The mysterious “Lion-Man” gets re-dated to 40,000 BCE, making it the oldest figurative sculpture, … and even more of a mystery

The Lion-man may be the oldest-known example of figurative art and it is recognisable to us as a human figure with a lion’s head. We are familiar with such zoomorphic depictions because we have seen them before, for instance on wall-paintings in Egyptian tombs. But the Lion-man was carved around 35,000 years ago, many thousands of years before the Egyptians.

Over time some mysteries become MORE mysterious. This is the case of one 29.6 cm (11.7 inches)-tall statue of a “Lion Man” discovered in a cave in the Swabian Alps in southern Germany in 1939. The ivory statue, carved out of a Mammoth tusk, was found – shattered – and sat forgotten in a museum drawer until after the war. It was only after it was assembled, thirty years later, that scientists realized that they had found not only one of the first figurative statues, but the first zoomorphic sculpture. It has been on exhibit at the Ulmer museum in Ulm, in Germany.

Scientists have recently found an additional 1000 fragments, which they plan on adding to the statue, removing some filler, and glue – and have re-dated the statue to 40,000 BCE, making it the oldest figurative sculpture yet found. The statue was supposed to take part in “Ice Age Art” a show at the British Museum, which opens February 7, but the recent finds will require more work, and a replica of the statue will go in its stead.

The statue’s meaning has been the subject of heated debate; at first some scientists believed that it was a representation of a cave bear… was this man-lion sculpture a shamanic link to the spirit world… or something else altogether? While most researchers see the figure as male, one paleontologist, Elisabeth Schmid, sees it as a female. It shares similarities with French cave paintings, which also show “hybrid creatures” … or chimeras. Some believe that the figure is a depiction of a deity.

The statue is a mystery in many ways. Scientists have attempted to re-carve the ivory statue with flint tools and have concluded that it would take up to 400 hours of work, which upsets what (little) we know of the social organization of hunter-gatherer Neolithic peoples. Jill Cook, British Museum curator, is quoted in (an article we recomend reading in) The Art Newspaper as saying: it is “not necessary to have a brain with a complex pre-frontal cortex to form the mental image of a human or a lion—but it is (necessary) to make the figure of a lion-man” … all of which while shedding further light on the evolution of homo sapiens, shrouds additional mystery on the ULM statue.

Find out more about the Ice Age of the Aurignacian on this webpage.

Visit the official site of the ULM Museum, linked here.

“Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind”
From the 7th of February to the 26th of May, 2013
British Museum,


“The Return of the Lion Man: History, Myth, Magic”
From the 16th of November 2013 to the 9th of June 2014,
Ulmer Museum,