About 40,000 years ago at the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic period, the Swabian Jura was part of the landscape inhabited by early, anatomically modern humans (homo sapiens). In small groups they moved through valleys scarred by the last ice age. They were hunting mammoth, reindeer, bison, wild horse and other prey. We find evidence of human occupation of caves in this area from the trace remains of campfires, and from tools, weapons and jewellery made from stone, bone, antler and ivory.
Excavation of four of these caves has revealed a number of small sculpted objects. Carved in mammoth ivory using stone tools are effigies of large animals which were of great importance to the hunters of that era. Smaller fauna such as birds and fish are also depicted. A number of these figurines show cave-bears and cave-lions, the most dangerous predators of humans. A sculpture representing an archaic female form (referred to as "Venus") is the only object found which depicts a solely human figure. Considered as a whole, these sculpted artefacts comprise the oldest collection of portable art objects in the world.
The tallest and most spectacular of the ivory figurines is the Lion Man, an evidently mythical creature which is half man/half beast (therianthropic). Fragments of a sculpted piece were uncovered in 1939 on the very last day of excavation of the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in the Lone valley. Archaeological activity was then disrupted by the commencement of World War II. More than thirty years later it was finally recognized that the ivory pieces were part of a figurine. Another two decades passed before experts restored the statuette. Restoration could only be partial, however, because significant sections had not been retrieved.
It came as a surprise to many when in 2009 there was more to be told of the adventures of the Lion Man. New excavations in the Stadel Cave led archaeologists to re-discover the statuette’s erstwhile resting-place identified in 1939. They were able to retrieve many more fragments. There followed a very complex project of re-construction of the Lion Man (2012-13). The sculpture, now comprising more than 300 fragments, has been almost completely restored, revealing much more detail than had previously been possible. This has provided archaeologists with further insights into some of the techniques involved in its creation. It has also indicated new avenues for contemporary interpretation, including the uses it may have been put to by its creators.
Skilfully carved from the tusk of a mammoth, the statuette fuses animal and human elements. Its animal attributes are the lion's head, the elongated body and the forelimbs of that big cat. The legs and feet and the bi-pedal stance are clearly modelled on the human form. From observations made during the restoration process, the statuette has been characterized as being a representation of a male human. We cannot know precisely the intentions of its creators. Even though this unique relic is a fantastical creature which draws us intuitively towards the spiritual world of early humans living in the grip of the last ice age, we will never be able to decipher their clearly highly complex world view.