The Lion-man, the oldest sculpture in the world

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Since the 19th century, the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany had already been the subject of various archaeological excavations. The importance of the site was therefore well known, but when Robert Wetzel and Otto Völzing started a new excavation campaign between 1937 and 1939, they could not imagine what they would find. Indeed, on 25 August 1939, around two hundred fragments of mammoth ivory emerged from the ground. Nevertheless, the moment in history was one of the most turbulent: just one week later, the Second World War began, the excavations at Hohlenstein-Stadel were interrupted and the pieces found were handed over to the Ulm Museum and almost forgotten1. Thirty years passed before Joachim Hahn, in 1969, thought about reassembling those ivory fragments. With great astonishment, they fit together and formed a small statuette, which was named the Lion-Man2.

The Hohlenstein Lion-man Statuette3

Today, we are aware that the uniqueness of Hohlenstein-Stadel discovery depends not only on the curious characteristics of the find, but above all on its ancient origins. The sculpture, in fact, is at least thirty-five thousand years old and the oldest one ever found4. It is interesting to consider, therefore, what led our ancestors to create such a mysterious object. It is not a trivial question; on the contrary, it concerns the ultimate meaning of existence, and it is necessary to go back to the origins of humanity to explore the reasons that led to the creation of a half-man, half-lion being.

What differentiates human beings from animals?

What differentiates the human being from other living beings? This is the essential question that has always inspired the studies of philosophers and anthropologists. It is incontrovertible that the species Homo sapiens, whose origins date back to 300,000 years ago, is characterized by a morphology and a biology not dissimilar to that of other specimens of the animal kingdom. According to Darwin’s evolutionary model, the genus Homo descended from anthropomorphic apes. Historian Noah Harari coined the iconic expression in this regard:

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

However, although this is evident in our instinctive traits, none of us could claim to be simply an animal. The ancient Greek philosophers used the term zoe to define the simple fact of living, the state common to all living beings. But the capacity for thought and rationality place us on a different level, that of metacognition: it is possible to question thought itself5. It is clear that this characteristic is specific to human beings, but not to animals; the latter, on the contrary, are fully realised in the instinctive action they perform.

Another difference is that animals are characterised by a perfectly biological correspondence with the habitat in which they live, for example the polar bear at the North Pole. The human being, on the other hand, has no natural habitat, but he has had to adapt peculiarly to different contexts. And because up to 40,000 years ago, he was only fully involved in the zoe dimension, he faced a major evolutionary disadvantage6.

Man, in fact, has no wings, fur, claws or anything else that could remove him from the natural food chain. Nevertheless, the human species was able to colonise every corner of the world, differentiating itself into a multiplicity of anthropologically diverse groups. The Greek term bios best defines such different ways of living; it is the form that expresses the life proper to an individual or a group. Bios, in its cultural manifestations, has elevated man beyond the state of nature and allowed him to survive.

The concept of culture

Culture is therefore considered as a second nature. Most of the things we do, which we think are natural, are derived from a process of enculturation that we unconsciously learn throughout our lives, like the way we eat, sleep, cry, etc. An inhabitant of Equatorial Guinea and one of the United States, for example, have different customs and behaviours, determined by the cultural context in which they live: their sense of taste and food disgust, aesthetic standards and so on. It is in this regard that Geertz defines culture as “webs of significance he (man) himself has spun”7.

In other words, culture and its particular representation constitute the evolutionary response instrument through which human beings have sought to remedy their imperfection, their original biological lack. Bios life is exactly what differentiates us from animals.

Culture as symbolic knowledge

The human being is thus a cultural animal that gives meaning to what he 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 is rather linked to living only in the zoe dimension. For primitive man, in the Palaeolithic period, this corresponded to facing the dangers of nature, of a hostile and inhospitable habitat. For this reason, nature is overlaid by a system of particular codified and recognisable signs. From this point of view, the concept of the symbol, in its cultural meaning and that of belonging to a species, a group, an ethnic group, assumes fundamental importance. Culture is symbolic.

Human beings adopt symbol systems “to identify fact with value at the most fundamental level, to give to what is otherwise merely actual, a comprehensive normative import”8. Symbolic knowledge makes it possible to overcome the sense of bewilderment and helplessness one feels when faced with nature, today as forty thousand years ago.

The Lion-man of Hohlenstein

The earliest symbolic manifestation of the human being is a statuette only 30 centimetres long, made of ivory from mammoth tusks, and found in the cave of Hohlenstein-Stadel. This statuette, named Lion-man of Hohlenstein, was carved by a skilled hunter-gatherer, and its meaning is still mysterious.

Analysis and hypothesis on the Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel

The Lion-Man has a lion’s head without mane, with typically animal upper limbs, while the lower half has human traits.

The Hohlenstein Lion-man statuette, front and back9.

Anthropologist Elisabeth Schmid believes that it is a female figure10. It is therefore possible to identify a connection with the matriarchy of primitive societies. Firstly, the navel of the statuette seems to have the signs of childbirth. In fact, there is a horizontal crease along the lower part of the abdomen. Schmid claims that the statuette originally had breasts, which were later lost.

However, this is not the only hypothesis about the artefact. It was suggested, for instance, that the Lion-Man statuette depicts a shaman11.

The meaning of the Lion-man

The earliest religious representations, which were mainly totemic12, were based on complex systems of symbols, just like those of today. Moreover, the etymology of the term symbol reveals why: it derives from the Greek συμβάλλω (symbàllo) and has the meaning of “putting together” two distinct parts. Not surprisingly, the antithetical term for symbol is devil, which is “the one who divides”, from the Greek Διάβολος (diabàllo). The symbol, therefore, gives membership of a group, defines a common religious belief. And therefore, as shared knowledge, it allows complex conceptions to be expressed, to bring to consciousness those deep dynamics of being that otherwise would remain concealed.

The statuette of the Lion-Man indeed has a strong symbolic meaning. The representation of a half-man, half-animal figure indicated, in the community of men who made it, the desire to overcome the atavic fear of nature. It had an apotropaic value in the attempt to humanise the lion, to frame the dangers of the environment in a codified system of signs. It helped primitive man to accept his biological incompleteness.

The statuette of the Lion-man represents the realisation of the human being as such, defining an early moment in which he symbolically differentiates himself from animals. Ultimately, the Lion-man marks the birth of humanity as we know it today.

Samuele Corrente Naso


  1. C. Kind, Das Lonetal – eine altsteinzeitliche Fundlandschaft von WeltrangArchäologie in Deutschland, WBG, 2016. ↩︎
  2. J. A. Lobell, New life for the Lion ManArchaeology, 2012. Document. ↩︎
  3. By Dagmar Hollmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image. ↩︎
  4. Ibidem note 1. ↩︎
  5. E. Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 1798. ↩︎
  6. A. Gehlen, Man. His Nature and Place in the World, 1940; Helmuth Plessner, Levels of Organic Life and the Human, 1928. ↩︎
  7. C. Geertz, The interpretation of cultures, 1973. ↩︎
  8. Ibidem. ↩︎
  9. Dagmar Hollmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, image; Thilo Parg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, image. ↩︎
  10. M. Schulz, Puzzle im Schutt, Der Spiegel, Hamburg, 2011. ↩︎
  11. N. J. Conard, Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art, Nature, 2003. ↩︎
  12. J. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890. ↩︎
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