Missing 'body' of ice age animal carving finally found — but nobody knows what the animal is

We see a pieced together animal carving against a black background. It has a long neck, a curved back and legs on either side.
The enigmatic animal carving, as seen from the front left. (Image credit: Ria Litzenberg/University of Tubingen)

Archaeologists in Germany have discovered the missing piece of an ice age carving deep in a cave. But the new addition of the ivory carving, originally thought to depict a horse, has actually complicated matters: Now, researchers aren't sure if it portrays a cave lion or a cave bear.

Researchers previously found the head of the 35,000-year-old figurine in the cave Hohle Fels in the mountainous Swabian Jura region in the southern part of the country. The cave, which translates to "hollow rock" in German, is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is well known for its Upper Paleolithic (about 50,000 to 12,000 years ago) artifacts. At the time, the carved head was the first known ivory carving from the cave.

But the newfound "body" part of the carving has thrown the equine interpretation out the window. "We still cannot identify the animal species depicted with certainty," Nicholas Conard, a professor in the Department of Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, said at the "Find of the Year" news conference on July 27, according to a translated statement

Is it a cave lion or a cave bear? As seen from the front right. (Image credit: Ria Litzenberg/University of Tubingen)

The carving likely depicts a bear, he said. "The figurine now has a massive body, shows the typical pronounced bear hump at shoulder height and presents itself in a posture that could imitate the trotting gait of a bear," Conard noted.

But the carving also has similar anatomical features to a cave lion, which lived in Eurasia at the time. "It is by no means always easy to reliably identify Ice Age depictions, especially when they have been preserved in such fragmentary form," Conard said. 

Related: Man holding penis and flanked by leopards is world's oldest narrative carving

The newfound ivory carving resting where it was found in the cave. (Image credit: Alexander Janas/University of Tubingen)

After the initial 1999 finding of the head, researchers unearthed a total of five fragments of the ivory figurine, including a small piece of cheek. "It therefore makes sense to look extra carefully for the missing parts of this animal in the years to come," Conard said. 

The newly discovered "body" piece measures about 1.6 inches long, 1 inch high and 0.2 inches thick (4 by 2.5 by 0.6 centimeters). Whoever crafted it detailed fine and deliberately carved line patterns on the mammal. Upon finding the body, the researchers continued excavations and found another ivory fragment that might be the creature's left front leg.

The pieces are now on display at the Prehistoric Museum in Blaubeuren (URMU).

A study on the new finding, which was crafted by the Aurignacian Palaeolithic culture, was published in the current issue of the journal Archaeological Excavations in Baden-Württemberg, published by the Baden-Württemberg State Office for the Preservation of Monuments.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.