Shamanism, or just art? A new study argues that an ancient lion-headed figure (left) may have had special meaning to its creators.

Carving Up the Past

Visit a modern art museum and you may be puzzled by what you see. But at least there's a caption that sometimes suggests what the artists had in mind. No such luck for anthropologists trying to interpret the carved figures, adornments, and cave and rock paintings of early humans. A new find in a German cave has raised more questions than answers about the origins of art.

In the 18 December issue of Nature, paleoanthropologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen, Germany, and colleagues describe three carved ivory figures found in Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. The three carvings--a diving duck, a horse head, and a lion-headed figure--were dated at more than 30,000 years old and are some of the oldest known examples of portable art.

The lion-headed figure stands upright with arms to the side like a human, Conard says, and it resembles a lion carving found earlier at a nearby site. Noting the similarities, Conard speculates that the carving may have shamanistic meaning and suggests that people who shared a common belief system may have inhabited the two sites. Unfortunately, because no human remains were found at the Hohle Fels Cave, it's impossible to determine who created the figures and why.

Interpreting the figure as part man, part lion "puts the cart before the horse," says cognitive psychologist Al Cheyne of the University of Waterloo, Canada. Cheyne, who studies the development of paleoart, says "there is no behavioral evidence to suggest the figure is anything other than a lion whose representation was constrained by the shape of the ivory used."

LeRoy McDermott of Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg agrees. "Art represents many things in addition to magic or religion," says McDermott, who studies early hominid art. The figure, he says, may just be the product of a curious mind and nimble hands.

Related sites
Conard's site
Cheyne's site