A lion-headed figure, first called the lion man (German:Löwenmensch, literally “lion person”), then the lion lady (German:Löwenfrau), is an ivory sculpture that is the oldest known zoomorphic(animal-shaped) sculpture in the world and one of the oldest known sculptures in general. The sculpture has also been interpreted asanthropomorphic, giving human characteristics to an animal, although it may have represented a deity. The figurine was determined to be about 32,000 years old by carbon dating material from the same layer in which the sculpture was found. It is associated with the archaeological Aurignacian culture. The sculpture is 29.6 cm (11.7 inches) in height, 5.6 cm wide, and 5.9 cm thick. It was carved out of mammoth ivory using a flint stone knife. There are seven parallel, transverse, carved gouges on the left arm. It is now in the museum in Ulm, Germany.
Its pieces were found in 1939 in a cave named Stadel-Höhle im Hohlenstein (Stadel cave in Hohlenstein Mountain) in the Lonetal (Lone valley) in the Swabian Alps, Germany. Due to the beginning of the Second World War, it was forgotten and only rediscovered thirty years later. The first reconstruction revealed a humanoid figurine without a head. Between 1997 and 1998, additional pieces of the sculpture were discovered and the head was reassembled and restored.
Originally, the figure was classified as male by Joachim Hahn. From examination of some additional parts of the sculpture found later, Elisabeth Schmid decided that the figure was a woman with the head of a “Höhlenlöwin” (female cave lion). Both interpretations lack scientific evidence. European cave lions, male and female, lacked the distinctive manes of the African male lion, and so its absence here cannot lead to an interpretation as a ‘lioness’.
Recently the ancient figurine has more often been called a lion-headed figurine, rather than a ‘lion man’. The name currently used in German, Löwenmensch—meaning “lion-human”—similarly, is neutral.
Interpretation is very difficult. The sculpture shares certain similarities with French cave wall paintings, which also show hybrid creatures. The French paintings, however, are several thousand years younger than the German sculpture.
After this artifact was identified, a similar, but smaller, lion-headed sculpture was found, along with other animal figures and several flutes, in another cave in the same region of Germany. This leads to the possibility that the lion-figure played an important role in the mythology of humans of the early Upper Paleolithic. The sculpture can be seen in the Ulmer Museum in Ulm, Germany, though it may be moved to a planned new museum of thePaleolithic.