Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Dawn of Art Volume 60 Number 5, September/October 2007
by Andrew Curry

A controversial scholar claims modern culture was born in the foothills of the Alps.

[image] Standing about 11 inches tall, a carving known as the "Lion Man" is the oldest known depiction of a human with animal features. It is one of dozens of finely crafted Paleolithic figurines discovered in the caves of southern Germany. (Courtesy Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany, photograph Kenneth Garrett)


The search for the origins of civilization has taken archaeologists to less pleasant places than Swabia. Nestled between France, Switzerland, and Bavaria, the German region is the heart of Baden-Wuerttemburg, a state that markets itself as a center for creativity and innovation. It's no idle boast. Hundreds of small high-tech firms dot the region. Giants such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Zeiss are all based in the gleaming, modern state capital, Stuttgart.

Archaeologist Joachim Hahn discovered this flute, right, carved from swan bone in the Paleolithic layers of Geißenklösterle. (University of Tübingen)

American archaeologist Nicholas Conard is convinced Swabia's tradition of innovation goes back a long way: 40,000 years, give or take a few thousand. Excavating in caves east of Tübingen, a medieval town 20 miles south of Stuttgart, Conard has unearthed expertly carved figurines and the oldest musical instruments in the world. The finds are among the earliest art ever discovered, and they're extremely sophisticated in terms of craftsmanship, suggesting a surprising degree of cultural complexity.

Conard claims his finds are evidence of an intense flowering of art and culture that began in southwestern Germany more than 35,000 years ago. Although older art and decorations have been found--including geometric patterns on stones and personal ornaments in South Africa, as well as drilled shell beads on the shores of the Mediterranean--the figurines and instruments in Conard's caves are symbolic representations that reflect a state of mind with which modern humans can easily identify. "Figurative art began in Swabia, music began in Swabia," he says. "It couldn't have developed elsewhere, because the dates are just later elsewhere."

If he's right, it could change the way we look at the development of humanity. But Conard's conclusions have been controversial from the start, and he's still fighting an uphill battle to convince colleagues that the evidence backs him up.

Andrew Curry is a freelance writer in Berlin, Germany, and a frequent contributor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America