“Ice Age Horse” is a bear or lion

Ice Age Sculpture

The 35,000 year old animal figure from the Hohle Fels cave. © Ria Litzenberg/ University of Tübingen

An Ice Age sculpture discovered around 20 years ago in the Hohle Fels Cave on the southern edge of the Swabian Alb was previously thought to be an image of a wild horse. Only the head and neck area was preserved from the approximately 35,000-year-old animal figure made of mammoth ivory, the remaining body parts were missing. But now archaeologists have also discovered the torso of this figure. Its shape suggests that the sculpture represents a bear or cave lion rather than an Ice Age horse.

The caves of the Swabian Jura were an important refuge for our ancestors: the first groups of Homo sapiens sought protection from the Ice Age cold there as early as 40,000 years ago. In the sheltered valleys on the southern edge of the Swabian Jura and the caves there, these early representatives of our species were able to survive the cold period in Europe. The milder climate and the fertile nature along the Danube tributaries and in the valleys offered them a habitat with sufficient food and weather-protected accommodation. This could explain why some of the oldest finds of the Aurignacian culture were made in this area.

New fragments of the "Ice Age Horse" discovered

The most famous finds from the caves of the Swabian Alb include figures carved from bone and mammoth ivory, including sculptures of mammoths and lions, but also the 40,000-year-old Venus of Hohle Fels - one of the oldest figurative human representations. Bone flutes dating back 40,000 years have also been discovered in the caves. Among the first finds from Hohle Fels Cave in 1999 was the head and neck of a 35,000-year-old animal carved from ivory. Due to the shape of the head and fine carvings, archaeologists classified this find as part of a horse sculpture. Despite a search, the remaining fragments of the figure were not found at the time. The "Ice Age Horse" was exhibited in the Prehistoric Museum in Blaubeuren for a good 20 years.

Archaeologists led by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tübingen have now discovered a previously missing part of this ivory sculpture while examining other finds recovered from the cave during new excavations. The fragment is almost four centimeters long, 2.50 centimeters high and a good half centimeter thick. Several fine, deliberately engraved line patterns can be seen on one side. The pattern and shape of the find revealed that it had to be the right shoulder and chest of the "Ice Age horse". A little later, the scientists were able to locate another small part of the right side of the body and another fragment that could be part of the left front leg.

Horse was a bear or cave lion

The new fragments let the Ice Age figure appear in a new light, because they no longer really fit the old interpretation as a horse depiction. If the torso is attached to the previously known head and neck pieces of the sculpture, the animal appears too massive for a horse: "We still can't determine the animal species depicted with certainty, but it could be a cave lion or a cave bear," reports Conard . "The figurine now has a massive body, the characteristically pronounced bear hump at shoulder height, and is presented in a posture that might imitate a bear's trotting gait."

The archaeologist concludes that, contrary to what was assumed for 20 years, it is probably not a sculpture of a wild horse. Instead, the Ice Age artist could have portrayed a bear of the time. But it would also be conceivable that the sculpture shows a cave lion. Some of the anatomical and physiognomic features depicted would be fitting for such a predator. A scientific publication on the figure appears in the current issue of the journal "Archäologische Ausdigbungen in Baden-Württemberg", published by the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Baden-Württemberg. However, scientists hope to find even more fragments of this figure in the future.

"It is by no means always easy to authenticate Ice Age depictions, especially when they are so fragmented," says Conard. "Therefore, it makes sense to look very carefully for the missing parts of this animal in the coming years." "This figure shows us and our visitors like no other that the archaeological work is never finished," says Stefanie Kölbl, Managing Director of the museum.

Source: Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen; Specialist article: Archaeological excavations in Baden-Württemberg 2022, July 2023, pp. 48 – 53

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