The Lion-man, the oldest sculpture in the world

In 1939, during a series of archaeological excavations at the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, some fragments of a singular sculpture were found that was immediately called “the Lion-Man”. However, the most extraordinary detail is not the curious features, but rather its origins: with about 32,000 years of age it is the oldest sculpture in the world.What prompted the first men to create such an unusual and mysterious object, and for what unknown reasons? It is time to leave on a fascinating journey back in time, in search of the origins of our humanity.

What differentiates human beings from animals?

This is the essential question that has always guided the studies of philosophers and anthropologists. It is undeniable that the species Homo sapiens, whose origins date back to 300,000 years ago, is characterized by a morphology and a biology similar to those of other specimens of the animal kingdom. According to Darwin’s evolutionary model, the genus Homo descends, in fact, from anthropomorphic monkeys. Historian Noah Harari coined an expression that we could define as iconic:

Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother”.

Noah Harari, From animals into gods: a brief history of humankind
Are you telling me that over 98% of my DNA is the same as yours?

Zoe and Bios

This is evident by all the instinctive characteristics that distinguish us. However, no human would ever claim to be an animal! The ability to think and rationality place us on a different level, that of metacognition: it is the awareness of one’s thought processes [1]. This property belongs to the human being, but not to animals; these, instead, identify themselves in the instinctive behavior they perform.. While a cat eats, only eats. While a human eats, he has the ability to think about the fact that he is eating. The ancient Greek philosophers defined with the term zoe the simple fact of living, common to all creatures.

An evolutionary disadvantage

Animals are characterized by a perfect identification, biologically determined, with the habitat in which they live (think of the polar bear at the North Pole). The human being does not have a natural habitat, but has had to adapt in a very peculiar way to extremely different contexts. Up to 40,000 years ago it was totally in the only zoe dimension, at a strong evolutionary disadvantage [2].

In fact, human beings have no fur, no claws, no wings, or anything else that could have removed them from natural selection. Nevertheless, humans have been able to colonize almost any habitat, differentiating themselves into a multiplicity of anthropologically diverse groups. The Greek term bios best defines these different ways of living. It describes the life of an individual or a group. Bios, in all its cultural manifestations, has contributed to the survival of the human beings.

The concept of culture

Culture then became as a second nature, and it still is today. Many things that we do, and believe to be natural, are instead derived from a process of enculturation, which happens unconsciously during life: the way we eat, sleep, cry… For instance, an inhabitant of Equatorial Guinea has a very different conception of these behaviors compared to us! The sense of disgust of food, of aesthetic canons, are strictly dependent on the cultural context.

In this regard, the American anthropologist Geertz defines culture as “the web of significance that people spin and in which they live”.

Culture constitutes the instrument of evolutionary response through which humankind attempts to remedy its imperfection, its original biological lack. Life bios is precisely what differentiates us from animals.

Culture as symbolic knowledge

The human being is a cultural animal that gives meaning to what it does. Through this signification of life, he overcomes the fear of adaptation to the environment, to life, to the world. The deepest fear of the human being is not death, but rather is related to living only in the zoe dimension. For a primitive man who lived in the Paleocene, this corresponded to facing the dangers of nature, of a hostile and inhospitable habitat. Therefore, nature is overwritten through a system of particular codified and recognizable signs.

The concept of symbol is of fundamental importance in its cultural meaning and belonging to a species or an ethnic group. Culture is symbolic.

The symbol

The symbol is the bios system that primordial human beings adopt to maintain themselves in the world for imposing an order on the universe, which would otherwise seem “a chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions” [3] .

It, as well as the whole series of complex rituals that belong to humanity, helped us 40,000 years ago, then as today, to overcome the sense of bewilderment and helplessness that we feel in front of nature.

The Lion-man of Hohlenstein

Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel [Fig. 1]

The first symbolic manifestation of the human being is a sculpture of only 30 centimeters made of ivory, carved from mammoth tusks about 32,000 years ago. It is the Lion-man of Hohlenstein, a work sculpted by a skilled hunter-gatherer, whose meaning still remains mysterious. Some fragments were found in 1939 during excavations at the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, started in 1937 under the direction of historian Robert Vertzel.

When work were interrupted due to World War II, the remains of the sculpture were conserved, and were not retrieved until thirty years later. The meticulous reconstruction work was entrusted to the archaeologist Joachim Hahn.

Analysis and hypotheses about the Lion-man

The prehistoric Lion-man has a lion-like head without a mane, while the lower half clearly depicts human traiThe lion-man has a lion’s head without a mane, and the lower half has human traits.

Anthropologist Elisabeth Schmid believes that this is a female figure, although it is difficult to determine its sex; this could be related to the matriarchy in primitive societies. First, the navel of the statuette would seem to bear the marks of a birth. In fact, we note the presence of a horizontal fold along the lower part of the abdomen. Furthermore, according to the paleontologist Schmid, the statue initially had breasts, which would be lost.

However, this is not the only hypothesis about the artifact: could the Lion-man statue represent a shaman?

The meaning of the Lion-man

Since ancient times, all religious representations were essentially totemic [4], and still today they are strongly focused on complex symbol systems. This is evident from the etymology of the term symbol, which derives from the Greek σύνβάλλω (synbállō) and has the meaning of “throwing things together“. Not surprisingly, the antithetical term of symbol is devil, which is “the one who divides“, from the Greek διαβάλλω (diabállō).

The statue of the Lion-man is characterized by a strong symbolic meaning. The representation of a figure half man and half animal indicates the atavistic fear of the human being towards nature and, at the same time, its overcoming. So, the sculpture had an apotropaic and figurative function. The attempt to humanize the lion, to codify the dangers of the environment in a system of signs, helped primitive man to overcome his biological incompleteness. The statue of the Lion-man indicates the moment when when the human being has become completely human. It represents the first historical moment in which human beings symbolically differentiated themselves from animals. In conclusion, the Lion-man indicates the birth of humanity as we know it today.

Samuele Corrente Naso, Daniela Campus


[1] Kant: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View

[2] Arnold Gehlen, Man, his nature and place in the world; Helmuth Plessner, “The Levels of the Organic and Man“.

[3] Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures

[4] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890

[Fig. 1] By Dagmar Hollmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, link

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