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World’s Oldest Figurative Art is Now an Official World Treasure

The new Unesco world heritage site spans six caves located in the Swabian Alps in Germany

Two views of the curvy "Venus of Hohle Fels." (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The United Nation's cultural arm, Unesco has added eight new sites to its World Heritage List this week, including an area in southwestern Germany where the some of the oldest figurative art ever found was unearthed, reports Oscar Holland at CNN.

Dubbed "Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura," the newly designated area spans six caves located in the Swabian Alps in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state. Since the 1860s, archaeologist have uncovered musical instruments, decorations and more than 40 figurines dating between 33,000 and 43,000 years old in the caves, reports Sarah Cascone at artnet News. Tools carved by Neanderthals, which date back 60,000 years, have also been recovered there, according to Holland.

While over the last 150 some years, the caves have been excavated by various researchers, the most significant finds have occurred in the last decade. In 2007, archaeologists found the ivory figures of a lion and five mammoth figures in Vogelherd Cave, dating at least 35,000 years. Those pieces are considered the oldest figurative art ever found in Europe.

The most famous figure found at the site is the "Venus of Hohle Fels," a headless statue carved out of mammoth ivory that was unearthed in Hohle Fels cave in 2008. According to Andrew Curry at Smithsonian magazine, the Venus, with her exaggerated breasts and genitalia, set off a debate about whether these early artists were simply representing the world around them or trying to present abstract ideas.

One researcher tells Curry that he believes the figures from the caves are a milestone, and mark the development of creative ideas in early humans. Within a few thousand years the artistic expression of abstract ideas spread to other parts of Europe, where prehistoric humans elaborately decorated caves in place like Chauvet, France.

The World Heritage Site designation is a way to acknowledge and protect these significant caves. Stefanie Kölbl, managing director of the Museum of Prehistory in Blaubeuren, which houses some of the artifacts from the caves, tells Holland that no musical instruments, decorative adornments or art appear in Europe’s archaeological record until the time of these cave dwellers. “Their lives were about much more than just hunting and eating," she says. "We have fantasy, imagination and an image of man’s surroundings. And while we have signs of symbolic thinking, abstraction and expression from discoveries in Africa, we didn’t have perfect carved figurines like these.”

Other sites added to the world heritage list during UNESCO’s summit in Krakow, Poland, include Kujataa, Greenland, where the Norse introduced farming to the Arctic and Okinoshima, Japan, a sacred island off the coast of Japan that only allows men to visit.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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