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

Venus Figurines

Interestingly, in Europe, the period between 45,000 and 25,000 years ago, which saw so many important innovations, including eyed needles, the atlatl (spear thrower), pottery, fiber craft including baskets, rope, and clothing, as well as the great cave paintings of Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira, and El Castillo, coincided with the period of co-existence of Homo sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis, whom we now know interbred.  Perhaps the influx of new blood proved to be very beneficial to Homo sapiens.  Perhaps it provided the right conditions for the flowering of symbolic art.


Venus Figurines

The earliest examples of what are now called Venus Figurines were discovered in Israel and North Africa, though they are often excluded from the European Venus group, perhaps because the European figures were all dated between 35,000 and 20,000 years old, whereas the examples from Israel and Morocco were far older.  The Venus of Berekhat Ram, discovered in the Golan Heights, is little more than a pebble carved to resemble a woman’s head, shoulders, and breasts.  While it was originally dismissed as the result of natural erosion, microscopic study revealed the marks were man-made.  It was dated by the two strata it was found between – somewhere between 230,000 and 500,000 years old.

Only eighteen years later, the Venus of Tan-Tan was discovered in Morocco by Lutz Fiedler, a German archaeologist.  Like the Venus of Berekhat Ram, it was found between two layers.  The lower layer was dated 500,000 years ago, the upper layer to 200,000 years ago.  It was coated with red ochre. (See earlier post, “The Color of Life and Death” on red ochre.)

While the Venus of Berekhat Ram clearly shows enormous breasts, the Venus of Tan-Tan seems only generally humanoid in form, marking off a head, torso, and legs.  Most of the later Venus figures are clearly female, with exaggerated female traits, but some are ambiguous, with no gender evident, at least one is male, and some seem to be young, immature females.  In all cases, the term “Venus” is somewhat misleading.  None of them look like the classic Greek beauty!

Not exactly art as we usually think of it

While the Venus figurines from Eurasia are often called the first pieces of mobile art, I suspect they didn’t function the way modern art does.  Most were found rubbed with red ochre, broken in pieces and buried in fire pits.  That’s hardly the way most people today treat their art treasures.  More likely the figures were part of a wide-spread cult that involved ritual destruction and burial of the figurines, perhaps as a way to ensure abundance.

Neanderthal sites

Most of the sixty or so Eurasian Venus figurines discovered so far were found in a wide band running from the Atlantic coast near northern Spain to the Mediterranean Sea near the border of southern France and Italy, all the way to the north and east of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine and Russia. They have been found in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Russia, and the Ukraine, with dates ranging from 35,000 BC to 20,000 BC.  That’s quite a large area and a spread of 15,000 years.  It’s also the same area that the Neanderthals and Denisovans occupied.  The map at right shows the main Neanderthal sites discovered to date.

The European Venus figures are embarrassingly exaggerated, grotesque to modern eyes. They present only the middle of the female body, emphasizing large, pendulous breasts, swollen belly, fat thighs and buttocks.  The rest of the body seems irrelevant.  In many the face is featureless (or missing) and the feet – and sometimes the arms – omitted completely.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice

Few women 25,000 years ago would have looked like these figures.  They’re not portraits.  The importance of the figures is their embodiment of swelling birth.  Perhaps the figure is meant to be a spirit related to fertility or birth.  Perhaps her fatness, which we see as grotesque, was her beauty.  She might have been a symbol of amazing abundance.  Some years ago, a college president who was originally from the Philippines greeted an instructor he passed in the hall by saying, “You look nice and fat today.”  The instructor was insulted, but it was meant as a compliment.  If you have plenty, you have abundance, a form of wealth.  In a land where too much to eat was never a problem, fatness would have been an admirable quality, a form of status, a clear indication you’d done well.

Very likely, the figurine represented some form of the Mother figure that we still reference when we speak of Mother Earth or Mother Nature.  The figure in the photo is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, found in the Czech Republic.

The figures

Some of the most famous figures include the following:

 Venusof Hohle Fels

Venus of Schelklingen (Hohle Fels Cave), (35,000 – 40,000 years old) Germany, carved mammoth ivory.  This exaggerated female form lacks head and feet.  Her arms and belly are marked with incised lines.  Nicholas Conrad, whose team found the figurine in Hohle Fels cave, said, “Head and legs don’t matter.  This is about sex, reproduction.”  Unlike other experts, he dismisses the idea of the Venus figure and the mammoth, lion, and diving bird figurines also found in the cave as talismans ensuring hunting magic. He sees the figures as representations of complex ideas with tremendous emotional significance.

Venus of Kostensky, Russia

venus of Kostenski

(30,000 years old), carved from animal bone, found broken in pieces and interred in a ritual fire pit.  Particularly interesting for what appears to be rope tying her wrists together, making her look like a sacrificial victim.

Venus of Laussel

Venus of Laussel, France, limestone carving on cave wall near Lascaux (23,000 years old).  This figure holds what some experts have identified as a bison horn incised with 13 lines.  Other experts claim it is a crescent moon and the 13 lines refer to the 13 moons in an annual cycle.  Yet other interpretations include a drinking horn or a musical instrument. Traces of red ochre coating remain on the figure.  Since the discovery of the wall carving in 1911, the cave has yielded many other finds, including female figurines similar to the carving, others representing young, immature females, one male figure, and many half-finished pieces which apparently broke during the carving process.  The sheer number of items brings up the possibility that they were being crafted as trade items.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic, fired clay figurine (29,000 years old), found broken in two in fire pit ash.  In the same area, archaeologists discovered 700 animal figurines, including mammoth, horse, fox, rhino, owl, bear, and lion, as well as 2000 balls of burned clay.

Venus of Willendorf, Austria, (25,000 years old), covered with red ochre, marked with crisscross lines indicating a woven cap pulled down to cover the face.  While some have claimed the figure represents a Mother Goddess or Earth Mother figure, she seems more victim than goddess.  A possible combination of the two functions would be something like the Aztec Creator Mother Coatlicue, who had to be destroyed in order for the world to be created.  (It’s interesting that this figurine and several others  show clear representations of rope and textiles.)

Venus of Brassempouy, France (probably about 25,000 years old) carved from mammoth ivory, head and neck only.  This figure is famous for its realistic portrayal of complicated hair style, or a combination of a hair net and braids.  It’s also unusual in that it includes only a head and neck and that the features, except for the mouth, are clearly marked.  After its discovery in the 1880s, it sparked a fierce debate about the subject’s race; many thought it looked Chinese.  Her picture appears at the top of this post.

Venus of Moravany, Slovakia, (24,000 years old) carved mammoth bone, found in an area known to be a Neanderthal settlement in the Middle Paleolithic period

Venus of Savignano, Italy (25,000 years old) carved serpentine stone, marked with red ochre, found in a clay deposit by a river.

Venus of Malta, Russia (25,000 years old), carved mammoth ivory, found near Lake Baikal.  Similarities to the European Venus figurines suggest a wide-spread network of the cult that used these figurines.

Venus of Garagino, Ukraine (22,000 years old), carved volcanic rock, found in a cave with petroglyphs, stone tools, and animal bones.  This is probably the most exaggerated, abstract form of the Venus figure.

Some thoughts:

Debate over these figures is loud and on-going.  Most archaeologists agree that they represented some abstract form of fertility or abundance.  I find it interesting that so many were apparently ritually broken and burned, representing a sacrifice, perhaps one meant to ensure abundance.  Whatever its beliefs, the cult’s influence was very widespread and lasted over 15,000 years.

Many of the Venus figurines were coated with red ochre, mineral clay sometimes used to renew the power of a talisman.  It’s connected with vitality, worn on the face in many societies.  It’s what modern western women dust on their cheeks in make-up “blusher.”  The Venus of Tan-Tan, discovered in Morocco, dated between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago, also has traces of red-ochre coating.  Perhaps the division of the earlier Venus figurines from those found in Eurasia is not warranted.

The time when the Venus figurines were spreading from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the Black Sea was also the time when Neanderthals/Denisovans and Homo sapiens inhabited those very areas.  Perhaps the combination of the two produced the first examples of widespread, symbolic creations in Europe.

Sources and interesting reading:

Curry, Andrew, “The Cave Art Debate,”, March 2012

da Silva CM. 2010, “Neolithic Cosmology”  Journal of Cosmology 9:2207-2010.

Duhard J-P. 1991. “The shape of Pleistocene Women,” Antiquity 65(248):552-561.

“A Female Figurine from Basal Aurignaic,” Nature (459) 248-252, 14 May 2009

“Neanderthal,” Wikipedia

“Oldest Art,” Encyclopedia of Art,

Tattersall I, Schwartz, JH (June 1999) “Hominids and Hybrids: The place of Neaderthals in human evolution,”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96 (13) 7117 – 9

Sofer, O, Adovasio, JM. And Hyland, D.C. “The Venus Figurines,” Current Anthropology (41) August-October, 2000

“Venus Figurines,”

“Venus of Laussel,”

White, Randall, “The Women of Brassenpouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation,” Journal of Archaeological Method  (13) 4.

Witcombe, Christopher, “The Venus of Willendorf – Mother Goddess,”

Webley, Kayla “Top 10 Earth Goddesses,” Time, 22 April, 2011

Ancient Ostrich Eggshells: Lines, Patterns, Spirits

The Discovery

In 2010, an archaeological team led by Pierre-Jean Texier of the Univeristy of Bordeaux, France, made an incredible find in the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa: 270 ostrich eggshell fragments engraved with geometric designs (pictured, left).  What’s particularly interesting about this find is the date: 60,000 years ago!  Just to put that in perspective, the only earlier design as yet identified, also from a South African cave, is a single cross-hatched block of red ochre, dated to an amazing 80,000 years ago.  The Chauvet Cave art in France, long thought to be the first expression of human art, is dated to 35,000 years ago, and the earliest Egyptian pyramid is a relative new-comer at 5,000 years ago.  So the discovery of the decorated ostrich eggshells means humans (or at least hominids) were making art – specific designs and patterns carefully created and repeated – a very long time ago.

Ostrich eggshells are large (about 4″ in diameter and 6″ in length) and quite strong; very useful, once they’ve been cleaned out, as cups, bowls, or canteens.  Since they can withstand heat, they might also have served as cookware.  Some Bushmen still use ostrich eggshells as canteens, plugging the hole with a mixture of grass and beeswax, and many people still use the shells as cups and bowls.  There’s a thriving craft business in decorated ostrich eggs, both whole and half shells, with designs ranging from elaborate drawings scratched into the shell to simple repeated geometric patterns.  You can browse a wide selection in gift shops through southern Africa.  I brought a decorated half-shell home (photo) in my checked bag, so it must be pretty strong.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the ancient people treasured these versatile eggshells.  What is surprising is the clear sense of design in the fragments that were discovered.  Since the archaeologists had such a large sample to work with (270 fragments), they were able to see the repetition of very similar patterns.  All of the fragments shown in the photo have dots arranged in what seems to be a random scattering, sometimes over the whole fragment, sometimes over only part of it.  The horizontal lines and vertical marks between them are superimposed over the dots.  Althought ostrich eggs are typically off-white, the shell fragments in the find are grey, blue, red, orange, and green, perhaps indicating the use of dyes or pit firing to create different colors the way a potter would.

Some experts have dismissed the decorations as mere doodling, but their theory seems hard to believe.  Why would the ancient people take the time to mark and color these shells so carefully if they meant nothing?  It’s far more likely that they were very important indeed, but because the experts don’t understand the shells’ meaning, they’ve decided the designs are meaningless.

The Khoi-San/ Bushmen

The Khoi-San, more commonly known as the Bushmen, have some of the oldest patterns of mitochondrial DNA on the planet and are considered the oldest living race of humans.  In modern times, they have been persecuted and pushed to the edges of developed areas in South Africa and Botswana, but they once roamed over most of southen and central Africa.  However, according to research published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, the Khoi-San population dropped to only a few thousand individuals about 70,000 years ago, perhaps as the result of a prolonged drought.  Then the tiny bands that managed to survive came together and restarted the human race.  Many experts think this was also the time that modern, complex language developed and many people migrated to new areas, perhaps in search of a kinder enviroment.

It’s that amazing time that leads to these amazing shells.

The Trance Dance

In traditional Khoi-San/Bushmen practice, the trance dancer combines dancing, music, hyperventillation, concentration, and hallucinogenic drugs to reach the trance state.  Here, somewhere between life and death, he (or she) can mediate between the world of spirits and the world of people to try to restore balance.  In some cases, the shaman must fight off sickness or misfortune sent by the angry dead, often spoken of as arrows of harm the dead throw at the victim’s midsection.

According to the “San Religion” entry in Wikipedia, western researchers into the trance dance have attempted to replicate the trance dance experience in the lab by using LSD.  In their findings, the first part of the trance is an altered state of consciousness in which people see geometric shapes, especially zigzags, dots, flecks, and grids, vortexes and U-shapes.  These designs are very common in rock art of South Africa and on the ostrich eggshells.

In the later stages of the trance, subjects see multiple U-shaped figures like honeycombs.  There are many examples of these in Bushmen cave painting, including several with bees carefully painted in.  Finally, the subjects feel as if they are falling down a whirling vortex, seeing monsters and strange animals.  Some feel they’ve become half-animal.  Figure of animal-human hybrids, called theriotropes, are common in Bushmen cave paintings.

It seems possible, then, that the amazing ostrich eggshells are not mindless doodles at all but very purposeful pieces of art that mark a spiritual journey undertaken by many, perhaps a battle against the forces of evil that threated the existence of mankind.