14 May 2009

The Newest Uppity Stone-Age Venus

This lovely lady, we're told, was produced at least 35,000 years ago, which makes it one of the oldest known examples of human sculpture anywhere. She is tiny (only 6 cm [2.4"] tall) but, close-up, she sure packs a punch.

The World's First Uppity Venus?

Digging in a cave in southwestern Germany last fall, University of Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard unearthed this new Venus -- named the Hohle Fels Venus after the cave where she was found. Conard tells the story of the discovery in this week's Nature magazine (behind the subscription barrier, but they do offer a tempting pair of video's to the public, cutely entitled Prehistoric pin-up) and it has already been widely picked up by the news media.

With headlines exactly as you'd expect:

Excavation in Germany turns up paleolithic porn: Welt Online English News

Sexy "Venus" may be oldest figurine yet discovered: Reuters Science News

PREHISTORIC PORN: The Huffington Post

Busty Figurine Likened to 'Paleolithic Playboy': Discovery Channel

The Earliest Pornography? by ScienceNOW Daily News -- who really should know better. Oh well, at least, they did put in a question mark.

But did they put the question mark in the right place?

Is the Hohle Fels Venus, as Dr Conard claims, the most ancient representation of the human form yet discovered?

And, thus, one of the oldest pieces of sculptures ever found?

If she is truly over 35,000 years old, that early date -- and her dramatically exaggerated breasts, big buttocks, and detailed, enlarged vulva -- would place her at the very beginning of the Venus line (see my earlier posts, with lots of illustrations: Uppity Stone-Age Venus I, Venus II, and Venus III).

This Venus, unhappily, never had a head, but instead has a carefully-carved ring on top which suggests that the tiny figurine may have hung as a pendant from a leather thong or cord. While most Venus statuettes have only the sketchiest extremities (arms, hands, legs, feet), her arms are solidly fleshy and her hands even have precisely carved fingers, with five digits clearly visible on the left hand and four on the right hand. Deeply incised horizontal lines mark the arms and bulging abdomen which might represent clothing or straps or (if I may suggest it) possibly tattoos.

She is carved from a single piece of mammoth-tusk ivory which the team put back together again from six broken pieces (only the left arm and shoulder are still missing). At the same cave site, the archaeologists had previously found miniature statues of a horse, diving waterfowl and a human-like lion with male sexual features. The bones of various animals, including cave bears, deer, rhinoceroses and horses, were also excavated. They attribute all of these finds, including the ancient Venus, to one of the earliest human populations in Europe — the Aurignacian culture (37,000-27,000 BP)— which would mean that figurative art is a phenomenon that arose soon after modern man arrived in Europe (and before Neanderthals went extinct).

"This confirms figurative imagery is part of the Aurignacian from day one," Conard says, and "it will radically change our view of the origins of Palaeolithic art." Before this, he noted, most carvings and cave drawings were of mammoths, horses and other animals. "It is the oldest example of figurative art in any class, making it all the more surprising that the figurine presents such a powerful, sexually aggressive image." And he explained:

'Before this discovery ... female imagery was entirely unknown. The figurines enlarged breasts, bloated belly and thighs also make clear that sexual symbolism was alive and well tens of thousand of years ago, Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge, wrote in the [Nature] commentary. 'The feature of the newly discovered figure that will undoubtedly command most attention is its explicitly, almost aggressively, sexual nature, focused on the sexual characteristics of the female form, he wrote. 'Whichever way one views these representations, it is clear that the sexually symbolic dimension in European (and indeed worldwide) art has a long ancestry in the evolution of our species.

"It's at least as old as the world's oldest cave art," Mellars added, saying that viewers "can't avoid being struck by its very sexually explicit depiction of a woman. The breasts really jump out at you."

So, who should win the oldest crown?

Round One: Hohle Fels versus Willendorf

The find came almost 100 years to the day after the discovery in Austria of the "Venus of Willendorf," perhaps the most famous example of so-called Venus figurines that proliferated across Europe 20,000 to 25,000 years ago.

The Willendorf Venus was made of stone and about twice as big, but it also emphasized large breasts and a clearly carved vulva. Conard argues that his statuette is about 10,000 years older than the Willendorf piece and places it at the very start of the human advanced symbolic communication system -- a system which otherwise is known as 'art'.

Not only Willendorf. If Conard's dating is right, the Hohle Fels Venus was almost alone for at least 5,000 years. With one exception, all other Venus statuettes come from the Gravettian culture (27,000-23,000 BP). Conard admits that there are striking similarities between the Hohle Fels figurine and the later Venuses, which may be due to "a shared cultural tradition".

As archaeologists should remind themselves more often -- 5,000 years then is as long as 5,000 years now. A vast length of time.

So this cultural tradition would have had to span an immense number of actual years.

Round 2: Toppling "Dancing Fanny" from her throne

Until today, this 7.2 cm [2 1/2"] high green serpentine carving of a nude woman from Stratzinger Galgenberg (Lower Austria) was crowned as the "world's oldest sculpture of a woman".

Found in 1988, this extraordinary figurine, more formally known as the Galgenberg Venus, is posed as though in a ritual or dance position -- with one breast jutting out to the left, the other facing frontward; the vulva clearly indicated, the left arm raised, and the right hand resting on the thigh. Because of its moving, dancing attitude -- and not, I presume, because of its vulva -- its discoverers christened her "Fanny", after the famous Viennese dancer Fanny Elssler (pictured below).

She was discovered during rescue excavations of a camp site of palaeolithic hunters. Bones of horses and mammoths as well as antlers were found which yielded radiocarbon dates of approximately 32,000 years for the level where Fanny was found.

Round 3: The Chauvet Cave Pubic

Another ex-record-holder for the oldest female image is this drawing (left) on a cave wall from the Chauvet Cave in southern France, dated at about 30,000-32,000 years old -- a cave thought to be the very "Birthplace of Art".*

This composition links the lower part of a woman's body with the head of a bison with a human arm and hand (I've put in red arrows to mark those hard-to-see human elements). The bison figure has been described as "half-man, half-animal" and is nicknamed 'The Sorcerer' since its discovery.

Needless to say, I wonder how you sex a bison's head -- and why archaeologists are so sure this is a 'Sorcerer' and not a 'Sorceress'? But that's another story.

Back on topic, there may have once been a little more to the woman's body: the buttocks, too, might have been at least begun, and then deliberately obliterated by the superimposed bison being. Whatever was originally intended, a more emphatic statement of womanhood would be hard to find. And the same image -- pubic triangle with vulva -- is repeated five times in the Cauvet Cave, and these are the only indisputably human depictions in a cave otherwise filled with vivid pictures of mammoths, rhinoceroses, lions, bears, horses, and bisons.

What's wrong with this picture?

To put it mildly, the three supposedly earliest depictions of a woman -- Hohle Fels, "Dancing Fanny", and the pubic triangles of Chauvet Cave -- could hardly be more different one from another. The only one I'd put my money on, in truth, is the cave drawing. Why? Because it is notorious in archaeological excavations how easily such tiny objects as the two Venuses can slip down levels -- through snake holes, animal burrows, or because of later human activity -- to end up far below, in a level much earlier than when they were actually made.

I can't prove it, of course. Only ScienceNow put in a word of caution, citing archaeologist João Zilhão of Bristol University, who says "Conard is cherry-picking the best dates to reinforce his case that modern humans began creating art almost as soon as they arrived in Europe." On the contrary, he argues, the Hohle Fels figurine seems likely to be from about the same period as the other artifacts found in the German caves -- 5000 years after humans arrived in Europe.

For what it's worth, I agree.

In other words, and given the imprecision of our dating techniques, at roughly the same time when the whole line of Venuses began.

And maybe not even at the very starting line.

* Jean Clottes (ed.), Return to Chauvet Cave. Excavating the birthplace of Art: The First Full Report, Thames & Hudson, London.

This image of the famous Viennese dancer Fanny Elssler shows graphically why she was thought of when the excavators found the Galgenberg Venus. Even the pose is the same.

Photo from: http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/delarue/Htmls/printsE.html

My thanks to Dienekes' Anthropology Blog for first alerting me to the new Hohle Fels figurine.

Photo credits

Hohle Fels Venus: H. Jensen/©University of Tübingen via ScienceNOW Daily News

Galgenberg Venus: Don Hitchcock 2008via Donsmaps.com

Chauvet Cave drawing: Return to Chauvet Cave, Ill. 162


  1. (1) How does Miss Hohle Fels compare in age to those Russian misses, specifically the ones found in southern Russia (maybe Ukraine actually) and in Mal'ta (Siberia, I suppose)? I thought they were mighty early, more so than Miss Willendorf.
    (2) Are we sure that the Loewenmensch is male? I thought it might be female since it lacked a mane.
    (3) Are we disregarding Miss Tan-Tan (Homo erectus) and Miss whatever her name was of comparable age from Israel, since they aren't as good?
    (4) Are we also disregarding that not-so-good Neanderthal "mask" since it's not so good? How about that schematic Neanderthal reindeer drawing from Russia? I suppose it doesn't count since it doesn't have a head either, just a body, feet, and antlers. No, not human. Forget I mentioned it.
    (5) Forget, too, that funny-looking almost-a-face on that pebble from Australopithecus africanus times. That certainly doesn't count since there's only one of those. No, no, doesn't count at all! I shouldn't even have brought it up. Good heavens! What was I thinking?!

    Oh, by the by, Miss Hohle Fels probably can't be considered properly uppity, since I don't imagine any misters had yet forced her mommies or sisters to be downity, in contrast.

  2. Anonymous,

    Many thanks for your series of stimulating remarks.

    1) I'm sorry that you consider Miss Willendorf to be an unmarried mother-- unless you think she's simply obese and not pregnant; which is possible, of course :-). If Hohle Fels is truly + 35,000 B.P., she's more than 10,000 years older than Willendorf (usually dated ca. 24,000 BP) and even more distant from her SW Russian/Ukrainian sisters (some pregnant, some not; the subject of my posts, Uppity Venus I, and III) at roughly 22,000 BP.

    2) While the media translates Löwenmenschen as 'lion-man', it really means 'lion-person'; however, Conard does mention 'male sexual features; perhaps. Your point about the lack of mane is a very good one. I have never seen a full photo of this figurine [upper part of body only at Planet Wissen]. Clearly, no mane.

    3) I am not disregarding Tan-Tan from Marocco or Berekhat Ram from Israel but, in my opinion, both are natural pebbles probably slightly modified by humans. While this shows that homo erectus had a strong interest in female sexuality -- and was able to transfer that interest onto a suggestive pebble (if I may put it so) -- it's not the same thing as the Venus sculptures. Another story. Another post. Another time.

    4. Ditto Neanderthal.

    5. ditto Australopithecus.

    I like to think you're right that no Upper Palaeolithic 'mister' was willing or able to impose 'downity' on the missus. I love that word, and will certainly plagiarize it, sooner rather than later.

    Thanks again for these very interesting comments. If you do find a more complete photo of the Löwenmenschen, please let me know.


Blog Archive