Lion Man from three angles. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. © Ulmer Museum.
The British Museum in London is currently holding an exhibition entitled ‘Living with Gods’ which runs until 8th April 2018. Among the exhibits on show is a remarkable carved figurine called Lion Man which is on loan from the Umber Museum in Germany.
The Lion Man sculpture found in Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, made from mammoth ivory, has been described as a masterpiece. It is 40,000 years old providing the oldest known evidence of religious belief. It stands 31 centimetres tall and has the head of a cave lion with a partly human body. This is the oldest known depiction of a being that does not exist in physical form but symbolises ideas about the supernatural. In 2017, UNESCO acknowledged Stadel Cave as a World Heritage Site.
Found in 1939, scholars believe that 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, perhaps, as part of some ritual. An experiment using the same sort of stone tools available in the Ice Age indicates that Lion Man took more than 400 hours to make.
Archaeological discoveries in other caves in this region include small sculptures often found with large amounts of stone tools and animal bones that indicate people lived in the shelter of the daylight areas of these sites. Hybrid creatures, half-man and half-beast also appear in cave drawings in France.
The Lion Man. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. The oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world. © Ulmer Museum.
Lion Man may represent a shaman whose preferred costumes were often hides of the more dangerous Ice Age animals. A shaman is a person who acts as intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness, predict the future and control otherworldly forces. From ancient times, the lion has been viewed as a symbol of the masculine virtues of courage and strength. Shamans still exist today in the Amazon region and Australia.
Stadel Cave, where the Lion Man was found, is different. It faces north and does not get the sun. It is cold, and the concentration of debris accumulated by human activities is much less than at other sites. 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. Archaeologists think that Stadel Cave was used as a place where people would come together occasionally around a fire to share a particular understanding of the world expressed through beliefs, symbolised in sculpture, and acted out in rituals.
Many fragments were overlooked in the cave when the pre-war dig was abruptly terminated due to the outbreak of World War 11. However, archaeologists have recently discovered previously unknown fragments of the figurine and are piecing it back together. This work has prompted some experts to question if, perhaps, the 40,000-year-old statue represents a female shaman? Scientists hope to resolve a decades-long debate.
Those who believe that Lion Man is in fact a woman are convinced that primitive societies were matriarchal. An image of a 14,000-year-old human body with an animal head discovered in the Las Caldas cave in Spain is obviously female. The head looks like that of an ibex, while the lower part of the body is clearly female.
Prehistoric religion reflected people’s need to understand the world and explain disasters. Through rituals and offerings, ancient societies sought to bribe or appease the divine forces controlling the world or its individual components. Since Neanderthal times, people have practised rites that showed concern for their dead, perhaps linked to a belief in an afterlife.
These new revelations offer a greater insight into the mind of the prehistoric sculptor, who created the figure some 40,000 years ago. His ancestors had migrated to Europe, which had been controlled by the Neanderthals, shortly before.
Lion Man has provided us with at least some insight into religious belief and practice 40,000 years ago. We can never hope to understand the mindset of these ancient people, but the significance of this tiny figurine is clear from the sheer number of hours it would have taken to make it. It is worth pondering that this work was undertaken at a time when our early ancestors would have struggled simply to survive during harsh climatic conditions.
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