Thu 29 October 2020

In the 40,000-year-old fragments of evocative animals and figurines, Mike Stuchbery finds inspiration and resilience in dark times

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To travel through the Swabian Jura is to feel as if you’re travelling across the half-buried skeleton of some vast, indescribably ancient creature. From the sides and summits of densely wooded hills emerge limestone outcrops, jagged and gleaming in the sun. This is a rather appropriate metaphor – the landscape is shaped by the build-up of decomposing sea creatures over hundreds of millions of years. 

It is perhaps the nature of ancient, rugged landscape – with its many caves, canyons and cliffs – that has led to incredible discoveries, leading us to reevaluate what it means to be human. 

40,000 years ago, during what archaeologists have dubbed the Upper Paleolithic, the caves and hollows sprinkled throughout the valleys that cross the Jura were ideal shelters for the ancestors of modern Europeans. They provided shelter against the cold, and gave those inhabiting them something prior unavailable to them – a sense of permanence, of ‘home’. 

While the caves, grouped to the west of Ulm, have always invited curious explorers, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the first of several major discoveries was made.

Reverence and Metamorphosis

In the Vogelherd cave, three small figurines were found, carved from mammoth tusks. They depicted a mammoth, a horse and a lion, each showing an attention to line and detail that seem incredibly modern.

While the use of objects cannot be pinpointed with exact detail, what is clear is that these figurines, between 35,000 and 40,000 years old, were held in reverence – avatars of the creatures that roamed the landscape outside the cave entrance. 

Animal figurines from the Aurignacian site of Vogelherd in the Swabian Jura southwestern

A few years later, an even more incredible discovery was made. In 1936, archaeologist Otto Völzing discovered ivory fragments in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave. Decades later, these fragments were painstakingly reassembled to show the carved form of a lion-man – the Löwenmensch.

Löwenmensch – the Lion Man

Standing 29 centimetres high, the statuette is undeniably that of an imaginary creature, perhaps some kind of deity. Here we have something that undeniably indicates belief in the supernatural – perhaps it is the first concrete evidence we have of this tendency. Today, the artwork features as the centrepiece of Ulm’s Museum. 

For me though, the most important discovery was made in the Hohle Fels cave in 2008. A team of archaeologists excavating the cave floor came across more pieces of ivory, which, when reassembled, formed the exaggerated form of a woman.

The Venus of Hohle Fels

Prominent breasts and buttocks, and a distinct vulva form the ‘Venus of Hohle Fels’, that stands 6cm high. A small hole indicates that the figure may have been used as an amulet. Dating back to around 40,000 years, the fragments were found near pieces of a flute made of bird bone, itself 42,000 years old – the oldest musical instrument ever found. Today, both can be seen in the URMU Museum in Blaubeuren, dedicated to the region’s prehistory. 

Making our own Reality

Each of these discoveries, and especially the ‘Venus’, are especially poignant to me. They come from a time in which the world itself seemed inimical to any kind of permanence. A harsh, unforgiving climate, rough terrain and predators came together to make life incredibly harsh for these first settlers.

To sit in a cave and whittle these figures by firelight, to have the imagination and skill required to make them a reality, demonstrates a resilience and belief in a better, more fertile tomorrow. It symbolises, in a very real sense, the hope that has carried humanity through some of its darkest phases. 

We may, justifiably, be worried about the state of the world and the many threats facing our societies. We may sometimes fear what tomorrow may bring. At times like these, it is imperative that we remember that, for aeons, our forebears have been placing a little of their trust in a better, brighter future – whether that’s from a bumper hunt or a booming economy.

Forty thousand years ago, we could believe. We still can. 

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