2ndlook

Löwenmensch Puzzle – Am I missing something?

Posted in European History, History, India by Anuraag Sanghi on June 4, 2011

Löwenmensch (The Lion-man) = While the bones at the site are radio-carbon dated, the entire narrative structure is built on the undated ivory figurines.

Lowenmensch or the Lionman - Book extract from Foundations of culture: knowledge-construction, belief systems and worldview ...  By Harald Haarmann (Courtesy - Google Books.). Click to go to original book.

Löwenmensch or the Lionman – Book extract from Foundations of culture: knowledge-construction, belief systems and worldview … By Harald Haarmann (Courtesy – Google Books.). Click to go to original book.

Half man, half lion figure in Germany

The Löwenmensch (meaning lion-man in English) is a puzzle. The provenance of this figure is derived from the 1870s. Markedly

Significant is the discovery of the Löwenmensch — a German term meaning “lion-person” — as a larger Löwenmensch sculpture was found in 1939 at the Hohlenstein-Stadel site in a neighbouring valley. Both works carry similar features and have been dated to the Aurignacian period between 31,000 and 33,000 years ago.

Dr.Nicholas Conard added: “The occupants of Hohle Fels in the Ach Valley and Hohlenstein-Stadel in the Lone Valley must have been members of the same cultural group and shared beliefs and practices connected with therianthropic (half-man, half-animal) images of felids (cats) and humans. The discovery lends support to the hypothesis that Aurignacian people practised a form of shamanism.”

The second site at

Hohle Fels is a large cave site with Middle and Upper Paleolithic occupations, located in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany, some 20 kilometers southwest of the town of Ulm.

The cave deposits include a low density Middle Paleolithic site and a long Upper Paleolithic sequence with separate Aurignacian, Gravettian and Magdalenian occupations. Radiocarbon dates for the UP components range between 29,000 and 36,000 years bp.

Hohle Fels is best known for the recent recovery of three pieces of carved ivory from the Aurignacian period, which make up some of the earliest portable art in the world.

The three figurines are of a horse’s head (or possibly a bear), a water bird of some sort possibly in flight, and a “Lowenmensch”, a half lion/half human figurine. Previously, a similar lion/human sculpture (although much larger) was found at the Hohlenstein-Stadel site, an Aurignacian period site in the Lone Valley of Germany. The horse’s head at Hohle Fels came from a level dated about 30,000 years old; the other two are from an older occupation in the cave, ca. 31-33,000 years ago.

Hohle Fels was discovered in the 1870s and first excavated in the late 1950s, when undisturbed Paleolithic sediments were found. Excavations have been ongoing since the 1970s, led first by Joachim Hahn and beginning in the 1990s by Nicholas Conard. (via Hohle Fels (Germany).

These items, especially the two Löwenmensch seemed ‘polished from heavy handling, suggesting that rather than sitting on a shelf as an artifact to be admired’.

The Löwenmensch (Image courtesy - historyofinformation.com). Click for larger image.

The Löwenmensch (Image courtesy – historyofinformation.com). Click for larger image.

The importance of being the Löwenmensch

These ivory artifacts are vital to the European historical narrative being developed over the last 20 years – based on these finds.

Dr.Conard in another paper claims, ‘The ivory figurines from Swabia represent one of the earliest artistic traditions worldwide”. A related academic paper on this period goes on to say,

Indeed, how can we not see, in the numerous and varied ornaments, sculpted stone blocks, ivory statuettes or bone, antler and ivory spear points, evidence of a significant and abrupt mutation in the long history of human evolution?’.

Figurines apart, there are the odd musical instruments, which too are of ivory. Musical instruments made and used more than 30,000 years ago – in what is called as the Aurignacian period.

These incredible finds must have a credible theory behind it.

How was the Löwenmensch dated?

If this is true, I am most curious about the methodology used for dating. What samples were used for radio-carbon dating?

Academic papers presented by the team, list some 10 samples. These samples were radio carbon-dated – between 1977-2003, in different labs, by different researchers. These samples showed radio-carbon dates of 31000-41000 years BP. The error rate is less than a 1000 years. Conservative dating still puts these finds in the 30,000-40,000 years age.

10 samples over 10,000 years. That would be 1 sample per 1000 years. Usually such technology development has been accompanied by larger settlements – and not a remote cave, with sparse proof of habitation. To imagine that a few Early Stone Age people, sat down in a corner, picked a few sharp stones, and made musical instruments, sounds flimsy. Remember, in a remote cave.

However, another academic paper does not find this remarkable, as the ‘bulk of the material remained in situ, such a level of vertical displacement is also perfectly compatible with the recognition of global assemblage patterns’.

Just 10 samples. But with an age difference of over 10,000 years. Between the oldest and latest. At one site, at one stratigraphic layer. That is indeed a long period.

It means something.

Strange is my middle name

Going back to reports by the researchers, and a careful reading shows, that the Löwenmensch statuette of Hohlenstein-Stadel was found in the Upper Paleolithic layer – along side various other items. Organic material like reindeer, wolf, elk, horse bones (humerus, mixed bone sample, ulna, astragalus, radius, longbone, metatarsal, longbone, metapodial). It is these bones which were carbon-dated.

Dr.Conard the lead archaeologist, confirms that ‘Ivory artifacts were not dated to maximize the comparability between the dates.’ Cited by 153 other papers, strangely, questions are rare, on how the most visible artefact, the Löwenmensch was not specifically dated. It may be worthwhile to remind the academic community about some recent demotions.

The younger age of Combe Capelle upsets this theory, although skulls of this general type also appear in the Moravian site of Dolni Vestonice. In 2004 another supposed Aurignacian specimen, Vogelherd was demoted to the last 5,000 years.

If so much is being made out of these ivory artifacts, is it not then essential to carbon date the ivory? If the entire edifice of the evolution is based on these very ivory artifacts?

The bones are radio-carbon dated, but the entire narrative structure is built on the undated ivory figurines.

The story grows

Work on these sites has continued. Some more finds have been reported. Using the same technique, the Swabia region is now in danger of being called

Are we fitting evidence to a theory? Where is the dating of the ivory products?

Are we fitting evidence to a theory? Where is the dating of the ivory products?

The birthplace of human art. If indeed there is such a place, researchers are increasingly inclined to believe that it is to be found in the hills — and caves — of southern Germany. Already, archaeologists have unearthed a number of miniature mammoth ivory carvings — and on Wednesday, Nicholas Conard, a professor of prehistory at the University of Tübingen, presented his most recent sensational discovery: a tiny figure of a shockingly anatomically correct woman carved out of mammoth ivory that is at least 35,000 years old and perhaps as old as 40,000.

The carving, called the “Venus of the Fels Cave,” is thought to be the oldest human depiction ever found and one of the most ancient pieces of representational art in the world.

The find was made in September of last year in one of the numerous caves in the southern German region of Swabia, not far from the Danube River valley. The caves in the region have poured forth a number of valuable ivory carvings in recent years, all stemming from the Aurignacian period, an age which saw the earliest modern humans settle Europe concurrently with the demise of the Neanderthals which preceded them.

Archaeologists have found some 25 small ivory carvings in the region, including depictions of mammals, horses, bison and birds. Researchers have also found the world’s oldest music instruments — a kind of flute made out of the bones of birds. (via Explicit Art: Oldest Known Human Sculpture Found in Germany – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International).

Maybe even do a DNA verification?

The Löwenmensch figurine is made of ivory – which is usually used in context of elephant-tusks. In this case it has been proposed that this was made from mammoth or a mastodon tusk – the ancestors of modern elephants. The Ulm Museum where this figure is housed says this was carved  by ‘stone tools out of mammoth ivory’.

It is unclear on what basis the ivory type of the Löwenmensch was decided. Was it fossil ivory, of the mammoth type, or the modern African or Asian elephant tusk. The US Customs Department uses the Schreger Pattern to decide between elephant or mammoth ivory.

if the angle of the cross-hatch pattern is less than 90 degrees, the ivory is fossil mammoth (mammoth forms angles of 87 degrees on average). If the cross-hatch angle is more than 90 degrees, the ivory could be modern elephant (modern elephant ivory forms angles greater than 115 degrees.) On the other hand, Mastodons cross-hatch angle is 125 degrees on average. (via Fossil-Treasures-of-Florida-Newsletter, Issue #0007 — How to Identify Fossil Ivory, June 29, 2010).

Schreger lines in elephant ivory. (Image courtesy - www.ivoryandart.com.) Click for larger image.

Schreger lines in elephant ivory. (Image courtesy – http://www.ivoryandart.com.) Click for larger image.

Schreger lines for mammoth ivory. (Image courtesy - www.lab.fws.gov.). Click for larger image.

Schreger lines for mammoth ivory. (Image courtesy – http://www.lab.fws.gov.). Click for larger image.

A few years after the discovery and the consensus on the Löwenmensch, methods to unravel the DNA of the mammoth were found between 2005-2009. The mammoth genome was sequenced and comparative-DNA analysis of the mammoth too was done.

Considering what historians expect from Löwenmensch, would it not be prudent to go for DNA testing. Spectroscopic examination of the Upper Paleolithic era bones and mammoth ivory would reveal mineral traces, which may help in locating, where this mammoth tusk originated from.

Stratigraphic coincidence

The possible and logical answer to the stratigraphic coincidence, is the re-habitation of abandoned caves.

This logic appears stronger, with 10 samples sprayed across 10,000 years. So, apparently this cave was abandoned and re-occupied a few times in the 10,000 years which accounts for these chronologically widely spaced samples. The Löwenmensch and the other ivory artifacts could then belong to a probably Bronze age inhabitant – and not to the Upper Paleolithic man.

This is relevant when it is ‘securely established that working fresh ivory in the Aurignacian was highly unlikely, if not impossible’. Radio-carbon dating has fixed Swabia-Jura in the 30,000-40,000 BP period. At a time when the woolly mammoth were alive and well. After the end of the Pleistocene era (1.7 million years ago-12,000 years ago), with retreating ice caps, for the Bronze Age man, weathered tusks from skeletons of woolly mammoths would have been easily available.

This also begs the question why not stone? European soft woods would have been so much easier. Simplest would have been clay. Why ivory? Such choices also indicate developed language skills. There is no evidence of any language skills in the Upper Paleolithic man here.

Can Stone Age implements be used to make musical instruments, or tiny human, humanoid, or zoo-morphic figures? Like the tiny Venus of Fels? Even today, good stone household instruments, are made using metallic tools. Could rough, serrated-edge stone tools make a figure of the woolly mammoth -

tiny, measuring just 3.7 cm long and weighing a mere 7.5 grams, and displays skilfully detailed carvings (or a) miniature lion is 5.6 cm long, (with an) extended torso and outstretched neck. It is decorated with approximately 30 finely incised crosses on its spine. (Linking text in parentheses supplied).

Or as Der Spiegel waxes poetically

A flute, made of pure ivory, was discovered in 2004. The craftsman split the tusk along the length . Then he hollowed it out, carved three holes into it and glued the two halves airtight with birch pitch.

(German-English translation supplied; original German text – Eine der Flöten – sie wurde im Jahr 2004 entdeckt – ist aus purem Elfenbein. Der Handwerker spaltete dafür einen Stoßzahn der Länge nach durch. Dann höhlte er ihn aus, schnitzte drei Löcher hinein und verleimte die beiden Hälften luftdicht mit Birkenpech; via DER SPIEGEL 27/2007 – Das magische Mammut).

Using ivory chips or bone-shards as tools, would be simple answer. Much like how Indians pioneered diamond-cutting more than 2000 years ago. But that was in a context of a nation with high language skills.

Musical instruments, with early Stone Age tools? Splitting a swan-bone, down the middle and sealing it again with with birch-pitch? Stone Age Man?

Gimme a break! Puh-leeze!

About the Löwenmensch itself

The Aurignacian model using Löwenmensch figurine seems to be using the Antikythera model. Discovered on a Roman ship,  off the Greek coast, near the island of Antikythera, this astrolabe kind of mechanism was replicated with modern innards – and displayed, with much fanfare, as a marvel of Greek engineering. Subsequent research is showing that the Antikythera probably used Babylonian astronomy – and not Greek models of astronomy at all.

Perhaps the thinking behind this project was best said in The Times, London.

Alistair Sinclair, of Liverpool University, said that the Swabian finds added weight to the theory that human art became very sophisticated very quickly after it emerged.

“Instead of a gradual evolution of skills, the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists,” he said. “The argument in favour of fast-developing artistic skills in modern humans is strong, and certainly one that I find convincing.”

The oldest known examples of cave paintings — in the Grotte Chauvet in France — dated from the same period as the Swabian sculptures, Dr Sinclair said.

When any historical development or find gets described as ‘abrupt mutation in the long history of human evolution’ or ‘modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists (with) fast-developing artistic skills’, Mortimer Wheeler comes to mind, who said how his archaeological ‘expeditions’

demonstrate with astonishing clarity the extent to which the brief transit of Alexander did in fact Hellenize almost instantly vast tracts of Asia populated previously by nomads or semi-nomads and villagers”

Hattusas' Lion - note the weathered mane

Hattusas’ Lion – note the weathered mane

This usually means, thin ice. Very thin.

Interestingly, on these Swabian-Aurignacian finds, Der Spiegel observes ‘Zwar hegt die mächtige Zunft der US-Archäologen noch Zweifel am Alter’ (English Translation – Although the powerful guild of U.S. archaeologists have doubts on age).

It goes further and calls the Löwenmensch figure ‘der Avatar aus dem Aurignacien’ – the avatar from Aurignacian.

Who could it be now?

Who could have brought to Germany, elephants, ivory, iron-age tools, horse, boar, fertility symbol female figures, phallic symbols, and the the Löwenmensch – a version of Narasimha avatar.

My favorite candidate

European Hittites.

After all, the gates of Hattusha are guarded by similar lion-faced statues.


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