Bones of Invention: German cave yields Stone Age figurines

Excavations in caves in southwestern Germany are carving out a new chapter in art prehistory. Most recently, researchers sifting through dirt that had been dug out of the Hohle Fels cave uncovered three tiny figurines that were sculpted from mammoth ivory between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago.

FLIGHTY FIND. A German cave yielded three 30,000-year-old ivory figurines, including this water bird. Nature

The figurines, each nearly as long as a thumb, depict a horse’s head, a duck or some other waterbird, and a half-lion, half-human creature.

Along with the more than a dozen ivory figurines and other artifacts discovered decades ago at three nearby Stone Age cave sites, the new specimens belong to one of the oldest known art traditions in the world, says project director Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

“Southwestern Germany was probably one of several centers of ancient figurative art,” Conard says. The new German finds come from a time when artwork began to flourish in Europe. Conard’s report on the figurines appears in the Dec. 18/25 Nature.

Three different laboratories produced radiocarbon dates for animal bones and charcoal at the four caves. Although no fossils of Homo sapiens or Neandertals have turned up at these locations, Conard suspects that people entered the region around 40,000 years ago and subsequently produced the figurines. Animal remains and ivory-working debris in Hohle Fels and the other German caves indicate that they were occupied repeatedly in the winter and spring.

According to Conard, the new figurines support the controversial theory that a sizable portion of prehistoric artwork reflects shamans’ supernatural rituals (SN: 10/5/96, p. 216). The half-man, half-lion figure–the second such sculpture found in southwestern Germany–fits with the belief that shamans can transform into certain animals, he notes. Also, traditional societies often regard water birds as spirits that usher shamans into supernatural worlds.

There are several sites in Europe and Africa harboring roughly 30,000-year-old rock and cave art, although some researchers now contend that a couple of the European locations may be only 15,000 to 20,000 years old.

Even so, the newly found figurines challenge the view that ancient art in Europe gradually evolved from simple origins, archaeologist Anthony Sinclair of the University of Liverpool in England remarks in a commentary accompanying Conard’s report. “The first modern humans in Europe were, in fact, astonishingly precocious artists,” he writes.

The German finds suggest that Stone Age art began with realistic depictions of the world and evolved toward other modes of expression, such as the use of geometric designs, remarks archaeologist Steven Kuhn of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The motivations of Stone Age people for creating the Hohle Fels figurines remain hazy, Kuhn adds. To detect the objects’ purposes, researchers must unearth more sculptures along with evidence about how the artifacts were used, he says.

It’s intriguing that at least some people living 30,000 years ago spent a lot of time creating figurines, says anthropologist Mark Collard of Washington State University in Pullman. Only large groups with secure food supplies could have supported such activity, he theorizes.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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