The Lion-man, the oldest sculpture in the world

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In 1939, during a series of archaeological excavations at the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, some fragments of a singular sculpture were found. It 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 for 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 the other specimens of the animal kingdom. According to Darwin’s evolutionary model, the genus Homo descends, in fact, from anthropomorphic monkeys. The historian Noah Harari (Sapiens. From animals to gods: brief history of humankind) 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“.


Are you telling me I have DNA more than 98% the same as yours?


Zoe and Bios

This is evident for all the instinctive features that distinguish us. Nonetheless, no man would ever say that he is an animal! Thinking skills and rationality place us on a different level, that of metacognition: it is a thinking about thinking [1]. This property belongs to the human being, but not to animals; these, instead, identify themselves in the instinctive action they are making. While a cat eats, only eats. While a man 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.

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 he was totally in the only zoe dimension, in a situation of strong evolutionary disadvantage [2].

In fact, a man has no fur, no claws, no wings, or anything else could have saved him from the natural selection. However, humans were able to colonize each habitat, differentiating itself into a multiplicity of anthropologically diversified groups. The Greek term bios best defines these different ways of living. It defines the life of an individual or a group. Bios, in all its cultural manifestations, has contributed to the survival of the human being.


The concept of culture

 Culture appeared as a second nature, and this is still today. Many things we do, and which we believe to be natural, are instead derived from a process of inculturation, which happens unconsciously throughout life: the way of eating, sleeping, crying… For instance, an inhabitant of Equatorial Guinea has a very different conception of these behaviors compared to us! The sense of food disgust, 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 individuals created and continue to recreate, remaining so enmeshed“.

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

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 linked to living only in the zoe dimension. For a primitive man living in the Paleocene period, this corresponded to tackling with the dangers of nature, of a hostile and inhospitable habitat. For this reason, nature is overwritten through a system of particular coded and recognizable signs.

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


The symbol

The symbol is the bios system that primordial human beings adopt to maintain themselves in the world forimpose an order on the universe, which would otherwise take the form of a huge confusion” [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 is felt in the face of nature.




The Lion-man of Hohlenstein


The Lion-man. Photo by Dagmar Hollmann, licence CC-BY-SA-4.0


The first symbolic manifestation of the human being is a sculpture of only 30 centimeters made of ivory, obtained 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 today.

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 the works were interrupted due to the Second World War, the remains of the sculpture were preserved and recovered only thirty years later. The meticulous reconstruction work was entrusted to the archaeologist Joachim Hahn.


Analysis and hypotheses about the Lion-man

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

The anthropologist Elisabeth Schmid believes it is a female figure, although it is difficult to determine its sex; this could be related to the matriarchy of 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 may have been lost.

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


Meaning of the Lion-man

Since ancient times, all religious representations were essentially totemic [James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890], and still today they are strongly focused on complex symbol systems. This figuration is evident from the etymology of the term symbol, which derives from the Greek συμβάλλω (symballo) and has the meaning of “putting together” two distinct parts. Not by chance, the antithetical term of symbol is devil, which is “the one who divides“, from the Greek Διάβολος, diábolos.

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. It 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 the primitive man to overcome his biological incompleteness. The statue of the Lion-man indicates the moment when man became fully human. It represents the first historical moment in which human beings differentiate symbolically from animals. Ultimately, the Lion-man marks the birth of humanity as we know it today.


Samuele Corrente Naso, Daniela Campus

(Translation by 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



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