The star exhibit initially promised for the British Museum’s “Ice Age Art” show will not be coming—but for a good reason. New pieces of Ulm’s Lion Man sculpture have been discovered and it has been found to be much older than originally thought, at around 40,000 years. This makes it the world’s earliest figurative sculpture.
The story of the discovery of the Lion Man goes back to August 1939, when fragments of mammoth ivory were excavated at the back of the Stadel Cave in the Swabian Alps, south-west Germany. This was a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War. When it was eventually reassembled in 1970, it was regarded as a standing bear or big cat, but with human characteristics.
The ivory from which the figure had been carved had broken into myriad fragments. When first reconstructed, around 200 pieces were incorporated into the 30cm-tall sculpture, with about 30% of its volume missing.
Further fragments were later found among the previously excavated material and these were added to the figure in 1989. At this point, the sculpture was recognised as representing a lion. Most specialists have regarded it as male, although paleontologist Elisabeth Schmid controversially argued that it was female, suggesting that early society might have been matriarchal.
The latest news is that almost 1,000 further fragments of the statue have been found, following recent excavations in the Stadel Cave by Claus-Joachim Kind. Most of these are minute, but a few are several centimetres long. Some of the larger pieces are now being reintegrated into the figure.
Even more exciting than the discovery of new pieces, the sculpture’s age has been refined using radio-carbon dating of other bones found in the strata. This reveals a date of 40,000 years ago, while until recently it was thought to be 32,000 years old. Once reconstruction is completed, several tiny, unused fragments of the mammoth ivory are likely to be carbon dated, and this is expected to confirm the result.
This revised dating pushes the Lion Man right back to the oldest sculptures, which have been found in two other caves in the Swabian Alps. These rare finds are dated at 35,000 to 40,000 years, but the Lion Man is by far the largest and most complex piece. A few carved items have been found in other regions which are slightly older, but these have simple patterns, not figuration.