30,000-year-old Figurines Found in German Cave

December 18, 2003
Alex Dominguez, Associated Press

Some of the oldest undisputed artworks ever found — figurines carved from mammoth ivory about 30,000 years ago — have been discovered in a cave in Germany, shedding light on early humans’ religious beliefs and confirming they were surprisingly skilled artists.

The figurines depict a water bird, what appears to be a horse’s head and a lion-man. The one-inch lion-man is similar to a nearly footlong figurine previously found in a nearby valley that had been cited as evidence of shamanism — the belief that spirits can be influenced by priests known as shamans.

Birds, especially water birds, are known to be a favorite shamanistic symbol, which means that “advocates of the shamanistic hypothesis are going to be very happy about these finds,” said study author Nicholas Conard.

The 2-inch bird is extremely lifelike, with a well-formed head and eyes and a neck stretching out as if in flight.

While early man is often seen as brutish, the findings add to evidence that “the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists,” University of Liverpool archaeologist Anthony Sinclair wrote in a commentary accompanying the paper. Both appear in today’s issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers said they believed the figurines were created by early anatomically modern humans. They are among the earliest examples of figurative art — art that represents human or animal forms — and are as old as the well-known French cave paintings.

Radiocarbon dating used to date the carvings is inexact, but the objects were almost certainly made between 28,000 and 35,000 years ago, Sinclair said.

The three artifacts join a group of more than 20 ivory figurines found in the area, which Sinclair called the oldest body of figurative art in the world. Isolated older finds have been described as artwork, a claim that is disputed in many cases.

While shamanism has been suggested, the figurines also may have been made because the lion-man, for example, had qualities that the bearer wanted to possess. Or they may have been teaching aids, or even toys for children, Sinclair said.