In the late 1800’s a series of caves were discovered in southern Germany containing evidence of early Human “occupation”. In total there are six cave systems, all within a small geographic location in the Swabian Alps. The early excavations showed evidence, via tools and animal remains of occupation in the upper palaeolithic. It wasn’t until the 1930s though, with the discovery in the Vogelherd cave of a cave Lion, carved in ivory that the importance of this site began to be realised. The Vogelherd Lions head dates from Aurignacian culture, which existed around 45,000BC. This find sparked immense interest and since then the caves have been excavated numerous times, with each excavation new revelations were found. These cave systems have given us the oldest figurative art in “The Löwenmensch figurine” and the oldest human depiction in the “Venus of Hohle Fels”. In terms of Human artistic development these sites are unparalleled in the entire archaeological world. before we can draw any conclusions on their significance, I feel it important we take a brief look at each cave site and its finds.
Hohlenstein-Stadel was the first cave to be excavated in 1861 by Oskar Fraas, who returned in 1866, Further digs were done through out the 1930s. These early digs produced more evidence of early human occupation, but the star of this dig, was not realised till the 1960s. on the last day of the digging in the 1939, fragments of ivory were found, but overlooked and just catalogued. It wasn’t until 1969, when the finds were re examined that it was realised these broken fragments were actually part of a figurine. This is the story of how the oldest known figurine ever made was discovered, the Löwenmensch figurine. The Löwenmensch figurine, holds many of the “oldest ever found” titles, being dated to around 40 thousand years ago. The sculpture itself is that of a half man, half lion hybrid (see below).
A long with the “lion man” sculpture, there were found many decorative items made of animal teeth and ivory. These personal items had holes made in them, as if they once belonged on a string forming a necklace.
Holhle Fels was the second site to be excavated with the first excavations starting in 1870. Basic tools, along with the bones of various animals were discovered, again pointing to early human occupation. Later excavations took place from the late 1950s up until 2009, bringing with them new and history changing artefacts. By far the most famous of these finds came in the form of the oldest ever human depiction in art, “The Venus of Hohle Fels”. Venus figurines are found all over Europe and even parts of Siberia, ranging in date from 40 to 11 thousand years ago. This is though the earliest example of such a figure, possibly up to 10 thousand years before any other item of its type. Given that Venus figurines are often linked to early forms of Goddess worship, gives this piece not only importance in artistic development but also spiritual. The Figure itself is that of a very large female, with huge breasts, symbolic, many believe of a “mother Goddess” figure (see below).
As well as finding the oldest known Venus figurine, this site is also home to many other amazing finds. A flute made out of a vultures wing bone, dating to around 35 thousand years ago, was also found. This flute was once thought to be the oldest, till it was usurped by two other flutes found in the nearby Geisenklösterle cave. One of the more intriguing finds in this cave was another half man, half lion sculpture, that looks very similar to the more famous find from Hohlenstein-Stadel. This figure though is in a much more deteriorated state than its counterpart and it dates from around 30 thousand years ago. like the Venus figurines, raises questions regarding early religious beliefs. Along with these finds other items include a phallus symbol (26k BC) the Hohle Fel bird and horse carvings. (28k BC) and the youngest find of a painted stone (15k BC).
Although the first mention of the Sirgenstein cave is in 1488, it wasnt till 1866 till the site was fully surveyed. The site was completely excavated in 1909, showing evidence of occupation by Neanderthals from the middle Palaeolithic. The team also found evidence of human occupation in every major age since, from Aurignacian period right through to the iron age. Unlike the previous caves the finds here were not as spectacular and consisted mostly of flint tools and animal bones. Most of the ancient tools, about 5000 in total and animal deposits were dated to the Aurignacian period.
The Vogelherd Cave was first excavated in 1931 where occupation of the cave was evidenced from the palaeolithic to the bronze age. The team also found animal carvings made from Mammoth ivory, that had strange criss cross markings and dots engraved on them. These finds again like the other caves dated to the Aurignacian period. Some of the most notable among these finds were a carving of a cave lions head (38k BC) Sculpted Woolly Mammoth (26k BC) a horse sculpture (26k BC) and Mammoth bone rings (38k BC) A later dig around 2012, that examined the waste from the earlier dig found thousands of finds, from tools to pierced pendants/necklace pieces and even possibly the scattered parts of another piece of figurative art work. The most intriguing thing about these finds though is nearly all the animal carvings have criss crossed lines along the spine and other areas. These markings obviously have meaning, as without them the sculptures are anatomically correct in every way.
There was also this time some finds from the later Magdalenian (about 15k BC) around the same time as the painted stone at Hohles Fels. These included many examples of blades and animal bones, with markings that possibly represent some form of art. The most interesting artefact dating from this period is “The Venus of Vogelherd” which is another Venus figurine carved this time from the tusk of a wild Boar.
This site was first excavated in 1973 after a 1963 archaeological exploration. Evidence for human occupation has been found here again from the Aurignacian period, this time though through to the middle ages. Like the other caves in the area, it has produced many ancient tools and minor artefacts, especially from the Aurignacian period. Again like the other caves in the area, Geisenklösterle produced a world first, this time in the form of the first musical instrument. this comes like the find at Hohlenstein-Stadel is in the form a flute, well two to be precise. Unlike the one found at Hohlenstein-Stadel these flutes dating to around 40,000 BC are not made of Vulture wing bones, but Mammoth ivory and Swan bones (below, reproduction).
Bocksteinhöhle like Sirgenstein cave didnt produce the same wondrous finds as the other caves. They were first excavated in the 1880s and the finds consist mostly of flint tools and perforated beads. Like the other caves most the finds again dated from the Aurignacian culture. The best known find from this site is the Bocksteinmesser, a large hand axe or wedge knife.
These caves in the Swabian Alps are among the most important archaeological sites in the world regarding human development. Through their excavations the timeline of human development was pushed back thousands of years. Like all great leaps in knowledge though, these caves give us more questions than answers. Something I have not mentioned in this piece so far is the Cro Magnon connection. The Aurignacian period is intimately connected to Cro Magnon man, so again like the caves in france, we have Cro Magnon and massive leaps of human development going hand in hand. This leads to the obvious question, who was Cro Magnon man? Cro Magnon man despite clear differences, has no formal classification itself and is therefore lumped in with all early humans. Given this broad grouping, Cro Magnon man is often over looked when it comes to the crucial human developments. Cro Magnon is simply seen as a continuation of early human migration patterns from Africa. If this is true though, why do we only see the likes of Cro Magnon man in Europe, not only in skeletal remains, but also in artistic development?
here are far to many questions to answer in this piece alone, so I will save a more in depth analysis for another time. I will be sure to link any future articles on this subject below, for ease of access. Be sure though to check out the “New posts” tab for the newest articles and follow me on twitter, to keep up with new posts via social media.