Chauvet Cave

In 1994, three cave explorers were surveying a cave in the Ardeche region of southern France when they discovered another cave nearby.  That cave, now world-famous, carries the name of the lead explorer: Jean-Marie Chauvet.  More than 400 meters long, it features several “rooms” or sections covered in amazing paintings, some of which have been found to be between 30,000 and 33,000 years old.  The famous paintings in France’s Lascaux Cave, in comparison, are about 20,000 years old.  The Chauvet dates were so old that many archaeologists refused to believe them even after artifacts had been tested repeatedly.  That’s because Chauvet art challenged a long held theory that art “progressed” or developed greater sophistication as modern humans developed.  Thus early art should be primitive, minimal, and naïve.  Instead, Chauvet art showed great power and inventive design effects.

Chauvet Cave Layout

Chauvet Cave is a 400-meter (1312’) long network of galleries and rooms divided by very narrow sections. A landslide 26,000 years ago completely sealed off the cave, preserving its contents until its discovery in 1994.  So when we study the images of the cave provided by Jean Clottes, Werner Herzog, and the French Ministry of Culture we see exactly what the ancients – and some wild animals – left behind.

Several rockslides closed the original opening.  When Jean-Marie Chauvet, Christian Hillaire, and Eliette Brunel found the current opening, they had to squeeze through a very narrow space that led to a deep shaft.  Eliette Brunel, the only woman in the group, went first, climbing down to the large chamber that now bears her name.  When she saw drawings on the wall, she cried out, “They have been here!”  Indeed they had, though the artists and the viewers had missed each other by an almost unimaginable stretch of time.

Brunel Chamber

In the Brunel Chamber, an ancient artist must have felt the mineral flows on one wall looked like a mastodon, for the form has been outlined in red ochre. The mastodon is one of the central animal forms in the cave decorations.

This chaBrunel Chamber red panelmber also contains a striking panel of red dots made by coating a hand with red ochre and pressing it against the wall.  To the right of the red dots is a section with red dots and lines that seem to pour out from a central fissure in the rock.  The cruciform symbol appears several times on the panel (photo, left).

chauvet brunel bears

Farther along in the Brunel chamber is a panel of three bears drawn in red ochre (photo, right). Almost every drawing in the front half of the cave is done in red.  Drawings in the back of the cave are done in black.

Like most of the figures in the cave, these feature a clear head, shoulder and top line while legs are merely suggested.

Also in the Brunel Chamber is an animal form made of dots – handprints actually, all from the same artist.  Together they make up another mammoth.

The Red Panels Gallery


The eastern wall of this gallery holds several panels of hand prints, dots, and red figures of a bear/hyena and a panther (photo, left).  Note the similarity in drawing style to the bears pictured above, especially in the treatment of the face and the added smudging or stumping around the eye ridge and nostril.

The Cactus Gallery

The most prominent features in this section are a red mammoth painted on a hanging u-shaped formation (photo, right) and a red bear on the wall (photo, left).chauvet cactus mammoth

chauvet cactus red bear

Note the similarity of the style of the bear drawing with the previous bear and hyena drawings.

Past the Cactus Gallery, the cave abruptly narrows, the floor drops and the ceiling drops, making a tight passageway that forms a natural boundary between the two sections of the cave.  The art is also divided by this point.  The front section is almost exclusively painted in red figures and forms.  From footprints left behind, researchers know that men, women, and children visited the front section. The back chambers, including the monumental panels painted in black, are very different and may have had far fewer visitors.

The Back of the Cave

The Hillaire Chamber

The Hillaire Chamber has a deep depression in the center, about ten meters (32’) in diameter and four meters (13’) deep.  The walls around it feature over a hundred paintings as well as engravings of a horse and a mammoth, (shown in photo, left) and an owl.  Some other engravings to the left of the horse have been scratched out.

chauvet hillaire horse and mammoth

The most famous panel in this chamber is the one featuring a collection of horses, rhinos and aurochs (photo), as well as fainter marks that might have been earlier figures.  According to researchers who have recreated the order of painting, the horse heads are the most recent addition to the panel.  Next to the group is a fissure in the rock, so the horses seem to be emerging from it.

Chauvet horses and rhino

On the left wall is a panel of horses as well as a pair of cave lions. The horse heads in this panel seem to be drawn by the same artist as those on the other panel, or at least in the same style.  The lion heads show especially delicate shading work and stippling around the muzzle.

 cave lion pair and horses

Researchers have recreated the sequence of strokes involved in painting the lions.  See photo below.

chauvet cavelionstumping

Also in this chamber is a panel of drawings of aurochs, bison, horses, and others – all done in brief outlines with none of the shading or power of the previously mentioned panels.

The Skull Chamber

This section gets its name from a cave bear skull left on a prominent rock.  Over 3700 cave bear bones were found in Chauvet Cave, thought to belong to at least 190 different individuals.  (The next most common was wolf bones, belonging to six individuals.)

The End Chamber

Beyond the Megaloceros passage is the End Chamber, which contains some of the most astounding art panels in the cave.  A young mammoth was drawn over older figures of rhinos.  Three lions, using the same shading and stippling pattern as the earlier ones, were drawn over earlier figures.  Multiple rhinos appear on one side of a crevice while what looks like a pack of lions chases bison and other animals on the other side of the crevice.  A single horse appears in a scraped-clean recessed area (photo below left).  The photo on the right shows the whole section, complete with the phallic protrusion described below and the hole on the cave wall.

chauvet end chamber rhinosbisonimg285sm

chauvet end chamber

Thechauvet bisonwomansm most enigmatic part of the End Chamber, and indeed the whole cave, is the V-shaped rock formation mentioned above.  It’s painted with the head of a male bison and the pubic triangle and leg of a woman that seems to fade into a lioness painted on the flat section (See photo, left).  It’s often called the Sorcerer.  Though its function is unknown, it certainly encourages comparisons with the androgynous Spirit Master of western US cave art.  Yahwera, as the spirit master is known, keeps all the animals inside the earth and then releases them through a crack or crevice.  People mark the location of the portal to the Spirit Master’s cave with hand prints and drawings on the rock.

Past the End Chamber is a small area known as the Sacristy, which contains only the figure of a mammoth drawn in black with tusks emphasized by engraving.

What do these images mean?


There’s always some expert who claims ancient people were incapable of abstract thought; therefore anything they produced must be simply doodling, without any specific meaning.  It’s hard to believe these people actually looked at the images in the photographs.

Hunting Magic

Some experts claim the cave paintings were a form of hunting magic.  Hunters drew images on the walls to increase their luck in the hunt.  The problem is that most of the animals on Chauvet’s walls weren’t animals the people hunted. And, unlike the images in Lascaux Cave, these animals do not appear with arrows piercing them. Often they appear to be emerging from cracks in the cave wall, or in the case of the End Chamber, from the depth of the cave itself, like a womb of life presided over by the androgynous figure of the Sorcerer.

The Brilliant Crazy Ones

David Whitley, in his book Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief, argues that amazing ancient cave art is the work of one or more individuals we would call mentally ill. Specifically, he suggests bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.  These mood disorders, he says, provide the springboard for creativity.  He backs up his argument with studies of shamans who endured mental illness and through their struggles were able to experience the mythic creation of the world.  He claims that in the case of Chauvet, the enlightened crazy ones “used art to permanently materialize their spirit contact.  They created something in the real world [art] to illustrate what was in fact unreal.”

While I don’t rule out enlightened crazy artists, I think the process of art creation in Chauvet was more gradual that that thesis implies.  The art in Chauvet was an on-going process.  The first stage covered two thousand years!  Newer artists painted over older work.  Sometimes they purposely scratched out older images.  Older images tend to be simpler line figures without varying intensity of line or shading while the most recent work is very sophisticated indeed. But then, the later artists had a great gallery of previous work to study.


Studies of the earliest cave art at El Castillo Cave in Spain, dated to over 40,000 years old, revealed the strong possibility that the first artists to leave their marks on the cave walls were Neanderthals.  They left red dots and series of lines as well as two figures clearly resembling fish.  Perhaps the impetus for the great art of Chauvet and later Lascaux in southern France came from the folks who lived in the area for thousands of years before Homo sapiens sapiens.


Other experts, following the lead of David Lewis Williams, show that a trance state, brought on by fasting, drugs, repetitive sound, light deprivation, or even the toxic air inside the cave could have resulted in the impression that the mineral deposits on the walls were indeed animals coming out of the rock.  This idea is backed up by the outlined mammoth shape in the front half of the cave.  Trance was and is critical to religious practices in many parts of the world.  Through trance, shamans – people especially in tune with the spirit world through their constitution and their training – can bridge the gap between the world of spirits and the world of people in order to restore balance between them.

In many parts of the world caves are still seen as portals to the Underworld, powerful places that form a passage between worlds.

These theories may in fact overlap.  Perhaps inspired by the claw marks bears left on the walls, early residents left their own marks.  Later, visionary individuals may have understood the cave as a place to contact the spirit world.  These people and those who believed them would want to touch the walls that formed the only barrier between them and the otherworld. They would want to put their mark on the cave, to become part of it.  Later, the cave might become so powerful in local society it had to be claimed for a specific group and covered with their symbols. As that power shifted, so did the symbols.


Even among the most recent works in Chauvet, there seems to be some competition involved, perhaps by individual artists, clans, villages, or other groups. In the Skull Chamber, older red hatch marks were covered with an ibex drawing which was later scratched out and a reindeer added.  The mammoth outline is often drawn over older rhinos. A mammoth has been included in various parts of the cave (including the front and far back) over earlier images. Lions are often drawn over older figures (including on the feline panel in the End Chamber), but the most common over-draw is the horse head, occurring often as a head scratched right over the top of other figures or as the suggestion of a whole body, such as the figure in the Niche of the Horse in the End Chamber, which was drawn over a scraped area.  Other older red figures were effaced, along with a series of dots.

Several of the charcoal drawings seem to have been made by the same master artist who didn’t hesitate to cover or replace earlier works.  In the photo, it’s clear that the artist has scraped the left panel clean to make a stronger contrast between the white background and the black charcoal.

chauvet sectorofhorses

The mammoth artist seems to have a different style entirely but also “tagged” many different areas in the cave.  This artist tends to use only an outline, sometimes of the head, shoulders, and front leg, and sometimes the whole body.  The very last image in the cave is just such a figure.  (See photo, right)  The young mammoth was drawn first in charcoal, then the tusks were emphasized by engraving.

chauvet sacristy mammoth

Competition among artists may have also driven rapid developments of style.  The fully shaded horse heads and lion figures make a far more powerful statement than the smaller outlines of earlier efforts.


It may be difficult to explain how the ancient people perceived these cave drawings, but one conclusion is easy: The paintings in Chauvet Cave should show how absurd the whole Social Darwinism/March of Progress theory really is.  Obviously, the development of humankind is not a slow and steady march toward greater ability and sophistication, with modern humans at the top of the mountain.  Our distant ancestors had art, culture, and abstract thought 30,000 years ago!

While the cave is closed to the public to protect its contents, you can visit a replica that is now open near the cave.  Or check out the French Cultural Ministry’s map of Chauvet Cave at   It provides an overview of the cave shape as well as an interactive display of the paintings, human artifacts, and animal remains in each section.  It’s worth seeing!

Sources and Interesting Reading:

Balter, Michael, “Did Neandertals Paint Early Cave Art?” Science/AAAS/News, 14 June 2012,

“Chauvet,” French Ministry of Culture site,

“Chauvet Cave (ca.30,000 BC)” Hellbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art,

“Chauvet Cave,” Don’s Maps,   – This is an excellent source for photos of the paintings and maps of the galleries!

“Chauvet Cave Paintings: Prehistoric Murals, Ardeche, France: Discovery, Significance, Cave Layout,” Visual Arts Cork,

Clottes, Jean. Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times. University of Utah Press, 2003

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  Phaidon Press, 2010.  This coffee table book has fabulous full-color photos of very famous and some less famous European cave paintings and engravings.

“Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardeche,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage List,

Herzog, Werner. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (film) 2011, IFC Films

Hitchcock, Don, “Floor Plan of Chauvet Cave,” from Philippe et Fosse (2003) with additional text from Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, by Jean Clottes (2003)

“Introduction to the Chauvet Cave,” Bradshaw Foundation,

“Prehistoric Colour Palette: Paint Pigments Used by Stone Age Artists in Cave Paintings and Pictographs” Visual Arts Cork,

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic, 14 June 2012,…

Thurman, Judith “First Impressions: What does the world’s oldest art say about us?” The New Yorker 23 June 2008, http://www.newyorker/com/magazine/2008/06/23/first-impressions

Whitley, David.  Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009.

Photos: Photos from the French Ministry of Culture’s website are credited to Dominique Baffier and Valerie Ferugio.  Other photos come from Don’s Maps Chauvet post, at  Some of the photos on his post come from Jean Clottes and his team, some from National Geographic photographers.

The Shaman and The Spirit Master

Wow – What is it?

Bizarre, vaguely human figures in rock art have long puzzled viewers. They look a little like people yet clearly they’re something else. Why do they have weird heads, often without facial features? Why do they often have fewer than five fingers on each hand (or occasionally more)? Why do they have long torsos and missing limbs?

Anasazi pictograph

Animal Master PBA


Learning to see through others’ eyes

In the 19th century, anthropologist Edward B. Tyler introduced the concept of animism to describe the widespread ancient belief that all entities, including humans, animals, and natural features such as mountains, rivers, and trees, have souls, or spirits. All of these entities are interconnected, sharing a magical power. The person is identified not just by a physical body but by all of the connections made to the rest of the spirit world. Tyler found this belief to be the oldest and most common spiritual belief in the world. (It’s also the basis of “The Force” in the Star Wars films.)

rock art in Arkansas

In the 1980s, David Lewis-Williams argued that many odd figures in rock art, including the spirals, dots, and therianthropes (figures that combine human and animal characteristics) were images typical of a visionary trance brought on by chanting, drumming, fasting, and taking hallucinogenic drugs. He pointed out that many of these images are typical of visual distortions associated with trance experiences. They have been replicated many times in experiments involving LSD. Lewis-Williams argued that the rock art figures like the one in the photo (left) represented the shaman in the process of transformation into something supra-human, able to change physical form and slip between worlds.


Game Pass Shelter pictographHe described the famous fresco on the wall of the Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg region of South Africa as a shaman in a dream state connecting with the dream beast, the eland. The shaman is bleeding from the nose, as is the eland; their legs are crossed in exactly the same position. The eland is dying in order to bring rain to the people. The shaman has entered a pseudo-death in order to make the connection with the dream beast. For Lewis-Williams, the therianthrope – the figure combining human and animal characteristics – represents the shaman in his or her transformed state. (Photo left, drawing below)

Game Pass Shelter drawing


In 1976, Patricia Vinnicombe published the results of her work with the Drakensberg (South Africa) rock art paintings, in a book titled People of the Eland. In it, she reviewed stories told by San (Bushmen/Khoi San) people and recorded since the 19th century. Some told of a shaman catching a “rain beast” – usually a female ox, eland, elephant or other large herbivore. This was done through a trance, with the help of the group chanting, drumming, and dancing. Then the beast was sacrificed, and rain would fall where the beast was killed.

Interestingly, two San men that Patricia Vinnicombe interviewed saw the therianthropes in this image as mythical people of an earlier race, the First Bushmen, not images of transformed shamans.

These seem to be two very different explanations, but they may in fact be complementary. The shaman in a trance state may be the means of contacting spirit entities, including animal spirits, nature spirits, and spirits of the dead.

South central California rock art

New research on rock art in southeast California may suggest a slightly different way of seeing the famous panel in South Africa – and perhaps another mysterious figure found in the deepest part of Chauvet Cave in southern France.

The Patterned Body Anthromorphs Patterned body anthromorphs, Coso Range, CA

While studying thousands of rock art images in what is now the China Lake Air Force Base, Dr. Alan Garfinkle and his associates noted over 700 strange figures they called Patterned Body Anthromorphs, images notable for a long torso marked with various patterns, a head devoid of normal facial features, and truncated or missing legs, often with three toes. Sometimes a twisted snake accompanied the figure. In many cases, there was no gender evident, but in others, the figure had male, female, or both male and female characteristics. Almost all carried a staff or atlatl (dart thrower). Some carried a bag of seeds, which trailed out in lines behind the figure.


The Kawaiisu and other American Indian groups that lived in the area where the paintings appeared shared similar beliefs, which Dr. Garfinkel felt could provide a frame of reference for the rock art figures. Caves were seen as important places, imbued with sacred power. A spirit named Yahwera lived in a cave where the spirits of all the animals resided, even animals that had been killed.


In the spring, Yahwera opened the portal and allowed the regenerated animals to fill the land. Yahwera also provided healing medicines (“magic songs”) and successful hunts. Occasionally, a human, through accidental discovery or shamanistic transformation, could enter the world of Yahwera through a portal in a rock surface or a cave. There, below ground, the visitor would see all the animals, including those waiting to be reborn. Guarded by a large snake, the androgynous Yahwera was the keeper of the animals, wisdom, and power.


Images of Yahwera were inscribed on the sites of the portals. A known portal to the home of Yahwera was located near a spring and marked with an image of the Animal Master: a humanoid figure with red circles for the face, a feathered headdress and clawed feet. Next to the figure was a snake almost as tall as the main figure.Animal Master, Coso

The two drawings included (left) are representations of the patterned body anthromorphs in the Coso rock art collection (on the left) and the known representation of Yahwera, the guardian of the animal spirits (on the right).

The Yokuts, another tribe in the area, refer to rock art sites as “shaman’s caches,” vaults of magic power. When a shaman spoke to the rock, the portal opened, and the Spirit Master gave the shaman magic songs and wisdom.

The shaman as intermediary

The shaman talks to the rock, but the Spirit Master opens it. In this sense, the shaman is the intermediary. Because he can break the confines of this world, he is able to intercede for the people, asking the Spirit Master to release the game the people need to live. (I’m referring to the shaman as male though San people indicate that any male or female could accept the dangerous role of dream healer if desired.) The shaman delivers the request, not only for game but also for rain, wisdom, or cures for sickness. In this way, the shaman is acting in the same role as a modern priest, delivering the faithful’s requests to their Spirit Master.

One Kawaiisu narrative tells of a man who took jimsonweed (or raw tobacco in other versions) and found Yahwera’s cave. Inside he saw many animals, including deer and bear, who spoke the same language as the people. Yahwera explained that the animals weren’t really dead; they were only waiting to be reborn. At the end of the experience, the man was cured of his illness and left the cave through water at the end of a tunnel. When he came out, he found himself far from his starting point. He’d been gone so long, his people thought he had died.

In the Coso rock art, the strange figures on the rock surface are probably not shamans in a transformative state. According to tribal beliefs recorded in the 19th and 20th century, the figures represented the Spirit Master, the keeper of the animals, the source of magical power. The shaman was the one who is sensitive enough to find the portal to the Spirit Master’s realm and powerful enough to traverse the dangerous realms beyond this one.

Rock art images like the one included here from Utah seem to indicate a hierarchy of spirits because one figure is so much larger and dominates the image.  While all things living and dead may share in spirit energy, some are apparently far more powerful than others. Horseshoe Canyon, Utah, HolyGhost


An interesting side note:

The Memegwashio Indians of Quebec explain the red handprints on the rock over a sacred place as the mark of the spirits where they close the portal.

And another:

Cheyenne traditional beliefs held that the realm of deep earth could be accessed through sacred caves. In certain caverns animal spirits gathered, from which the animals might be released in physical form or refused rebirth.



And now to ancient cave art in Europe

Please forgive the jump from North American cave art to Europe 35,000 years ago. I don’t pretend to know the cultural references that would explain the beautiful ancient cave art of southern France and northern Spain, but others more knowledgeable than I have seen some commonality that bears examination. And the similarities are hard to ignore.

The oldest cave painting in Europe, possibly the work of our Neanderthal cousins, is a series of handprints on the wall of El Castillo Cave in Spain dated to 40,800 years ago. The cave shows no evidence of use as a living space, so it was apparently visited for other purposes. If the artists were Neanderthals, they were painting at the end of their reign. Not many years later, modern humans took over. Still, the idea that they may have marked the cave as special and that modern humans continued the association is intriguing. We now know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred. Perhaps their ideology was passed along as well.

As Enrico Comba points out in his paper, “Amerindian Cosmologies and European Prehistoric Cave Art: Reasons for and Usefulness of a Comparison,” rock art of Paleolithic Europe is an art of caves, mostly in remote areas hard to access. The figures are mostly animals. The few human figures are hybrids – human/animal crosses. The cave functions as a womb and a refuge for the animals, much the way that Yahwera’s cave held the animals in the California rock art references.

The second-oldest known cave art in Europe is in Chauvet Cave, at least 32,000 years old. The animals painted are realistic yet dreamlike, incomplete, presented in moving groups without any ground line.lascauxpanorama

In the back of the cave, in the last and deepest chamber, is a curious image known by some as “Venus and the Sorcerer.” It is a combination of a bull head and a pubic triangle surrounded by female legs that blend into the front leg of the bull and the leg of a lioness.

Venus and Sorcerer

It’s not much of a stretch to see this image as the Spirit Master, the keeper of the animal spirits in the cave, similar to the androgynous spirit that the shaman called upon in California art to release the animals held in the cave so they could be reborn in the spring.

Once again, the cave would function as the home of the animals, many of them pregnant with new life. It’s certainly an interesting possibility – that the mysterious Sorcerer/Venus figure in the very back of Chauvet Cave serves the same function as the Spirit Master.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Rock Art of the World,” Rock Art Documentary, DVD, ILecture Films, Boilerplate Productions, made in conjunction with the Bradshaw Foundation

“Art of the Chauvet Cave,” Ice Age Paleolithic Cave Painting, Bradshaw Foundation

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” DVD, Chauvet Cave documentary film by Werner Herzog, IFC Films, 2010

“Cave Painting,” Wikipedia

“Cave Paintings (40,000 – 10,000 BC)”

Comba, Erico, “Amerindian Cosmologies and European Prehistoric Cave Art: Reason for and Usefulness of a Comparison,” Arts journal, 27 December 2013

Garfinkel, Alan, with Donald Austin, David Earle, and Harold Williams, “Myth, ritual and rock art: Coso decorated animal-humans and the Animal Master,” Petroglyphs.US, 19 May 2009 <;

Garfinkel, Alan and Steven J. Waller, “Sounds and Symbolism from the Netherworld: Acoustic Archaeology and the Animal Master’s Portal,” Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly Vol.46, 4

Howley, Andrew. “70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux” National Geographic Newswatch, 17 September 2010,

Lymer, Kenneth, “Shimmering Visions: Shamanistic Rock Art Images from the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Expedition (Journal of the Museum of Pennsylvania), vol. 46, no. 1

Solomon, Anne. The Essential Guide to San Rock Art. South Africa: ABC Press, 1998

“The Sorcerer (cave art)” Wikipedia

“Talking Stone: Rock Art of the Cosos,” DVD starring Dr. Alan Garfinkel, distributed by the Bradshaw Foundation

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, 14 June 2012,

“Venus and the Sorcerer” image from

Witze, Alexandra, “Rock Art Revelations?” American Archaeology, Summer 2014, vol 18, no. 2, 33-37.




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.


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”

“Caves of Germany” Hohlenstein,

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

“Guennol Lioness” Wikipedia,

“Lion – Cultural Depictions”  Wikipedia,

Lion-headed figurine” – updated, TYWKIWDBI, March 8, 2013,

The Lion Lady – Die Lowenfrau, Don’s Maps,

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

Partian, Gary. “The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel: Mystery from the Stone Age” October 21, 2009

“The Paleolithic Age” The Prehistory of Homo Sapiens, Part IV, The Essay Web,

Schulz, Mattias. “Puzzle in the Rubble,” Der Spiegel, 2011,

“Swabian Jura,” Wikipedia,

Ulmer Museum Archaeological Collection, The Lion Man Exhibition

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

Death and Half-Death

At first glance, it would seem that Americans ignore death.  We’re often uncomfortable talking about it or even thinking about it.  Some people won’t attend wakes or funerals even if a friend dies because they hate being around death.  We grow up with strange customs like holding our breath when we pass a cemetery.  Is this because the dead are dangerous?  Could they hurt us if we inhaled cemetery air?

We want everyone reassuringly young and good-looking.  Those are the people who fill our media.  They smile and we smile.  We like it that way.

And yet, curiously, the dead are fairly common in our entertainment.  Characters die on television programs every night.  Some shows depend on a murder for a plot.  Horror movies use corpses to frighten us.  Zombies and vampires, both very popular at the moment, share peculiar states between life and death.  Even mainstream entertainment often features the dead.  Consider movies like “Ghost,” wherein Sam (Patrick Swayze) is dead but needs to warn Molly (Demi Moore) of the danger she’s facing.  Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg) is the intermediary who gives Sam a voice in the world of the living, much to her surprise.  Or there’s “The Sixth Sense,” which features a boy who sees dead people.

Even classics like “A Christmas Carol” feature the dead.  Poor Marley’s Ghost is the one who is compelled to change Scrooge’s behavior.  In Disney’s “Mulan,” Mulan’s ancestors decide to protect her by sending out a guardian spirit.  In The Lord of the Rings films, Gandalf the Grey is defeated by the Balrog and dragged down into the Underworld, but he returns as Gandalf the White, a superior being for having visited death.  Later, Aragorn calls on an entire army of the dead to fight for him against Sauron’s legions, and indeed, they make the difference between victory and defeat.

In “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke (the apprentice shaman) learns from Yoda (the senior shaman) how to face the forces of evil (Darth Vader and The Empire in general).  The struggle is complicated by the realization that evil lies very close at hand: Darth Vader is Luke’s father.  At the end of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” Darth Vader, Yoda, and Obi Wan, all of whom are dead, appear surrounded by glowing light to reassure the hero of the righteousness of his victory.

All this is to say that even a culture that claims to ignore death actually recognizes its importance.

Now, imagine you belonged to a world long ago.  You saw death frequently, and you needed to understand how death was part of life.  You knew there were certain people who had amazing powers.  They weren’t called doctors and didn’t keep strange office hours, but in a way, they held a similar position of respect.  They were people able to cross the barrier between life and death and to influence the course of events.  They were shamans.

Shamans were highly trained individuals who were able to leave life, and in a kind of half-death, they were able to travel to the spirit world, but it wasn’t easy.  In many cases, what ensued after the transformation was a battle between the forces of death and the forces of life.  In some cases, the shaman was trying to heal a sick person, so he had to battle the force that created sickness, a terrifying fight.

Sometimes, the shaman won, and the spirit of the sickness was driven away.  Sometimes, he lost.  Sometimes, even though he had done everything correctly, God wanted the person to sicken and die, so intervention was impossible.  This creates a hierarchy of power.  The lower levels are subject to change, so a spirit of sickness might be overcome in battle by a skilled shaman, but the highest power was beyond any of them.

What was given to the shaman, in return for his or her brave exploration of the world beyond this one, was power: knowledge of  powerful plants and rituals, ability to converse with the dead, understanding gained through ecstasy, freedom from individual personality achieved through trance, recognition of specific animal and spirit guides, ability to transform into another being, to fly into the heavens, to swim in the ocean depths, and most importantly, to understand the meaning of these journeys.

It was because these people were beyond this world that they were recognized as special.  San trance dancers could bring rain by dream-hunting the rain animal, a scene often portrayed in San rock art in South Africa.  In the rock art panel in the photo, trance dancers surround the rain beast.  As hunters, they would use their skill to kill the dream beast, whose blood would become rain.

In the next diagram, the San shaman-hunter stands behind the dying eland, which is bleeding from the nose.  The shaman in trance also bleeds from the nose.  His legs are crossed, just like the dying eland’s.  In order for the rain to come, the eland must die, and the shaman, whose feet are now like the eland’s feet, must die also.  That’s the only way he can enter the realm of the spirits and plead his case for his people.  He has entered a trance brought on by hallucinogenic plants and long practice, allowing him to reach, after great pain, shuddering, even convulsions, the state between life and death.  There, with his old life left behind, he can seek to rebalance what was in peril: a sick person, a land without rain, a fight between clans or tribes.

He can, in some cases, see the course of events to follow.  In the second book of the series, Misfits and Heroes: East from Oceania, the shaman sees the path of the future very clearly, but it is a vision so dire that he chooses not to share it with the people even though they asked him for it.

But let’s go back to the idea of holding your breath as you pass a cemetery.  There is something frightening about the dead because we don’t know how they feel about the living.  For that matter, we don’t know what the dead do.  In the movies, they walk into the shining light or roam the earth until their individual wrong is righted.  Then what?

In some cultures, the dead actively threaten the living, and it’s the shaman’s task to fight them.  In others, the dead are honored as continuing members of the family.  Their bodies are brought out for special occasions, offered favorite foods, and consulted in important decisions.  Then it’s the shaman’s task to interpret the dead’s wishes.

This question is central to the third story of the series, Misfits and Heroes: Southwest from Europe, in which one character has been refused a place of honor with the ancestors and sent back to the world of the living to try to lead a better life, and another character voluntarily chooses to leave with a group of people who died at sea.

African masks

The African mask was never meant to exist in isolation, in a carefully lighted niche in a museum.  The mask is part of an entire outfit that would cover – and obscure – the person behind it.  That way, the wearer could become the figure represented in the mask.

Nor would the figure be still.  Most masks were used as part of ceremonies, often ritual dances, so the mask would be only part of the presentation.  The music, the movement of the dancer, the flying raffia or cloth pieces, the rattle of beads and bone fragments would all contribute to the impression. In the photo below, one dancer wears a fish mask, another a crocodile mask.  The extensive raffia covers every part of what used to be the person the spectators knew well.

Masks have many purposes, and their design and function varies from one area to another.   Some show rank, such as chief or shaman; others represent powerful spirits; others embody ideals of masculinity or feminity as seen by that culture; some inspire terror.

Only a select few people, usually men, can wear the masks.  They must be initiated and trained, and their training must remain secret.  The wearer of the mask must be able to accept the challenge of becoming a medium between this world and the world of the spirits and ancestors in order to bring harmony between them.  He must be able to channel the very life energy of the bush in order to bring it to his people.

The mask shown in the photo on the left represents a hawk spirit.  Every line and pattern in the mask has a specific meaning to those initiated in its use.  The dark and light checkerboard pattern represents the balance of opposites  – male and female, night and day, life and death, flight and stillness.

An excellent reference work is African Masks: the Barbier-Mueller Collection, which includes a color photo and description of each mask as well as a picture of a similar mask as it was worn by a masked dancer.  The masks in the collection come from West Africa, especially Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, as well as Central Africa, especially the Congo.

In the story, Komo, the shaman/chief has made the mask that he wears, but his mind has split between the powerful figure who stands at the center of the wheel of life when he is masked, and the mere mortal who exists when he takes off the mask.  Eventually, he feels the unmasked face is not really his at all.

It’s hard for us to understand the power of the masks in many societies around the world because we have so little experience with them.  The closest we have is ritual clothing, such as wedding gowns, priest’s vestments, judge’s robes, police uniforms, etc.  Occasionally, we enjoy masquerade parties because they give us the chance to “wear a different face” and therefore act like a different person.  The same is true of Halloween masks.  The controversy over French Muslim women wearing a full face veil is at least partly connected to our feeling that when the face is hidden, the person is hidden, and we fear what we can’t see.

Of course, it can be argued that the use of makeup is a form of mask in that it alters and in some ways protects the person behind the makeup.  So is jewelry, and clothing.  Different clothes can make you see yourself differently.  Hence the saying “Clothes make the man.”

But none of these reach the level of intensity of the masks used in Africa, Oceania, South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Northwest.  Combined with dances, extravagant body covers, sometimes stilts, these masked figures truly become more than human.