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Humans have always had a close connection to animals, whether for food, transport or just a nice sloppy kiss and wagging tail after a hard day’s work. The earliest human-with-dog burial dates back 14,000 years. But animals have been depicted in art and iconography for much, much, MUCH longer. Check out these seven statues that show just how significant animals have been to us over the last 40,000 years.

1. The one that’s the oldest in the world

lion man

At 40,000 years old, this ‘Lion Human’ found in a cave in Germany is both the oldest known animal-shaped statue and the earliest uncontested example of figurative art in the world. Standing at 29.6 cm tall and carved from mammoth ivory, the human-like body suggests it wasn’t intended to be fully animal. Similar carvings have been found in nearby caves, along with flutes, suggesting this friendly-looking feline may have been an important character in early human mythology.

2. The one that never saw the light of day

bison

Many theories have been proposed to explain these 15,000 year-old bison sculptures from the Tuc d’Audoubert cave in France. Modeled out of clay from the walls of the cave, these bison stand one behind the other, propped up against a small boulder, where they stood in total darkness for thousands of years until they were rediscovered in the last century. Just 18 inches tall and 24 inches long, a number of preserved children’s footprints in the cave have led many to theorise that coming-of-age rituals took place near the bison. Others suggest that the bison are a symbol of fertility and are preparing to mate.

3. The ones that bring good luck

ram charm

A couple of years ago, two animal figurines – an ox and a horned ram – were discovered during the construction of a new motorway in Israel. The figurines, which are carved from limestone and dolomite are believed to bring luck to hunters as they pursued their prey and date back between 9,000 and 9,500 years.

4. The one that questions who is really man’s best friend

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If there’s one animal that’s going to be venerated, it seems only fair it should be the cat. After all, if you stalk around with your nose in the air like you own the place for long enough, people will start to believe it! It is thought cats were domesticated about 10,000 years ago, and they were so sacred to the Egyptians they often received the same mummification process as humans. We think this beautiful example in the British Museum may own more gold than we do!

5. The life-size lions

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Looks like someone’s playing hide and seek! These unusual lion statues found in the town of Karakiz in Turkey date back over 3,200 years to the time of the Hittite Empire. Archaeologists are still unsure of why they were carved, but some have suggested they were markers, possibly guarding something like a sacred spring. These days, they’re in pretty poor nick after locals blew them apart looking for treasure hidden within.

6. The one that gave birth to an Empire

romulusremus

Among the best-known on our list is the fabulous she-wolf who features in legend as the surrogate mum of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome. The original statue is housed in Rome on the Capitoline Hill, but its date has always caused controversy. Until recently, it was commonly accepted opinion that she was Etruscan and dated to about the 5th century BC, with the twins added in the late 15th century AD. However, recent thermoluminescence dating has let the cat out of the bag and it seems the wolf part was probably only cast between 1021 and 1153AD.

7. The one that took us by surprise

lobster

This lobster effigy from about 1550 AD was discovered in Mayan territory in what is now Belize. The glyph for “sea’ was only translated in the late 1980s and the realisation among archaeologists of the importance of the sea in Mayan culture is relatively recent. The human face peering out is just so unexpected… in fact it looks as surprised to be in there as we are to see it!

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Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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