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The Ulmer Lion Man is a therianthrope that was found in 1939 and dated by carbon14 to approximately 32 thousand years ago. It is one of the oldest pieces of sculpture known. It was carved from ivory using flint and left for millennia in the Swabian Alps in Germany where it resurfaced just to prior to the outbreak of war. Its form follows the curve of a mammoth’s tooth.
The figure is not conclusively definable as male or female. The cave lions it is thought to depict did have manes. The reconstructed figure has been assembled from scattered pieces and stands just less than 30cm tall. It is classified as belonging to the Aurignacian period. The find happened in two stages. The pieces were discovered by Otto Völzing and Prof. Robert Wetzel, but were not brought together in a coherent form until 1969 by Prof. Dr. Joachim Hahn.
When faced with this figure, and its age, we must admit how little humankind has changed over time.
Even the oldest art expresses what it is to be human. Today we can immediately identify with the thinking behind this wonderful little carving. We are directly connected with its creator through our very humanity. It expresses exactly the difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.
Paradoxically in this regard, it is the joining of human and animal that emphasises this concept of our remove from nature. The idea of one of our kind possessing the qualities of, and surpassing, other animals that is eternally fascinating. Our dominance, and our distance from the natural world, is constant in our consciousness from early times. Expressed through the art of the neolithic, it seems people of the time felt the border between human and animal was fluid and could be crossed easily. Yet, even today, we remian transfixed by the transfer of qualities, the merger of human intelligence with animal strengths and instincts.
Throughout history we seen animal human hybrid images, we have given human characteristics to animals and vice versa and all manner of crossovers in between. There have been lion-headed gods in Ancient Egypt and India (right up to modern Hinduism). As in this Assyrian sculpture the zoomorphic/anthropomorphic cartoons have had animal bodies with human heads or the other way around (lion-o). We have seen little red riding hooded girls eaten by talking wolves. We have in Animal Farm a zoomorphic dystopia. We have animated fishes that travel the seas in search of their family, zoo animals that hijack boats and go back to the wild of East African islands. Not to mention a couple of hundred tawdry superheroes.
Of course it is just possible that the figure is an accurate representation. It may describe a proto-shamanic ritual where an animal’s skull is worn to not just symbolically but also physically take on the powers of the animal. It may report a ritual, the type of thing that continues today within tribal societies.
Lastly, it is also a very fine piece technically. It has many aesthetic properties that still hold true today and suggest a deep rooted, shared perspective. It is elegantly carved, pleasing in its proportions, broadly speaking symmetrical and regular. All of which are qualities still prized in fine sculpture. It is paradigmatic.
The Lion man can be seen in the “Ulmer Museum” in Ulm, Germany.
Ristorante Mystica’s take on the Lion Man figurine
The Lion Man appears in the timeline of the History of Information
The Lion Man appears in a very thorough piece which places the figure within the greater context of cave art
Wikipedia’s entry for the cave excavation which led to the discovery
Cave Art, Jean Clottes, Phaidon, 2008
The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis Williams, Thames and Hudson, 2004
Mirror of the World: A New History of Art, Julian Bell, Thames & Hudson, 2007
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Tuesday, April 19th, 2011 at
It is archived in Art, Culture, History, Mysterious, Wild Places and tagged anthropomorphic, Art, carving, neolithic, sculture, therianthropic, zoomorphic.
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