Ancient Cave Lion Figurine Fragment Discovered In Denisova Cave

On November 2019, Mikhail Shunkov a researcher of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, unearthed a cave lion figurine made of mammoth tusk in Denisova Cave in Altai. This is the first zoomorphic sculptural representation of such antiquity found in Siberia. It was found inside the 11th layer of the southern gallery of the cave. And this is the oldest sculptural zoomorphic image ever found in Siberia and throughout the territory of Northern and Central Asia. 

The precise age is yet to be confirmed, but the cautious dating given by Siberian archaeologists means that this might be the oldest animal figurine in the world.
Cave lion figurine in situ at the Denisova Cave in the Altai mountains. Picture: Institute of Archeology and Ethnography
It was carved from wooly mammoth ivory, the fragment, which measures about 1.6 inches long and less than one-half inch tall, depicts the animal’s shoulders, belly, and hip. The hip is extended as if the lion is in motion. The figurine was decorated with notches and painted with red ochre.

The cave lion figurine fragment from various angle of view

The figurine is very small, it can even be called miniature: it is 42 mm long, 8.5 mm wide, and 11 mm thick. Its head is lost, but, based on the shape of the body, researchers suggest that this is a statuette of a cave lion, or, as it is called in Russian science, a “tigon”. The animal has a tucked up belly, and its closed hind limbs are pushed back. Most likely, it is "fixed" in galloping, jumping, or it is only preparing for the jump and is frozen in a cat's characteristic "sniffing pose". An ornament in the form of 18 rows of four notches was applied to the surface of the figure. 

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. 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. 

"This is the first such sculptural representation known in Siberia, throughout North and Central Asia, and the first zoomorphic sculpture of such antiquity. Zoomorphic figurines are known in the history of the Siberian Paleolithic, but they are usually no older than 23-21 thousand years. The age of this one is not yet established, but it is located in a stratigraphic context, which, according to the radiocarbon analysis performed at Oxford University and optically stimulated luminescence, is about 45 thousand years old. The chronology will still be specified, but the image is, in any case, not less than 30 thousand years old. This means, it is the most ancient artifact of this kind," says Head of the Department of Archeology of the Stone Age IAE SB RAS, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Shunkov. 

Whether this figurine was an object of worship and, if so, what role it played in it, scientists cannot yet say. “Cave lions were found in Altai at that time. In total, out of the tens of thousands of finds in Denisova Cave, only six fragments of the cave lion's bones were found, most of them in the 11th layer, exactly where the figurine was found. This animal (by the way, unrelated to the caves) was the top of the pyramid of the predators who lived in the Denisova Cave area at that time. Not only in Altai, but throughout the world, it was considered special. Therefore, the way ancient man treated it was not accidental, but had tremendous symbolic meaning," notes Mikhail Shunkov.

Sources:
  • https://www.rgo.ru/en/article/ancient-cave-lion-figurine-discovered-denisova-cave
  • https://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/cave-lion-figurine-made-of-woolly-mammoth-tusk-found-at-denisova-cave/
  • https://www.archaeology.org/news/8202-191122-denisova-cave-lion

Pic Source:
  • https://siberiantimes.com/upload/information_system_38/7/7/4/item_7740/information_items_7740.jpg
  • https://siberiantimes.com/PICTURES/SCIENCE/Denisova-Cave-lion-figurine/st2.jpg

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