We were, had the world not closed ranks against the pandemic, supposed to have been running a workshop at Avebury this summer, looking at some of the less obvious sites and addressing some of the deeper questions posed by the presence within our landscape of such a remarkable ancient site. One of the questions we might have asked is why, given all the evidence to the contrary, society in general still persists in seeing our ancestors as uncultured and brutish when we have been aware, for a very long time, that this is not so.
In 1939 a sculpture was found in Stadel-Höhle im Hohlenstein. Carved of mammoth ivory, the Löwenmensch, as the lion-headed anthropomorphic sculpture became known, was determined to be some 40,000 years old and is one of the oldest known examples of figurative art in the world. It is surprisingly sophisticated and, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for an artefact of the ancient Egyptian culture some 35,000 years later. The fusion of human and animal would imply a level of thought beyond the mundane… perhaps some magic to ensure a good hunt as the usual explanation would suggest, perhaps a desire to ensure the strength of the lion for the hunter… we cannot be certain. What is clear is that already our ancestors were looking at a reality beyond the purely physical realms… a reality where such magic was possible, or where perhaps they had the intimation of a divinity behind the forces of nature.
The caves where the figurine was found also yielded other carvings, some thousands of years older still, along with evidence of instrumental music. Hardly what we generally expect from our idea of ‘cave men’. The cave paintings of Lascaux, in France, date back some 17,300 years. The swimming reindeer carving from Bruniquel is 13,000 years old. Our ancestors were evolving a more and more complex culture, with an obvious appreciation of art.
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