The Lion-headed Figurine

lion-headed figure

The most well-known – and controversial – piece of Paleolithic European art is the carved mammoth-ivory sculpture known as Lowenmensch, German for “lion-man” or lion-human,” although perhaps Lion Lady, or Lion Man/Lady would be more accurate.  Like everything else about it, its gender is the subject of debate.  While little is known about the people who carved it or its significance to them, the figure, even in fragmentary form, is arresting.  Now, new clues from the cave where it was found and others in the area put the famous figure in better context.

The figure is about 30 cm (11 ½ inches) tall, with a clearly formed lion head and a left arm, which looks more like a lion’s leg, bearing striations.  A double line runs down the side of the head, from the front of the ear down to the neck.  The posture is human but the body and left arm (front leg) seem very feline. The hand seems more like a paw though the left foot seems like a small human foot with a pointed toe.  A clearly marked navel lies above the ambiguous genital triangle.

It’s thought to be somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 years old.

History

Given its complicated story, it’s surprising we know about The Lion-headed Human at all.

In 1861, a priest collecting bear bones in Stadel Cave, one of several caves in a limestone cliff in Hohlenstein Mountain in southwestern Germany, also found thousands of flint chips, but being interested only in the bear bones, he dug around with his shovel, found dozens of bear skulls, and threw everything else away, destroying levels of archaeological sediments and fragile pieces of ivory in the process.

In 1939, Robert Wetzel came to the cave to check on the rumored flint tools.  Unfortunately, he had little time.  World War II was beginning, and soon he was called up for service in the German military. On the day he was to leave, his team discovered fragments of ivory below pieces of worked flint.  Because he had to hurry, he scooped up the fragments he’d excavated into cardboard boxes, then hid the boxes until after the war, when he donated them to the Ulmer Museum, where they were placed in storage and forgotten.

lion-headed figure2

Between 1954 and his death in1961, Wetzel continued his excavations in Stadel Cave, finding bones that indicated the cave had been inhabited by both Neanderthals (The thigh bone he found is one of few Neanderthal bones found in southern Germany.) and Homo sapiens.  The bones included those of a man, woman, and child with severed heads, buried together.  In addition, he found bone fragments from at least 54 individuals.  As with the fragments of the Lion-headed figurine, he donated these finds to the museum at Ulm. (The photo at the right is from the Ulmer Museum exhibition.)

In 1969, in the course of an inventory at the museum, Dr. Joachim Hahn came across the mammoth-ivory fragments and noticed a similarity among some of the pieces.  Eventually, he pieced together nearly two hundred fragments to make a human/animal figure missing a head.  Dubbing it Lion Man, he saw this figure as evidence of Stone Age people’s belief in mystical/spiritual concepts.

Twenty years later, Elizabeth Schmid added more pieces from the museum’s collection and completed a new examination of the cave, finding many other fragments, completing the head and arm.  However, Schmid disagreed with Dr. Hahn and declared the figure was female, not male, noting what she identified as a clearly marked pubic triangle.

The mystery continues to play out clues.  In 2011, the Stadel cave was excavated again, in the same place as the original find.  In the course of the excavation, archaeologists sifted through the rubble piles left behind by the first group.  Claus-Joachim Kind, who oversaw the screening, announced: “We have about a thousand items which may be of the statue.”  In order to fit them exactly, the old glue was removed and the new pieces inserted.  New finds include part of the neck and back, as well as most of the missing right arm.  Researchers also found more striated marks on the surface like those on the arm.

Artifact found in Hohle Fels Cave

Artifact found in Hohle Fels Cave

The digging spot was located beside a fire pit in a niche 27 meters from the entrance from the cave.  Nearby were decorated deer teeth and artic fox incisors as well as ivory beads.

More Finds in the Neighborhood

A few kilometers from Stadel Cave is Hohle Fels cave, which is famous for the Venus of Hohle Fels figurine found there and dated to 35,000 years ago.  There, in 2001, a smaller version of the Lion-Headed Human was found.  Like its taller cousin, this one-inch tall, partial figure exhibits both human and animal characteristics, with a clearly carved leonine ear and truncated arm/leg, just like the Lion-Headed figure.  Also, it has a clear slash mark down its left arm.  It cannot be determined whether the figure is meant to be male or female because it doesn’t have any genital area.  This figure is thought to be 33,000 years old.

After considering the curious similarities between the different Venus figurines (See earlier post on Venus Figurines) found in fire pits, broken into pieces, it’s very interesting to find the same circumstances for this figure.  The cut marks found on the figure, as well as its “Little Brother,” are also reminiscent of the marks on the Venus figurines.

The Shaman’s Journey

Many experts say the Lion-HumSan theriotropean combination suggests a shamanistic trance in which a person may enter another world, often through the portal offered by a cave.  In this sense, the shaman may take on the characteristics of an animal as part of the transformation.  In the San rock art picture from South Africa (left), the figure on the left is the shaman who has become part human, part large animal, taking on the power of the animal (n’om) in order to fight off illness or imbalance in the tribe.

This shamanic alteration is common in many parts of the world, where holy men and women wear headdresses or whole skins of animals as part of their ritual.  If that is the case with the Lion Human, it indicates a very early sense of this dual world and the ability of some humans to access it.

The apparently hermaphroditic condition of the figure would be consistent with the shamanic theory.  Some cave paintings from the same era include both male and female characteristics, such as the famous “Sorcerer” figure in Chauvet Cave, which combines the head of a bull with a female pubic triangle.  According to Dr. Jean Clottes, it is the combination of opposites which creates power.

In any case, the combination of lion and human, for which this figure seems to be the first representative, plays a very important part in our history, from the lion-headed goddesses like Tanit, Astarte, and Sekmet, to the lion-headed incarnation of Vishnu, to the lion (singa) city (pora) of Singapore, and King Richard the Lion-Hearted.

Guennol Lioness, Mesopotamia

As post script, the Guennol Lioness, a 5000-year-old limestone statue found in Iraq, features a well-muscled lioness with a human body and hands (pictured, left).  It was sold through Sotheby’s Auction House to a private collector for $57 million in 2007.  The notes on the 3 ½” figure indicated that many ancient Near East deities were represented by anthropomorphic figures, which evoked the Mesopotamians’ belief that they could attain power over the physical world by combining the superior physical attributes of various species.  Interesting, eh?

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Archaeology: Lionheaded Figurine” http://www.showcaves.com/english/explain/Archaeology/Loewenfrau.html

“Caves of Germany” Hohlenstein, http://www.showcaves.com/english/de/caves/Hohlenstein.html

Davidson, Laura Leigh. “First Flute Found: Scientists discover the world’s oldest musical instrument,” www.scholastic.com

“Guennol Lioness” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guennol_Lioness

“Lion – Cultural Depictions”  Wikipedia,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion

Lion-headed figurine” – updated, TYWKIWDBI, March 8, 2013, http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com/s013/lion-headed-figurine

The Lion Lady – Die Lowenfrau, Don’s Maps, www.donsmaps.com/lionlady.html.

“Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel,” Wikipedia, January 25, 2013

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_man_of_the_Hohlenstein_Stadel,

Partian, Gary. “The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel: Mystery from the Stone Age” October 21, 2009     http://voices.yahoo.com/the-lion-man=hohlenstein-stadel-mystery

“The Paleolithic Age” The Prehistory of Homo Sapiens, Part IV, The Essay Web, http://essayweb.net/history/ancient/prehistory

Schulz, Mattias. “Puzzle in the Rubble,” Der Spiegel, 2011, http://www.spiegel.de/speigel/print/d-82612721.html

“Swabian Jura,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swabian_Alb

Ulmer Museum Archaeological Collection, The Lion Man Exhibition

http://www.showcaves.com/english/de/misc/UlmerMuseum.html

Marsha Walton, CNN.com “Cave Art from 30,000 Years Ago?” December 18, 2003

7 thoughts on “The Lion-headed Figurine

  1. I have just got back from the Ice Age exhibit at the British Museum eyes full of wonder. Thank you for your entertaining and informative piece! I am going to follow your blog !

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