Nov 23, 2019 I Paul Seaburn

45,000-Year-Old Cave Lion Statue from Woolly Mammoth Tusk Found in Denisova Cave

The Denisova Cave in Siberia is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving. Starting with the bones and skull fragments of members of the mysterious cousins of modern humans and Neanderthals known as the Denisovans (Homo denisova), there’s evidence that they lived together and quite likely mated with each other. The task of finding Denisovan bones is complicated by the fact that they’re in a huge, dirt-covered pile of animal bone fragments that must be extracted, cleaned, identified, sorted and eliminated (if you’ve seen one rat bone, you’ve seen them all). However, that pile has become a magical repository of unique discoveries, and the latest just might be the best. Archeologists from the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography recently found a small figure of a cave lion carved out of a 45,000-year-old woolly mammoth tusk – which if confirmed would make it the oldest animal sculpture in the world.

“The figurine depicts an animal with its tummy tucked in, its hind legs bent. It is either galloping, jumping or getting ready to jump. The animal is shown in a typical for big cats position for the moment when they are ready to catch a prey.”

In an interview with The Siberian Times, Mikhail Shunkov, head of the Institute’s Stone Age Archeology Department, described the tiny (42 by 8 by 11 mm – 1.65 by .3 by .43 inches) carved ivory tusk, which would have originated at least 100 km (62 miles) away – the nearest location of woolly mammoths. While the lion’s head and front legs are missing, its hind legs, groin, back and belly are clearly visible (many pictures here). The figure was found in the 11th layer or strata of the pile of sediment that makes the floor of the cave, which helps give the carving an approximate age of 45,000 years.

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A lot of tusk for carving

The artist also colored the entire lion with red ochre. Why it was decorated in this manner is a mystery, as is whether the artist was Denisovan, Neanderthal or homo sapien. Homo sapiens were definitely present in Siberia 45,000 years ago, so it’s conceivable that if they didn’t make the carving, they may have at least influenced the Denisovan artist. However, the archeologists on the study say they’ve not found anything like from that time period anywhere else in the world.

What was the purpose of this woolly mammoth ivory cave lion? On the Denisovan Discussions page on Facebook, ancient mysteries researcher Debbie Cartwright thinks it’s a toy for a child.

“A toy totem, a shamanic totem of protection, but for a child. It doesn’t have feet deliberately, as it may have been designed for tiny hands to use as a comforter.”

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No matter how elaborate, tusk carving today is still wrong.

There are 18 marks on the belly of the lion, leading others to speculate they symbolized the 18-year lunar eclipse cycle. That seems to be a stretch, but it’s pointed out that the Inca thought a red ‘blood moon’ meant it have been eaten by a lion or jaguar … and the Denisovan lion was once covered in red ochre. On the website Ancient Origins, there’s speculation that the 18 gashes each had four faint ones, bringing the total to 72 … and 72 years is the length of time of a life cycle in Siberian shamanic calendrical tradition.

Those are pretty remote dots they’re connecting about this ancient ivory cave lion. What we know for sure is that the Denisova cave certainly has plenty more secrets yet to be revealed.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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