06 December 2008

An Uppity Stone-Age Venus (II) and an Hottentot Slave

Scroll down for Part I, or click on Uppity Venus I

Steatopygia is a genetic condition marked by an excess of fat on the buttocks, layers of fat that often extend down the front and sides of the thighs. In the modern world, it is common only among the females of certain African peoples, notably the Khoikhoi ('Hottentots'), San (Bushwomen), and Pygmies.

Internally, the buttocks of steatopygous women consist of masses of fat incorporated between criss-crossed sheets of connective tissue joined to one another in a regular manner.

How much rump is a big, fat rump?

The degree of steatopygia is recorded as the shortest distance between the deepest point in the hollow of the back and a plane, placed at right angles to the median sagittal,* just touching the most posterior point of the buttocks. Among the adult Kalahari Bushwomen, this averages 7.8 cm (3"), with a maximum of 11½ cm (4½") ; among Bushwomen of the Cape Province, a range of 7½ – 15 cm (3 – 6") has been measured.

Another way of looking at it is based on the sharpness of the angle between back and buttocks: steatopygia strictly speaking is diagnosed at an angle of about 90 degrees.

In that case, not even the famous Venus of Willendorf (above centre) qualifies as steatopygous. She -- and most other Venuses -- have an almost nymph-like angle of about 120 degrees between back and buttocks.

No matter. Enter scientists.

The Missing Link

Although Venus buttocks rarely stand at right angles, they are unarguably ample. As these figurines began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they first stunned, then titillated Europeans. That voluptuous body shape was quickly linked to the steatopygia found among some African women and interpreted as evidence of an African influence on the Cro-Magnon (whitish) European culture.

The French archaeologist Edouard Piette** (1827-1906), a Palaeolithic pioneer, attributed the unusual condition of steatopygia that afflicted these Palaeolithic hunters to the presence of a Negroid race of Europe.

Needless to say, 'Negroid' and 'primitive' were easily conflated.

In this two-race theory, the Negroids were responsible for whatever appeared grotesque and savage, while more pleasing objects (such as the Lady with the Hood, pictured in a footnote below) were credited to the Cro-Magnons -- thus demonstrating a “search of beauty” by dead white males.

Although Piette admitted being puzzled by “racial differences within the collection of Venuses and the resemblance of some of them to African populations”(my italics), he was nonetheless certain that they were Negroid in origin. And he was equally certain that the figurines were meant “to be read literally as realistic depictions of human anatomy” since, as he said, all Paleolithic people were “profound realists [who] represented themselves [as they were] in engraving and sculpture.”

It's a pity Piette died before the Venus de Monpazier (right) was found in a newly-ploughed French field [Oo là là, elle est vraiment très française celle-là]: she would surely have been the proof of the pudding. Not only has she a decidedly right-angled bum but also the enlarged vulva characteristic of some steatopygous women as well. That is, she exhibits extreme labial hypertrophy, in which uncommonly long labia minora protrude from the outer lips (labia majora) of the vagina -- looking, when she stands, for all the world like a small penis, or, when reclining, as a dangling curtain of skin.

Such an 'unnatural' development in women is but a hop, skip and jump from proof of unbridled primitive sexuality.

Sex-Toys Я Us

After the first flush of European imperialism had run its course, race was out and sex moved in. The figurines were now understood as erotic objects used by Paleolithic men.
Sex and hunger were the two motives which influenced the entire mental life of the mammoth hunters and their productive art.
Strong male desires explained the origin of art: the Venuses were manufactured as erotic paraphernalia, providing pleasure to Paleolithic man during his meals . They also provided direct tactile and visual satisfaction. Art, in short, began as primitive pornography (or, if I may put it so, artefacts used with one hand).

The Dictionary of Medical Science agreed. In an essay written in 1819, a medical doctor wrote of black woman developing a voluptuousness and a degree of lascivity unknown to whites. He particularly stressed the consonance between the hideous form of the female Hottentot's physiognomy and sexual lasciviousness.

I would have thought that the desire to eat was unexceptional yet that, too, was brought into play:

"Among us [whites] the forehead is pushed forward, the mouth is pulled back as if we were destined to think rather than eat; the Negro has a shortened forehead and a mouth that is pushed forward as if he were made to eat instead of to think."

Enter the Hottentot Venus

This fetid stew of ultra-Negro savagery, primitive Negroids and sexual titillation was further stirred by a Khoikhoi woman named Saartjie Baartman -- the Hottentot Venus (left) -- who sailed into London in 1810.
The first time Saartjie Baartman was dragged out to squat before the mob at 225 Piccadilly, the show's promoters billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey's throat. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman made famous across Europe as the "Hottentot Venus". The aristocracy were no less fascinated at what they saw as a sexual freak, but they had private showings.
The bizarre tale began in 1789, when Saartjie Baartman was born near the little village of Hankey on the Great Fish (Gamtoos) River in South Africa's Eastern Cape into the clan of Griqua people. The Griqua were called 'Hottentots' by the Dutch settlers, probably an onomatopoeic word imitating the clicking sounds of their language.

In her late teens, she migrated to Cape Town where she worked as a servant for a Boer farmer, Pieter Cezar. Colonial records show that in 1810 she was living in a small shack on his land when a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop, took an interest in her. He was fascinated by her large rump and genitalia -- exceptional even by Khoikhoi standards -- and was convinced he could capitalize on the prurient interest in primitive sexuality. Explorers of Africa had already spread stories about Hottentot women’s oversized buttocks and the mysterious 'Hottentot apron,' an enticing flap of skin covering the vaginal area.

Together with Pieter's brother Hendrik, Dunlop convinced the young woman to enter into a contract to sail with them to London, telling her that she would become rich by displaying her body. No doubt she saw the opportunity to live like the white colonialists in the Cape.

Baartman spent 4 years in London on display ostensibly for scientific purposes, but in truth as an extraordinary freak- show exhibit. In those days there was little distinction between zoological exhibitions and human freaks, whether women with hairy bodies and beards, or The Living Skeleton, or 'The Fattest Man on Earth' (weighing 700 lb., 317 kg), or a young lady measuring just 22½ inches tall (58 cm) whose stage name, the 'Sicilian Fairy', encapsulated both her size and frailty.

The supposedly excessive size of Baartman's buttocks and the 'Hottentot apron' fit the time perfectly. Her uncommon bum and genitals were an intellectually satisfying missing link between true (white) humans and the highest type of apes, the orang-utans.

Cezar advertised the show and billed Baartman as a “most correct specimen of her race.” The Hottentot Venus exhibition, which took place at 225 Egyptian Hall at the Piccadilly Circus, was instantly popular and inspired bawdy ballads and political cartoons (above left, two cartoon comments: "Oh! God Damn what roast beef!" and "Ah! how comical is nature."). A contemporary account describes how she was paraded on a "stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered."

Charles Matthews, comedian, who “was all his life a great sight-seer”, frequented the London neighbourhood in pursuit of the latest curiosities. Upon visiting Baartman:

He found her surrounded by many persons, some females! One pinched her; one
gentleman poked her with his cane; one lady employed her parasol to ascertain
that all was, as she called it, ‘nattral.’ This inhuman baiting the poor creature
bore with sullen indifference, except upon some provocation, when she seemed
inclined to resent brutality.... On these occasions it took all the authority of the
keeper to subdue her resentment.

The show also provoked outrage, as various witnesses described Baartman appearing nearly nude and being threatened with violence by her exhibitor. These complaints soon led to the intervention of the African Institution, an abolitionist organization that brought Hendrik Cezar to trial for practising slavery and public indecency. Baartman testified on her own behalf, but she did not corroborate stories of being held against her will and only complained about not having enough clothes to wear. The courts eventually dismissed the case but mandated that Cezar discontinue in the show’s indecency.

As a consequence, Cezar and Baartman moved to Paris in 1814, where she was abandoned (or sold) to a "showman of wild animals" at a travelling circus. The Hottentot Venus caused the same sensation in Paris as she had in London. When she was not being paraded for the hoi-polloi, Baartman was displayed at society functions.

It was at a ball for France's new establishment -- where she was dressed in nothing but a few feathers -- that Napoleon's surgeon general and founder of the disciplines of geology, paleontology, and comparative anatomy, Georges Cuvier, spotted her and claimed a scientific interest. Over the following year she was repeatedly studied by doctors and anthropologists, who invariably concluded that she was evidence of the superiority of the white race.

All this prodding and oogling took its toll on her, driving her into prostitution and alcoholism. She died in 1815, just five years after arriving in Europe. Descriptions of her death point to syphilis and tuberculosis as the cause. She was 25 years old.

Upon her death, Cuvier acquired her cadaver. Her body was first copied in a plaster-cast (right) and then dissected. In his 1817 scientific thesis, Histoire naturelle des mammifères, Cuvier unveiled the mystery of her 'apron' (which she had refused to display to him even when offered money) and compared her genitalia with those of apes, developing his theories on African women’s oversexed and subhuman status. Her bones were boiled and her brain and genitals bottled.

Her skeleton, pickled brain, and pickled sex organs were mounted for display and shown in the great Musée de l’Homme next to her naked plaster-cast -- the very first exhibits to be seen by a visitor in the foyer of the museum. She was only removed from public view in 1976.***

The Unexpected Palaeolithic Trilogy

Having allowed myself to be side-tracked by Saartjie Baartman's story, I don't have the heart to return to my little Palaeolithic female figurines for the moment. So we'll have to tackle the next great theory -- the figurines as objects used in fertility rites and rituals -- in a third post, when I also hope to bring the narrative up to our own time and, with any luck, to a conclusion.

* That is, the point at the top of the head dividing the body into left and right halves

** As it happens, the 'Treasures of Edouard Piette' are now being shown at the Musée des antiquités nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris. The exhibition includes the Venus of Brassempouy (left)- also known as the "Lady with the Hood" (discovered by Piette) - being shown in its original form to the public for the first time. From 29 Nov. 2008 - 2 March 2009.

*** Some Africans never forgot Baartman. Nelson Mandela made a request to France in 1994 for her remains to be handed back. Her cause gained momentum amid post-apartheid South Africa's new awareness of tribal identity. All over the country, aboriginal peoples were asserting their heritage rights, claiming not only political and cultural recognition, but also the restitution of ancestral lands. Baartman's tribe, now recognized by the United Nations as an indigenous First Nation, won a victory for tribal recognition by securing the return of the 'Hottentot Venus' : in March 2002, the French Senate finally agreed to return Baartman’s remains—including her preserved organs—to her homeland. She was buried near her birthplace on the River Gamtoos on 9 August 2002, South African Women’s Day.

Some recommended resources for Saartjie Baartman: Reliable information and a nuanced historical discussion, with full references, in S. Qureshi, "Displaying Sara Baartman, the 'Hottentot Venus'"; a not-to-be-missed blog post (although somewhat historically shaky) at the Diary of an Anxious Black Woman; an article in the Guardian newspaper shortly before Baartman's repatriation; and some context on "Exhibiting 'Others' in the West".

Two books, neither entirely satisfactory, has since appeared.

Rachel Holmes, African Queen: The real life of the Hottentot Venus (Random House, 2007), reviewed by Caroline Elkins in the New York Times, "A Life Exposed":

It is difficult not to be propelled through “African Queen.” The story of Saartjie Baartman — the Hottentot Venus’s real name — is inherently fascinating, and littered with a diverse cast of highly unlikable characters....

Clifton Crais & Pamela Scully, Sarah Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A ghost story and a biography (Princeton University, 2009) reviewed by Kathryn Hughes in the TLS 7 August 2009:

...lust for the racial "other", a sentimental desire to see on of Rousseau's noble savages in person, and a more generalized freak show hysteria all lay behind the storm of interest which the "Hottentot's" presence produced at every level of British culture.


Centre top: Venus of Willendorf (Austria), discovered 1908.

Above left: one of the Kostienki Venuses (Russia), with woven breast ornament [back view of image in previous post].

Above right: one of the Gargarino Venuses (Ukraine), discovered in a house pit, 1926-1929.

Below right: Venus of Monpazier (France), discovered 1970.

Below left: Kostienki I Venus, discovered in 1936. Her head is covered with rows of shallow teeth cuts, depicting hair or a closely fitting head-dress. Engraved and relief lines on the chest and on the back. Mammoth's tusk.

Photographs of Saartjie Baartman and cartoons are available at various sites on the Internet.


  1. I never expected to read a story that would make Ota Benga appear relatively fortunate.

  2. The poking with sticks makes me think of Douglas, pollution and purity and all that: was it unheard-of at the time for women's genitals to be on public display, did this sort of thing have a social position that Baartman's exhibiting subverted?

    More generally, though, Baartman's story makes me wonder if anyone has done a good study of treatment of the exotic in colonial-era Europe. There's plenty of work on the use of Orientalism and exoticism for upholding colonialism, but what is there on the sometimes privileged special status of exotics: where do Princess Caraboo and Tom Molineaux fit into all this?

    Thank you for posting this.

  3. David, it's very sad, Ota's and the many other stories, too That's why I couldn't immediately continue with my Palaeolithic Venus post, needing some time to calm down. What really hurt, is that Baartman was in everyway, as Yvette Abrahams put it, 'Disempowered to Consent'.

    Richard, I believe her genitals were discreetly veiled (in England, at least) which may be why that awful female in the upper cartoon is trying to peek. Click on Qureshi's 'Displaying Sara Baartman' for an excellent paper which puts the Hottentot Venus into the context of Western animal and human-freak displays. She wasn't that unusual. It's just that she presses all the buttons: race, gender, sexuality, disability, colonialism, commodification: you name it, she's part of it.

  4. I was just watching something featuring Victorian women with enormous bustles ... Hmmmmmmmm.

  5. Yes, Ridger, Hmmmmm indeed: the coincidence (if that's what it is) has been noticed. But the dates are all wrong.

    During Baartman's lifetime, fashionable women in England and France wore high-waisted slender Empire style dresses. Then came the early Victorian crinoline style with very small tight-fitting waists and a skirt widened by a cage into a bell-like shape. Bustles didn't come into fashion until 1870 -- or 45 years after Baartmen's death.

    Was it nonetheless based on the Hottentots? One bustle-blogger suggests that it was a sign of the Late Victorians' repressed sexuality. Still, a most curious development. Hmmmmmmm.

    1. Subhuman!Everybody in the world has roots except the blacks in the Americas.I often wondered about my ancesters,where they are from,what they were like,their looks...I happens to have all the features of Sarah except the lips,mine is a little smaller.Do you understand the devastating effects slavery have on me,as a human.Even now still being treated as a spcimen...

  6. I didn't think it was a direct copy - they considered her subhuman? But let a generation or so go by ... Hmmmm

  7. Have you read Elizabeth Alexander's poem about her?


  8. Strangely enough, I read her poem just a week or so after posting this story. It was published in full on Cosmic Variance. It was a Zeitgeist thing, it seems.

  9. Anonymous3/2/09 10:55

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Dear Judith:
    I am a 60 old very healty women, if you get my drift, and my stomach is rather large. I have picked out which Venus I look like, (the one from Anatolia, she is sitting on a cat). Many of my lady friends look like some of the other Venuses too, (the ones from Russia). I am not pregnant and neither are any of my friends. We are older women. I also once saw a women who looked like the Venus of Lespugue. Sometimes those Venus figures are what real women look like. We are so used to looking at airbrush young skinny women as the standard, and older women are rarely seem nude. Unfortunately, I feel sometimes the same attitude toward Baartman is projected at those beautiful Paleolithic women.
    Thanks so much for all the great information.
    Constance Tippett

  11. That's a very interesting idea, Constance, and I'll certainly keep it in mind the next time I write about the 'Venuses'.

    I like the figurines on your website, too.


  12. Anonymous14/6/10 19:51

    Judith, I just found this article and appreciate your exposure of the racist and puritan roots of the term labial hypertrophy. Yet the tone of the piece doesn't chime with the link to a plastic surgeon who recasts normal and very joyful labial tissue as a 'medical problem' which requires amputation!

    I am a white woman with a hottentot apron, my sister, aunt mother and grandmother have the same and we are all high functioning sexually. I can't but think the 16th-19th century puritans had this bit right - long labia do link to a large appetite... But what disturbs me is that this anti-sex sentiment should linger in the modern day world in which women are increasingly being bullied, cajoled and misinformed into labial reduction surgery...The ghost of racism is still there - Dr Angela Kavouni (a UK labia excision specialist whose turnover is >£500,000 pa) recently commented that she suggests surgery when the labial skin is 'dark and hangs down'...

    I have just started a blog to celebrate the function and look of larger bits and hit back at the reduction industry.... http://hottentotapron.blogspot.com/

    I hope that perhaps you might amend your piece to link to my blog, which respectfully celebrates Baartman's bits, rather than to a surgeon who would have suggested hacking them off.

  13. I learned a lot from this article. Thank you

  14. Anonymous3/11/12 02:27

    This is a wonderful piece. Makes me wish I had read it before I posted my own piece on prehistoric figurines and matriarchy. I may refer my readers here, since I never covered the racial elements of the Venus figurines (or the connection to the "Hottentot Venus." Fascinating! Thank you!

  15. Anonymous4/6/13 19:37

    God bless poor saartjie,my heart went out to her,another example how heartless people can be,why when people ill treat others dont they think how they would feel in that persons shoes, what a cruel world we live in, i hope the evil ones who did that to saartjie so long ago payed dearly for their cruel inhuman acts.

  16. Anonymous4/6/13 19:52

    God bless poor saartjie what a painfull short life she had,bless the poor girl.

  17. Anonymous21/3/15 05:39

    May we pray to see the day where so-called general and marginal people may live hand in hand without trouble. Peace.


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