I love the art of sculpture.  I’m not sure if it’s the three dimensional rendering of a subject, or some ineffable quality of the aesthetics, but either way, I’m hooked.  I’m partial to Classical Greek, Roman and early Renaissance period sculpture, but there are plenty of styles and specific pieces outside of that narrow selection that I adore as well.

Like any art form though, sculpture is a practice, a tradition with an ancient origin.  I know what you’re thinking, Classical Greece and Rome are the very definition of ancient from our perspective.  But the art of sculpture is much older than that.

Long before the Egyptians had mastered their gilded statuary of Horace and Khufu, and even before they figured out how to build pyramids; before the various Mesopotamians perfected their relief carvings and figural artworks…there were the Aurignacians.

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Löwenmensch on display at the Ulm Museum in Ulm, Germany

The name Aurignacians is actually just a place holder, since we know very little about them in terms of language and culture.  It was given to them by modern researchers because they hailed from a place now called Aurignac, which is in Southern France.  That’s a little misleading though, because they actually occupied nearly all of Europe; from Aurignac to as far north as Germany and well into western Asia.   The Aurignacians showed up in the archaeological record circa 47,000 years ago, which means they were the first civilization of modern humans to populate Europe.  They were, in fact, the very first European culture, preceded only by the so-called Cro-Magnon man who emigrated from Africa just prior to the Aurignacian proliferation between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago.  Their ancestral legacy includes the peoples of the Fertile Crescent – who eventually populated Mesopotamia – and early Siberian cultures, and they are thought to have been precedents for Proto-Indo-European language traditions.

Aurignacian culture was responsible for a great deal of critical technological advancement in areas of tool making and cave art.  The wonderful examples of prehistoric art at sites like Aldène and Chauvet in Southern France are attributed to them, as well as many examples of bone and antler tools, refined flint blades, and a form of shaft wrench.  The Aurignacians represent the dawn of human ingenuity and intelligence, and one aspect of their culture stands out greater than any other.

There are two figurine sculptures commonly attributed to the Aurignacian culture, both of which were found in Germany; Venus of Hohle Fels and Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel.  Both figures are magnificent in their aesthetic appeal, and in what they represent.  The Lion man figurine, which is more commonly called the Lion figure – or Löwenmensch (German) – has been radiocarbon dated by association to material found in the same strata, to 40,000 years old.  This makes it the oldest known zoomorphic sculpture, and the oldest known figurative art in the world.  The Venus, which is often given the same title, may be younger than the Lion figure by no more than a century.

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Venus of Hohle Fels

Both the Lion figure and the Venus are mammoth ivory carvings, and in both cases the artisan used flint tools to shape and give detail to his or her art.  These two sculptures offer valuable insight into the psyche of the Aurignacian peoples in that region.

As mentioned, the Lion figure is a zoomorphic representation of a lion, though some experts believe that it’s actually an example of the first appearance of anthropomorphic projection of human characteristics onto an animal, possibly representing a specific deity (thought there is much argument over whether it holds male or female characteristics).  Which leads some to believe that the Aurignacians were not only the first to create this type of art, but may also have been the first to conceive of religion in any form.  This idea is furthered by analysis of the Venus figure, which was initially thought to be a simple representation of sex and/or sexuality, but is now commonly thought to represent fertility, renewal, and survival.  All three are common elements of early shamanistic religious traditions, as is the use of the female form in that light.

The Lion figure is eleven centimeters in height, and the Venus only six.  Its smaller size, coupled with what appears to be a carved loop or protrusion in place of its head, leads some to believe that the Venus may have been a pendant or amulet worn around the neck of its owner.

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Venus of Hohle Fels (left), Venus of Dolní Věstonice (center), Venus von Willendorf (right)

Those familiar with ancient artwork can readily see, I’m sure, the striking similarity between the Venus of Hohle Fels figurine and the many later examples of mother-goddess carvings that appear throughout the archaeological record from many different regions.  And with few exceptions, those figures were key elements in religious or spiritual traditions, almost always representing fertility, nature, motherhood, creation, destruction, and an embodiment of the bounty of the Earth.  That iconography has evolved and stayed with humanity throughout the ages, and in fact, is the origin of the terms Mother Earth and Mother Nature.  This Venus sculpture being the very first example of that iconography makes it a truly priceless artefact from our past.

It is kind of odd though, that outside of the annals of history class, the Aurignacians and their incredible achievements seldom get any recognition for their influence on the entirety of human culture.  They were the first modern humans.  They started it all, and we continue to reap the rewards of their instinct to survive and to create what we now know as the art of sculpture.  Think of the mastery of great artisans like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bernini, and so on; who is to say that those great sculptors would have realised their genius without the foundation provided by these earliest of figurines?

So the next time you go to an art gallery or museum and you wonder how such beautiful objects are created, give a thought to the Aurignacians and their figurative art.

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