lions. Lions hunted them. So they wouldn't necessarily have experience of dissecting them. All speculation, of course.

18 Feb 13
22:3 CET

STEVE MORAN, LONDON

Perhaps it's just a lion, not a lion-man. After all if you start with a tusk and carve the head of a lion to that scale, it might be almost impossible to make a lion on all fours. The shoulders also appear leonine, not human, which leaves the limbs. Maybe the sculptor struggled with the anatomical details and supposed that a lion might have elbows turned like ours and the "rear" legs are look very vague. Don't forget they probably didn't hunt lions. Lions hunted them. So they wouldn't necessarily have experience of dissecting them. All speculation, of course.

14 Feb 13
17:19 CET

RICHARD, TUCSON

I really question the 40,000 year age. That's pretty close to the upper limit of radiocarbon dating and it could have a significant error factor. It would be curious to see the report discussing that should it exist.

13 Feb 13
16:22 CET

BRIAN MARCKS, BATON ROUGE LA

I think the sculpture of the Male Lion Man may be a real depiction of a Shape-shifted Human. When I was about 9 years old, my father Shape-shifted to a man with a Lion's Head when he was very angry. The sculptor probably saw a similar Shape-shifted human male.

8 Feb 13
21:13 CET

RICHARD WRIGHT, KENOSEE LAKE, SK CANADA

Imagine that before the last Earth Crustal Displacement about 13,000 years ago Southern Germany was situated at the 30th parallel of latitude. Very likely there were lions living in the area.

8 Feb 13
15:44 CET

SHEILA, VIRGINIA BEACH

The article I googled was interesting. However people come on, while I am all for herstory lets not carry it to the point of absurdity. We have no idea who carved it or what they wanted to pass on. Its a piece of art stop trying to make it fit your theory.

8 Feb 13
18:58 CET

BUDDY PAGE, PORTLAND, OREGON

As MARY KEADY, UPSTATE NY alluded to earlier, this figurine was created during the zodiac age of the Lion (aka Leo). The evidence shows that the Great Sphinx and Pyramids were created during the previous age of the lion, circa 11-13,000 years ago, or six ages ago. This Lion Man was created a full zodiac precession cycle (26,000 yrs.) before the Great Sphinx, but also during the zodiac age of the lion, or 18 zodiac ages ago. The importance of this is that the new dating shows the lion figure was carved during the zodiac age of the lion and thereby appears to be using the same zodiac sourced symbolism as the Great Sphinx of Egypt, but a full 26,000 years earlier. This is stunning evidence that core elements of ancient symbolic wisdom can be traced deep into the ancient past, long before most accept possible. What is also interesting is that the artist was likely to have been Neanderthal, just like the artists of the cave paintings in France and elsewhere. Very interesting indeed.

7 Feb 13
15:30 CET

THINGUMBOB, BALTIMORE

The comment about the complex pre-frontal cortex is thoroughly gratuitous and inane. What characterizes humanity as human is our unique ability as a species to increase our relative population density via technological innovation. Simply put, in the most primitive case this means the controlled use of fire. What other species can do that?

7 Feb 13
15:34 CET

TIM, PRICE

Very interesting to see people so quick to assume this must be a female, without knowing a thing about the lions who inhabited Europe at this time. Agenda much?

7 Feb 13
15:28 CET

DWIGHT CULVER, EL PASO, TX

There are so many variables to consider. Working in daylight makes more sense than working by firelight. Just imagine how much wood would have to be colledcted to support that effort. The sculptor (he or she) may have participated in the hunting and gathering, or maybe not. They may have had a physical disability that kept them from hunting-- but did not limit their artistic work. The main thing to consider is the quality of the work and the imigination and artist's eye that went into the effort.

5 Feb 13
21:31 CET

WULF HEIN, GERMANY

@ Janice: During the Ice Age there were lions in Europe called cave lions, the males didn´t have a mane at that time, as can be seen on the so called "frieze of the lions " in the Chauvet cave in Southern France, dating to the Aurignacian period, where the lion man belongs to, too.

5 Feb 13
21:32 CET

WULF HEIN, GERMANY

In 2009, I replicated the Lion Man from a tusk with authentic flint tools as an archaeological experiment on behalf of the Ulm Museum, the documentation can be seen here: http://www.echtzeitmedia.de/referenzen.php?id_c=loewe It took me more than 360 hours to carve the statuette, but once I started to work I liked to see it finished. I think the expression "work at daylight" used by the author of the article is mistakable, he just meant modern daily worktime (9 to 5). But I´m shure this artwork was made in more or less one go - as a reindeer hunter living a nomadic life you won´t carry around a statue weighing more than 1 kilogram for years and years. I could imagine that it was made during one winter by one specialized person being capable to do this - not everybody is a Michelangelo. "You carve for us, we pay for you". And I´m definitely shure that this statuette is sexless - where else are the female attributes depicted so impressive and often on venus carvings from the same time?

4 Feb 13
21:6 CET

JANICE BERNATH, RED HOOK NY

Really, the "experts" have been off so many times regarding abilities to create something. Agreeing with Tanya also - what makes them think it had to be done in daylight? Has no one ever heard of sculptors and sculptresses continuing to sculpt even after going blind? And most definitely a lioness/lion goddess!! Although I am curious as to what a lioness was doing in Germany during the Ice Age...

4 Feb 13
15:8 CET

VIKI, AUCKLAND

shes the lioness goddess. where are your eyes : where is the mane in this gendered depiction.

4 Feb 13
15:8 CET

BASCO ELLSWORTH, ONDON, LN

Thundercats----Ho!

4 Feb 13
15:4 CET

NEIL, TULSA

It doesn't take imagination to recreate in art what the eye see's. We aren't the first generation of humans on this planet to have experimented with genetic modifications.

4 Feb 13
15:4 CET

REDGREEN, DEEPNAHARTA, TEXAS

Tanya is correct. This work could be a culmination of work over one or even two years. Ancient artifacts point to humans (just as we are now) to have been extent for hundreds of thousands of years. This is just one more oopa (out of place artifact) that proves that the current historical view is incorrect and also the ancient alien hypothesis probably is wrong as well.

4 Feb 13
15:3 CET

SCOTT, SACRAMENTO

i'm not sure why they think the guy needed to be taken care of. If hunters go out every few weeks for a few days it really would not have interrupted the process of carving very much. It also could have been made during the winter, after food had already been stored away and there was little to do except art.

4 Feb 13
14:58 CET

JAN, MILWAUKEE

I agree with Tanya. Lots of assumptions in this article, with no reasons given to suggest why they are any better than other assumptions! If it's a lioness does not mean it was a matriarchal society! Could have been carved over years of long winter nights when the people were "cave bound" by bad weather. Truth is, all we know for sure is where it was found and what it is made of! All else is pure speculation. These experts need to get a firmer grip on reality.

4 Feb 13
14:57 CET

DWIGHT E. HOWELL, LAWRENCEBURG

The quality of the craftsmanship strongly suggests that the person who made it was experienced. Others were likely to have been doing the same thing at the same time. It is at least moderately likely that similar items were made of wood.

4 Feb 13
14:56 CET

VINCE WARDHAUGH, BELLEVILLE, CANADA

I agree Tanya, He/She could have worked on it for many month's or over a longer period of time. Interesting story nonetheless .

4 Feb 13
14:56 CET

MARY KEADY, UPSTATE NY

I find it fascinating due to its age and location. It's from the same epoch that some have claimed for the Sphinx, which I'm convinced was originally topped with a lion's head. Were the two related in any way?

4 Feb 13
14:56 CET

RH BURGESS, COLUMBUS, OHIO

Undoubtedly made in a sweatshop by underpaid workers.

4 Feb 13
14:54 CET

MARSHALL, SUMNER

Tanya's comments reflect my thoughts exactly. Many modern whittlers learn to carve in their spare time, and I would suspect that many hunter gatherers had lots of spare time during the winter months. There would be no need for external support.

1 Feb 13
15:4 CET

ELENI, MIAMI

Awesome!

1 Feb 13
15:1 CET

TANYA LERVIK, WASHINGTON

Fascinating, but why do they assume it was carved all in one go (400 hours/two months work). Why couldn't it be something the carver worked on in his/her spare time over the course of several months - maybe even by firelight? Seems like a pretty big logical leap.

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