The Lion Man is a masterpiece. Sculpted with great originality, virtuosity and technical skill from mammoth ivory, this 40,000-year-old image is 31 centimeters tall. It has the head of a cave lion with a partly human body. He stands upright, perhaps on tiptoes, legs apart and arms to the sides of a slender, cat-like body with strong shoulders like the hips and thighs of a lion. His gaze, like his stance, is powerful and directed at the viewer. The details of his face show he is attentive, he is watching and he is listening. He is powerful, mysterious and from a world beyond ordinary nature. He is the oldest known representation of a being that does not exist in physical form but symbolizes ideas about the supernatural.

On August 25, 1939, archaeologists working at a Paleolithic site called Stadelhole (“stable cave”) at Hohlenstein (“hollow rock”) in southern Germany, uncovered hundreds of mammoth ivory fragments. Just one week later, before they could complete their fieldwork and analyze the finds, World War II began. The team was forced to quickly fill the excavation trenches using the same soil in which they found the ivory pieces. For the next three decades, the fragments sat in storage at the nearby City Museum of Ulm, until archaeologist Joachim Hahn began an inventory. As Hahn pieced together more than 200 fragments, an extraordinary artifact dating to the Aurignacian period (more than 30,000 years ago) began to emerge. It was clearly a figure with both human and animal characteristics. However, only a small part of the head and the left ear had been found, so the type of creature it represented remained a mystery.

The Lion Man. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. The oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world. © Ulmer Museum.

Between 1972 and 1975, additional fragments from excavation seasons in the 1960s, which had been stored elsewhere, and still others picked up from the cave’s floor, were taken to the museum. Yet it took until 1982 for paleontologist Elizabeth Schmidt to put the new pieces together with Hahn’s earlier reconstruction. Schmidt not only corrected several old errors but also added parts of the nose and mouth that made it clear that the figurine had a cat’s head. Although the artifact is often called Lowenmensch (the “lion man”), the word mensch is not specifically male in German, and neither the gender of the animal nor of its human parts is discernible. Five years later, to conserve the figurine, the glue that held it together was dissolved. It was then carefully put back together, revealing that only about two-thirds of the original had actually been recovered.

This changed in 2008 when archaeologist Claus-Joachim Kind returned to the site at Hohenstein. Kind removed the old backfill from the hastily concluded excavation of 1939. Over the next three years, Kind’s team found several hundred more small mammoth ivory fragments. “In 2009, when we found the first ones, it was a huge surprise,” says Kind. “But this is exactly the spot where the fragments of the figurine were originally found, so I knew right away that some belonged to the lion man. It had clearly been damaged during the earlier excavations. Only the larger pieces were collected and the smaller ones left behind,” he adds. Kind was able to fit several of the new pieces to form part of the back and neck, and computer simulation of the lion man was created, showing the placement of several more previously unattached fragments. “At the end of the 2011 season, all the backfill will have been removed. There will be no more pieces left,” says Kind. “We hope that the lion man will finally be complete.”

 the Lion Man makes sense as part of a story that might now be called a myth. The wear on his body caused by handling suggests that he was passed around and rubbed as part of a narrative or ritual that would explain his appearance and meaning. It is impossible to know what that story was about or whether he was deity, an avatar to the spirit world, part of a creation story or a human whose experiences on a journey through the cosmos to communicate with spirits caused this transformation.

Obviously, the story involved humans and animals. Lion Man is made from a mammoth tusk, the largest animal in the environment of that time and depicts the fiercest predator, a lion, now extinct, that was about 30 centimeters taller than a modern African lion and had no mane. Distinct from other animals through their use of tools and fire, humans were nonetheless dependent on some animals for food while needing to protect themselves from predators. Perhaps this hybrid helped people to come to terms with their place in nature on a deeper, religious level or in some way to transcend or reshape it.

An experiment by Wulf Hein using the same sort of stone tools available in the Ice Age indicate that the Lion Man took more than 400 hours to make:

This was a lot of time for a small community living in difficult conditions to invest in a sculpture that was useless for their physical survival. Allowing this to be done might suggest that the purpose of the image was about strengthening common bonds and group awareness to overcome dangers and difficulties. Some support for this exists at the cave itself.

Archaeological discoveries in other caves in this region include small sculptures as shown in the British Museum’s 2013 exhibition Ice Age art: the arrival of the modern mind. They were found in caves with large quantities of stone tools and animal bones that indicate people lived in the shelter of the daylight areas of these sites for repeated periods of time.

Stadel Cave, where the Lion Man was found, is different. It faces north and does not get the sun. It is cold and the density of debris accumulated by human activities is much less than at other sites. This was not a good place to live. Lion Man was found in a dark inner chamber, carefully put away in the darkness with only a few perforated arctic fox teeth and a cache of reindeer antlers nearby. These characteristics suggest that Stadel Cave was only used occasionally as a place where people would come together around a fire to share a particular understanding of the world articulated through beliefs, symbolized in sculpture and acted out in rituals.

Lion Man is the oldest known evidence for religious beliefs and Stadel Cave suggests that believing and belonging have a deep history crucial to human societies and originating long before writing.

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