Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Fetching Figurines Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004

Mammoth ivory figurines masterfully carved more than 30,000 years ago have been found in a cave in southwestern Germany, adding to the number of Paleolithic figurines, ornaments, and musical instruments discovered in four area caves in recent decades. Their age makes them among the world's oldest art pieces.

The figurines of a diving water bird, the head of a bear or horse, and a half-animal, half-human creature were found by researchers in Hohle Fels, a cave in the Ach Valley. Each is less than two inches long. Researchers say their age and sophistication indicate the artists were modern humans.

Animal remains and debris from ivory carvings found in Hohle Fels and other nearby caves show that Homo sapiens repeatedly camped in the area in the winter and spring. "Southwestern Germany seems to have been a center of cultural innovation," says University of Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard, who discovered the carvings. "Nowhere else on earth do you get figurative art of this age together with numerous examples of ornaments and musical instruments."

The accurately rendered diving bird and bear or horse head also upset the theory that Paleolithic artists progressed from representational art to realistic depictions of objects from their environment. Instead it seems that modern human were capable of and created such depictions early on.

The half-animal, half-human figurine, only the second of its kind ever found, may be evidence of shamanistic practices among early humans. "It's like finding a crucifix," says Conard.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America