13 December 2011
New fragments of the 'Lion Man' figurine found
Archeologists have discovered previously unknown fragments of a figurine known as the 'Lion Man,' and are piecing it back together. Could the 35,000-year-old statue actually represent a female shaman? Scientists hope to resolve a decades-long debate.
Found in 1939 by geologist Otto Völzing, inside the Stadel cave in the Schwäbische Alb mountains of southwestern Germany, the 'Lion Man' is fashioned from the tusk of a mammoth and stands about 30 centimeters (12 inches) tall. Its creator polished it with saliva and leather, and an experiment showed that it likely took the sculptor about 320 hours to carve the figure.
The figurine, however, is heavily damaged, and no one knows exactly what it looks like. Many fragments were overlooked in the cave when the prewar dig was abruptly terminated. The figure achieved its current form in 1988. It consists of 220 parts, but about 30 percent of the body is still missing. Large segments of the surface have broken off. The poor condition of the figurine has only made it more mysterious. Is it meant to represent a mythical creature, or a shaman hiding under an animal hide?
The genitalia are also unrecognizable, and a bitter dispute over the gender of the small idol erupted in the 1980s, continuing to this day. Those who believe that the 'Lion Man' is in fact a woman are convinced that primitive societies were matriarchal. The debate remains undecided today. But that could soon change, now that new fragments of the Lion Man have turned up.
The new discoveries came after archeologists once again turned their attention to the Stadel cave. They sifted through all of the rubble from 1939, explains excavator Claus-Joachim Kind, and the results were sensational. "We found about 1,000 pieces, which presumably belong to the statue," Kind says. Some of the fragments are tiny, only a few square millimeters in size, but the cache also includes pieces as long as a finger.
The figurine will be taken to the State Conservation Office in Esslingen, near Stuttgart, where it will be completely taken apart and then reassembled piece by piece. Already it is clear that the figurine will become a few centimeters taller due to new neck pieces that have been found. Furthermore, a gaping hole in the back can now be plugged, and the previously missing right arm has been found in its entirety. Additional decorations, including raised dots and strange-looking lines, have come to light.
The statue was found near traces of a fire site in a niche 27 meters (89 feet) from the mouth of the cave. When Kind was working at the site, he also found a decorated deer's tooth, the incisors of an arctic fox and ivory beads. The items could have been pieces from a decorative robe. Perhaps the niche served as a shaman's changing room. It is considered likely that prehistoric sorcerers wore furs as costumes when they celebrated rituals around the campfire. Hybrid creatures - half-man, half-beast - also appear in cave drawings in France.
But who was the 'Lion Man' shaman? The lion has been always viewed as a symbol of masculine virtues, and most of present-day shamans are men. On the other hand, the statuette has some perplexing features. The navel, a symbol of childbirth, is especially pronounced. A horizontal crease runs across the lower abdomen, a feature that is typically female. Paleontologist Elisabeth Schmid believes that the figure once had breasts, which eventually broke off. According to Schmid, the transition from the thighs to the buttocks is also indicative of a female body.
There is at least one piece of evidence to support Schmid's theory. An image of a 14,000-year-old human body with an animal head discovered in the Las Caldas cave in Spain is obviously female. The head looks like that of an ibex, while the lower part of the body features female genitalia. Does this mean that female shamans did exist? Were women in charge of the religion of our ancestors? According to one of the excavators, there is sufficient fragmentary material to reconstruct the 'Lion Man' genitalia. "We'll figure out the gender," he says, so the new finds could solve the mystery once and for all.
Edited from Spiegel Online (9 December 2011)