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For over 20 years, archaeologists in Germany thought a 35,000-year-old figurine they found was a horse. Now, they aren’t sure whether or not it’s a cave lion or cave bear.

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A small brown ivory figurine shaped like a bear or a lion in front of a black backgroundThe Hohle Fels animal figure from left front

Ria Litzenberg, University of Tübingen

  • The “body” of a prehistoric ivory figurine was recently discovered in Germany. 
  • The head was found in 1999, and for years, archaeologists believed it to be a horse. 
  • Now, they’re trying to figure out what animal it actually is.

A minuscule, ivory figurine being pieced together over 20 years has confounded scientists, who thought the carving was a horse this whole time.

The figurine’s head was first found in 1999 in the Hohle Fels cave — an important archaeological site of ice age artifacts nestled in Germany‘s Swabian Jura region — and dates back 35,000 years ago. As scientists collected various parts of the 1-inch tall carving over the years, they stuck to the horse theory.

However, archaeologists discovered their fifth piece, a body fragment, in 2022. Now they’re debating what animal is meant to be represented by the ancient carving, according to a press release from the University of Tübingen.

In the press release, Nicholas Conard, a professor at the University, said there are two main theories: a cave lion or a cave bear.

Conard himself believes that it’s a cave bear — a prehistoric bear species that inhabited Europe — because the figurine’s “pronounced bear hump” matches the height of its shoulders and appears to imitate a bear’s gait. 

A small brown ivory figurine shaped like a bear or a lion in front of a black backgroundThe Hohle Fels animal figure from the front right

Ria Litzenberg/University of Tubingen

However, Conard said that his colleagues have also identified properties of the fragments that are similar to a Eurasian cave lion, a species also common in Europe during the ice age.

“It is by no means always easy to identify Ice Age depictions with certainty, especially when they are preserved in such fragmentary form,” Conard said in the press release. “It therefore makes sense to look extra carefully for the missing parts of this animal in the years to come.”

The figurines are on display at the Prehistoric Museum in Blaubeuren in Germany.

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