The uncovering of the engraving, in 1864, was the handiwork of a joint British-French archaeological expedition and it provided the first, unambiguous evidence that human beings had once shared this planet with long-extinct animals such as the mammoth. Its discovery was also an act of extraordinary good fortune, it transpires.
“The site has since lent its name to a period known as the Magdalenian era, which thrived across Europe between 12,000 and 16,000 years ago, and which we now appreciate was a time of incredible artistic creativity,” says Professor Chris Stringer, curator of the Natural History Museum exhibition.
The site has certainly produced many wonders, but in terms of their sheer scientific importance none can match the splintered mammoth figurine that was spotted by Lartet and Falconer on that day in May 1864. In their hands lay fragments, freshly dug from the earth, of a beautiful engraving of a mammoth, with its distinctive domed head, that was, for good measure, made of mammoth ivory.
“You couldn’t really top that in terms of proving that humans had lived at the same time as mammoths,” says Stringer. “Indeed, when you examine the piece you can see details of the mammoth’s anatomy that we only know about today from the frozen mammoth carcasses that we have found in Siberia.”
In other words, only an artist who had shared that ancient landscape (the Madeleine mammoth was carved about 14,000 years ago) with these creatures would have been able to record one with such precision and flair – and on a piece of the animal’s own ivory.
***HAPPY 150TH BIRTHDAY, DEEP TIME!***