According to the publication of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, “Science in Siberia”, employees of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the SB RAS unearthed a cave lion figurine made of mammoth tusk in Denisova Cave in Altai, which is about 45 thousand years old. This is the first zoomorphic sculptural representation of such antiquity found in Siberia.
The figurine is very small, it can even be called miniature: it is 42 mm long, 8.5 mm wide, and 11 mm thick. Its head is lost, but, based on the shape of the body, researchers suggest that this is a statuette of a cave lion, or, as it is called in Russian science, a “tigon”. The animal has a tucked up belly, and its closed hind limbs are pushed back. Most likely, it is "fixed" in galloping, jumping, or it is only preparing for the jump and is frozen in a cat's characteristic "sniffing pose". An ornament in the form of 18 rows of four notches was applied to the surface of the figure. Researchers conducted a use-wear analysis of the figurine and found on it the remains of red ocher, concentrated mainly on the right side of the animal, in the region of the abdominal cavity. This can be interpreted as a bleeding wound inflicted on a predator by another predator during a fight or hunt.
"This is the first such sculptural representation known in Siberia, throughout North and Central Asia, and the first zoomorphic sculpture of such antiquity. Zoomorphic figurines are known in the history of the Siberian Paleolithic, but they are usually no older than 23-21 thousand years. The age of this one is not yet established, but it is located in a stratigraphic context, which, according to the radiocarbon analysis performed at Oxford University and optically stimulated luminescence, is about 45 thousand years old. The chronology will still be specified, but the image is, in any case, not less than 30 thousand years old. This means, it is the most ancient artifact of this kind," says Head of the Department of Archeology of the Stone Age IAE SB RAS, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Shunkov.
Whether this figurine was an object of worship and, if so, what role it played in it, scientists cannot yet say. “Cave lions were found in Altai at that time. In total, out of the tens of thousands of finds in Denisova Cave, only six fragments of the cave lion's bones were found, most of them in the 11th layer, exactly where the figurine was found. This animal (by the way, unrelated to the caves) was the top of the pyramid of the predators who lived in the Denisova Cave area at that time. Not only in Altai, but throughout the world, it was considered special. Therefore, the way ancient man treated it was not accidental, but had tremendous symbolic meaning," notes Mikhail Shunkov.
In the world of archeology, about 25 images of the cave lion are known. Scientists did not find direct analogies of the figurine with them, however, in its style the figurine, found in Siberia, is closest to the image of a cave lion found in one of the caves in Swabian Jura (southern Germany, Switzerland).
The mammoth, from whose tusk the figurine was made, did not live in the vicinity of Denisova Cave. Its closest habitat was the northern foothills of Altai. It is approximately 100-120 km from the famous cave. However, the animal - in the form of tooth fragments, tusks - is constantly found in the cave. These materials, like many others found in the Denisova Cave, were brought there.
It is also unclear, who made the figurine of the cave lion. Most likely, Denisovans, but it is known that at that time Homo sapiens were already in Siberia, perhaps they influenced the culture of the "neighbors".