a piece of palaeolithic er*tica?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research She has enormous, protuberant breasts, huge buttocks, exaggerated genitalia, and no head. Oh, yes, and she’s 35,000 years old – the oldest ‘Venus’ figurine to date (Conard, 2009).

‘Venus’ figurines are fascinating artworks that have been found at a range of Homo sapiens sites throughout Europe. Almost all have the same swollen, pendulous breasts & steatopygous buttocks as this new find, while they rarely show any facial features & their arms & legs are usually much reduced in relative size. The Venus described by Nicholas Conard (2009) was found at a site in Swabia, southwestern Germany, together with a range of tools and other material associated with the Aurignacian culture – developed by the earliest modern humans to move into Europe.

Carved from mammoth ivory, the figurine seems to have been worn as a pendant, suspended from a ring that sits above the figure’s shoulders. While small, its arms are carefully carved, right down to the fingers. But the artist gave most attention to exaggerating its secondary sexual characteristics – as for the other Venuses, this is presumed to be a direct or indirect expression of fertility (Conard, 2009). This is the earliest known 3-D image of the female form, & pushes back the time at which this sort of representational art developed: previously the earliest imagery was exclusinvely of animals & ‘therianthropic’ forms (half-human half-animal images often interpreted as representing shamans).

The Swabian region has turned out to be a rich repository of Aurignacian material. Four sites have yielded 25 small carvings in mammoth ivory: realistic mammals, more abstract bird-forms, and 2 therioanthropic figures. (There are also many ivory beads & the earliest known musical instruments: flutes of bird wing bone & mammoth ivory.) This has led Mellars (2009) to suggest that Swabia represents the birthplace of ‘European’ sculpture – & in fact there’s no evidence of this sort of representational art, from the same or an earlier time period, anywhere else in the world. Mellars describes this as a ‘symbolic explosion’, but notes that we’ve no way of knowing whether this reflects an underlying, heritable, reorganisation in the way the human brain perceives & responds to the world. As he says, this remains a fascinating and contentious issue.

N.J.Conard (2009) A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. Nature 459: 248-252 doi:10.1038/nature07995

P.Mellars (2009) Origins of the female image. Nature 459: 176-177

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