45,000-year-old cave lion figurine unearthed at Denisova cave

45,000-year-old cave lion figurine unearthed at Denisova cave

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45,000-year-old cave lion figurine unearthed at Denisova cave

A group of archaeologists from the Architecture and Ethnography Institute in Novosibirsk made a groundbreaking discovery year ago in the Altai Mountains.

About 40,000 and 45,000 years ago, an upper palaeolithic artist created a valuable little figure of a cave lion (Panthera Spelaea, Lat) – 42 mm long, 8 mm thick and 11 mm high.

It was located in the 11th layer of the Denisova cave South Gallery. This is the oldest zoomorphic sculptural image ever found in Siberia and in Northern and Central Asia.

The Lowenmensch figurine or Lion-man of Hohlenenstein-Stadel found in 1939.
The Lowenmensch figurine or Lion-man of Hohlenenstein-Stadel found in 1939.

The exact age has not yet been verified, but Siberian archeologists have provided a cautious datation that implies that this could be the oldest animal figure in the world.

The head of the lion is missing the hind legs, groin back and belly are visible, decorated with a design of eighteen rows of notches. There are two extra rows with four notches on the lion’s right side.

Aged approximately 45,000 years, this might be the world’s oldest animal statuette.
Aged approximately 45,000 years, this might be the world’s oldest animal statuette.

‘The figurine depicts an animal with its tummy tucked in, its hind legs bent. It is either galloping, jumping or getting ready to jump. The animal is shown in a typical for big cats position for the moment when they are ready to catch a prey’, said Mikhail Shunkov, head of the Institute’s Stone Age Archeology Department.

The mammoth ivory for the statuette was delivered from quite a distance away, Russian scientists say. It had to be carried for at least 100 kilometres from the northern footsteps of the Altai Mountains.

Art objects made of mammoth ivory from the 24,000-year-old Mal’ta site in south-central Siberia.
Art objects made of mammoth ivory from the 24,000-year-old Mal’ta site in south-central Siberia.

After finishing the figurine, the cave artist used red ochre to paint it.  So far traces of it were found mostly around the stomach area – which even led to an idea that it could be symbolising a bleeding wound – but researcher Alexander Fedorchenko believes that most likely the whole animal was painted red.

Remains of ocher were found only in the southern gallery of the Denisova cave.  In 2018 a ‘pencil’ and a marble stone with traces of ocher powder were discovered in the same area where later archaeologist unearthed the cave lion – making the trio the first set of such kind in the history of Siberian archaeology.

It is still unclear if the figurine depicts a male or a female lion, as well as the purpose of the find. The archaeologists believe it is ‘too simplistic’ to assume this was a toy, but there is no proof that it could have been a cult item.

The artist’s identity is another question to be answered. The assumption is that it was a Denisovan, but as professor Shunkov added, ’45000 years ago was the time when Homo sapiens already wondered around Siberia, so it was quite likely that they could have influenced the Denisovans.’

Was this one of the first-known artistic collaboration then?

The answer is yet to come, say archaeologists, but they are certain that by the style it was made the Denisovan Cave Lion doesn’t resemble anything previously found in the world.

The closest in style are cave lions figurines from Vogerfelt Cave in south-west Germany, and from caves in south-west France. The Denisova Cave lies right at the border of the Altai region and the Altai Republic in the south of Western Siberia.

The Denisovan Bracelet made of chloritolite and found in the Denisova Cave.
The Denisovan Bracelet made of chloritolite and found in the Denisova Cave.

Locals call it Ayu Tash, which means Bear Rock.  Now world-famous, the cave first caught the attention of Soviet scientists in 1970s when they found first paleo-archaeological remains.

It was inside the Denisova Cave in 2008 that Siberian archaeologists discovered a tiny finger bone fragment of ‘X woman’, a juvenile female believed to have lived around 41,000 years ago.

The Denisova cave
The Denisova cave

The analysis showed she was genetically distinct from thick-browed Neanderthals and modern humans. The recent addition to the human family tree was christened Denisovan.

Further research showed that the Denisovans were a sister group of Neanderthals. The two groups split from a common ancestor around 390,000 years ago.

Like Neandertals, Denisovans lived until about 40,000 years ago.  The Denisova Cave is relatively small with a floor area of about 270m2.  It has three galleries – the cosy Central Chamber with high, arched ceiling and a hole that lets in natural light, the South Gallery and the East Gallery.

The cave is nicely positioned above river Anuy, which must have given all three hominids – the Neanderthals, the Denisovans and the Homo Sapiens – some stunning sunset views over the past 120,000 years.  Now the site has a permanent research camp, a pride of Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography.

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John Smith has been with Histecho since 2017, A Senior Editor & Writer for Histecho. his work has been featured in outlets such as Scientific American, The Washington Post, NBC News, and Fox News. John grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York.

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