Hohle Fels Figurines - 35,000 Year Old Carved Ivory Statuettes

1
Ivory Figurines from Hohle Fels

Horse Head Sculpture, Hohle Fels, Germany
Horse Head Sculpture, Hohle Fels, Germany. Hilde Jensen, University of Tübingen

Figurines from the Hohle Fels cave site in Germany are some of the world's oldest three-dimensional art known to date. Hohle Fels is an archaeological site, a cave in the Swabian Jura region of southwestern Germany, discovered in the 1870s and excavated most recently by Nicholas Conard at the University of Tubingen. 

Hohle Fels has a long history of occupation spanning Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic periods, but it is best known for having provided us several wonderful Upper Paleolithic figurines, carved from mammoth ivory and dated to the Aurignacian period. Three figurines were reported in 2003, including a horse head dated about 30,000 years ago, and a water bird and half-human, half-lion figurine, both dated to about 31,000-33,000 years ago. In 2009, Conard reported the discovery of a Venus figurine, the oldest Venus figurine yet discovered at least 35,000 years old, 4,000 years older than any other. This photo essay will examine the mammoth ivory figurines discovered from Hohle Fels to date.

The figurine on this page is what Conard called a horse head. The sides of the face and jaw show fine, regular cross hatching and fine parallel lines. The mouth, nostrils, and eyes of the animal are depicted with deeply incised lines. The two pieces were found in 1999, in levels dated to 30,000 years ago.

2
A Water Bird Figurine from Hohle Fels

Water Bird Sculpture, Hohle Fels, Germany
Water Bird Sculpture, Hohle Fels, Germany. Hilde Jensen, University of Tübingen.

This mammoth ivory figurine from Hohle Fels is a water bird of some sort. Its pieces were recovered in 2001 and 2002 near the bottom of the Aurignacian sequence. The sculpture depicts a water bird, perhaps a diver, cormorant or duck. The figurine measures 47 x 13 x 9 mm. The eyes are easily recognizable and the beak has a conical, pointed form. The legs of the bird are short, but they lack feet, perhaps because to represent the bird in flight. The tail extends below the legs and is illustrated as flat. The back is etched with a series of distinct lines representing feathers.

The waterbird figurine was recovered from levels that date between 31,000 and 33,000 years old.

3
Venus Figurine from Hohle Fels

The latest figurine recovered from Hohle Fels was discovered in September 2008, and reported in Nature on May 14, 2009. It is this nearly complete Venus figurine, and it was discovered broken into six separate pieces, about 3 meters below the modern floor of the cave.

The pieces of this venus figurine were recovered from the sixth and earliest Aurignacian levels at Hohle Fels, and Conard believes—although radiocarbon dates are somewhat shaky in the Swabian Jura—that the level dates to the earliest Aurignacian, or possibly as long ago as 40,000 years. The oldest venus figurine that I'm aware of is from Dolni Vestonice, from about 28,000-31,000 years ago.

4
Microphotographs of the Venus of Hohle Fels

Views and Photomicrographs of the Venus of Hohle Fels
Views and Photomicrographs of the Venus of Hohle Fels. Photographs by H. Jensen; photomicrographs by B. Ligouis; copyright University of Tubingen.

The Venus of Hohle Fels has no head, like many other examples, but it does have a (partial) ring where the head should be, suggesting that it was suspended from a cord. The figure measures 59.7 x 34.6 x 31.3 mm, and it weighs 33.3 grams.

The figure is short and squat with a visible waist and large breasts and buttocks. Deeply incised lines cover the abdomen to the pubic triangle. These incisions cover the back and, Conard believes, may represent clothing.

The legs are short, pointed and asymmetrical; the buttocks and genitals depicted in anatomically-correct detail.

Ivory working at Hohle Fels is abundantly in evidence, as it is at other sites belonging to the lower Aurignacian of this part of Germany, suggesting that figurine carving was a characteristic of Aurignacian people right from the beginning.

5
More Resources on Hohle Fels Cave

Entrance to Hohle Fels Cave, Swabian Jura, Germany
Entrance to Hohle Fels Cave, Swabian Jura, Germany. Dr. Eugen Lehle

Further Information

Sources on Hohle Fels Cave

Conard NJ. 2003. Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art. Nature 426:830-832. doi: 10.1038/nature02186

Conard NJ. 2009. A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. Nature 459(7244):248-252. doi: 10.1038/nature07995

Conard NJ, and Bolus M. 2003. Radiocarbon dating the appearance of modern humans and timing of cultural innovations in Europe: new results and new challenges. Journal of Human Evolution 44(3):331-371. doi: 10.1016/s0047-2484(02)00202-6

Conard NJ, and Moreau L. 2004. Current research on the Gravettian of the Swabian Jura. Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte 13:29-59.

Hardy BL, Bolus M, and Conard NJ. 2008. Hammer or crescent wrench? Stone-tool form and function in the Aurignacian of southwest Germany. Journal of Human Evolution 54(5):648-662. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.10.003