A Horse Is a Horse?

Digs & Discoveries November/December 2023

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Nearly 25 years ago, a team working in Hohle Fels Cave in southern Germany’s Swabia region unearthed a small piece of carved ivory they believed represented a horse’s head. Even as three more small ivory pieces that were part of the same figurine were found subsequently, their judgment didn’t change. A fifth piece of the Ice Age sculpture has recently been discovered, and researchers now believe it depicts an entirely different animal. “As soon as the pieces were fit together, it was clear from the shape of the shoulder and body that they couldn’t belong to a horse,” says archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen.

The figurine was created about 40,000 years ago, at a time when modern humans coexisted with many large mammals, including cave lions and cave bears, some of which are depicted in other small carved figurines found in the cave. “It’s possible the carving is a lion, but I favor the interpretation of it as a bear,” says Conard. As to what this and the other animal carvings might have meant to their creators, Conard is less certain. “The Paleolithic artists of the Swabian caves were skilled craftspeople and artists, and I think both women and men made ivory carvings,” he says. “In the case of the animal carvings, there is considerable uncertainty about the meaning of the depictions.”

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