Kunstsammlung NRW
Der Löwenmensch nach Abschluss der Restaurierung 2013 © Landesamt fur Denkmalpflege im RP Stuttgart, Foto: Yvonne Mühleis

“The Lion Man” – Visitor from the Ice Age

#32 A departure from the modernist trail: on his way to southern Germany, Gerd Korinthenberg visited the Ulm Museum for the online magazine of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen and had a look at the ice age-era “Lion Man” – one of the earliest figural depictions in human history.

He comes from a world that is inconceivably remote from ours, from a time when the boundaries between animal and human were not yet clearly drawn: in the wake of the recent and sensational find of new ivory fragments in a cave in the Swabian Alb, the “Lion Man” – nearly 40,000 years old, and hewn from the tusk of a young mammoth – is on display in the Ulm Museum in its most complete form to date.

“The Lion Man is the greatest sculpture from the ice age, and numbers among the earliest figural depictions created by humans,” explains the Ulm archaeologist Archäologe Kurt Wehrberger with reference to this singular work of art, which is nearly 10 times older than the Egyptian pyramids. The enigmatic, 31 centimeter tall sculpture was created during the Paleolithic period, when “anatomically modern humans” were gradually establishing themselves – after the epoch of the Neanderthals – in Europe as the ancestors of the present worldwide population.

Discovered in Lonetal near Ulm in 1939, forgotten during the chaos of wartime, and restored – albeit incompletely – for the first time in the late 1980s, the figure clearly shows an upright standing hybrid creature, half man, half beast of prey. Once – to everyone's astonishment – hundreds of additional ivory splinters were found at the old excavation site in 2009, it became possible to restore this spectacular ancestor of all art – which appears to have sprung directly from the angular canon of expressionistic sculpture – to around 75% completion. The predatory muzzle is broad and threatening, paws are visible on the dangling forelegs, and the muscular, masculine torso rests on powerful legs. Distinctly visible as well is a small, circular navel, along with deep notches on one of the arms, possibly a form of magical tattooing.

Was this visitor from the Ice Age a totemic idol who was venerated as an animal forefather by ancient hunters, a practice still familiar today from the Australian aborigines? Or is this a depiction of a shaman who has donned the skull and pelt of a lion in order to acquire its strength, and is entering a trance before immersing himself in a different, a peculiarly animal world? The mystery will probably remain forever. It remains clear, however, that the ice age carver who used his blade and gouge to fashion the “Lion Man” in a primeval age was a precise observer, a genuine artist, and an adept in things animals and human alike.


Gerd Korinthenberg ist Leiter der Abteilung Kommunikation der Kunstsammlung und seit langem fasziniert von der Kunst fremder Völker.


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