Interestingly, in Europe, the period between 45,000 and 25,000 years ago, which saw so many important innovations, including eyed needles, the atlatl (spear thrower), pottery, fiber craft including baskets, rope, and clothing, as well as the great cave paintings of Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira, and El Castillo, coincided with the period of co-existence of Homo sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis, whom we now know interbred. Perhaps the influx of new blood proved to be very beneficial to Homo sapiens. Perhaps it provided the right conditions for the flowering of symbolic art.
The earliest examples of what are now called Venus Figurines were discovered in Israel and North Africa, though they are often excluded from the European Venus group, perhaps because the European figures were all dated between 35,000 and 20,000 years old, whereas the examples from Israel and Morocco were far older. The Venus of Berekhat Ram, discovered in the Golan Heights, is little more than a pebble carved to resemble a woman’s head, shoulders, and breasts. While it was originally dismissed as the result of natural erosion, microscopic study revealed the marks were man-made. It was dated by the two strata it was found between – somewhere between 230,000 and 500,000 years old.
Only eighteen years later, the Venus of Tan-Tan was discovered in Morocco by Lutz Fiedler, a German archaeologist. Like the Venus of Berekhat Ram, it was found between two layers. The lower layer was dated 500,000 years ago, the upper layer to 200,000 years ago. It was coated with red ochre. (See earlier post, “The Color of Life and Death” on red ochre.)
While the Venus of Berekhat Ram clearly shows enormous breasts, the Venus of Tan-Tan seems only generally humanoid in form, marking off a head, torso, and legs. Most of the later Venus figures are clearly female, with exaggerated female traits, but some are ambiguous, with no gender evident, at least one is male, and some seem to be young, immature females. In all cases, the term “Venus” is somewhat misleading. None of them look like the classic Greek beauty!
Not exactly art as we usually think of it
While the Venus figurines from Eurasia are often called the first pieces of mobile art, I suspect they didn’t function the way modern art does. Most were found rubbed with red ochre, broken in pieces and buried in fire pits. That’s hardly the way most people today treat their art treasures. More likely the figures were part of a wide-spread cult that involved ritual destruction and burial of the figurines, perhaps as a way to ensure abundance.
Most of the sixty or so Eurasian Venus figurines discovered so far were found in a wide band running from the Atlantic coast near northern Spain to the Mediterranean Sea near the border of southern France and Italy, all the way to the north and east of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine and Russia. They have been found in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Russia, and the Ukraine, with dates ranging from 35,000 BC to 20,000 BC. That’s quite a large area and a spread of 15,000 years. It’s also the same area that the Neanderthals and Denisovans occupied. The map at right shows the main Neanderthal sites discovered to date.
The European Venus figures are embarrassingly exaggerated, grotesque to modern eyes. They present only the middle of the female body, emphasizing large, pendulous breasts, swollen belly, fat thighs and buttocks. The rest of the body seems irrelevant. In many the face is featureless (or missing) and the feet – and sometimes the arms – omitted completely.
Few women 25,000 years ago would have looked like these figures. They’re not portraits. The importance of the figures is their embodiment of swelling birth. Perhaps the figure is meant to be a spirit related to fertility or birth. Perhaps her fatness, which we see as grotesque, was her beauty. She might have been a symbol of amazing abundance. Some years ago, a college president who was originally from the Philippines greeted an instructor he passed in the hall by saying, “You look nice and fat today.” The instructor was insulted, but it was meant as a compliment. If you have plenty, you have abundance, a form of wealth. In a land where too much to eat was never a problem, fatness would have been an admirable quality, a form of status, a clear indication you’d done well.
Very likely, the figurine represented some form of the Mother figure that we still reference when we speak of Mother Earth or Mother Nature. The figure in the photo is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, found in the Czech Republic.
Some of the most famous figures include the following:
Venus of Schelklingen (Hohle Fels Cave), (35,000 – 40,000 years old) Germany, carved mammoth ivory. This exaggerated female form lacks head and feet. Her arms and belly are marked with incised lines. Nicholas Conrad, whose team found the figurine in Hohle Fels cave, said, “Head and legs don’t matter. This is about sex, reproduction.” Unlike other experts, he dismisses the idea of the Venus figure and the mammoth, lion, and diving bird figurines also found in the cave as talismans ensuring hunting magic. He sees the figures as representations of complex ideas with tremendous emotional significance.
Venus of Kostensky, Russia
(30,000 years old), carved from animal bone, found broken in pieces and interred in a ritual fire pit. Particularly interesting for what appears to be rope tying her wrists together, making her look like a sacrificial victim.
Venus of Laussel, France, limestone carving on cave wall near Lascaux (23,000 years old). This figure holds what some experts have identified as a bison horn incised with 13 lines. Other experts claim it is a crescent moon and the 13 lines refer to the 13 moons in an annual cycle. Yet other interpretations include a drinking horn or a musical instrument. Traces of red ochre coating remain on the figure. Since the discovery of the wall carving in 1911, the cave has yielded many other finds, including female figurines similar to the carving, others representing young, immature females, one male figure, and many half-finished pieces which apparently broke during the carving process. The sheer number of items brings up the possibility that they were being crafted as trade items.
Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic, fired clay figurine (29,000 years old), found broken in two in fire pit ash. In the same area, archaeologists discovered 700 animal figurines, including mammoth, horse, fox, rhino, owl, bear, and lion, as well as 2000 balls of burned clay.
Venus of Willendorf, Austria, (25,000 years old), covered with red ochre, marked with crisscross lines indicating a woven cap pulled down to cover the face. While some have claimed the figure represents a Mother Goddess or Earth Mother figure, she seems more victim than goddess. A possible combination of the two functions would be something like the Aztec Creator Mother Coatlicue, who had to be destroyed in order for the world to be created. (It’s interesting that this figurine and several others show clear representations of rope and textiles.)
Venus of Brassempouy, France (probably about 25,000 years old) carved from mammoth ivory, head and neck only. This figure is famous for its realistic portrayal of complicated hair style, or a combination of a hair net and braids. It’s also unusual in that it includes only a head and neck and that the features, except for the mouth, are clearly marked. After its discovery in the 1880s, it sparked a fierce debate about the subject’s race; many thought it looked Chinese. Her picture appears at the top of this post.
Venus of Moravany, Slovakia, (24,000 years old) carved mammoth bone, found in an area known to be a Neanderthal settlement in the Middle Paleolithic period
Venus of Savignano, Italy (25,000 years old) carved serpentine stone, marked with red ochre, found in a clay deposit by a river.
Venus of Malta, Russia (25,000 years old), carved mammoth ivory, found near Lake Baikal. Similarities to the European Venus figurines suggest a wide-spread network of the cult that used these figurines.
Venus of Garagino, Ukraine (22,000 years old), carved volcanic rock, found in a cave with petroglyphs, stone tools, and animal bones. This is probably the most exaggerated, abstract form of the Venus figure.
Debate over these figures is loud and on-going. Most archaeologists agree that they represented some abstract form of fertility or abundance. I find it interesting that so many were apparently ritually broken and burned, representing a sacrifice, perhaps one meant to ensure abundance. Whatever its beliefs, the cult’s influence was very widespread and lasted over 15,000 years.
Many of the Venus figurines were coated with red ochre, mineral clay sometimes used to renew the power of a talisman. It’s connected with vitality, worn on the face in many societies. It’s what modern western women dust on their cheeks in make-up “blusher.” The Venus of Tan-Tan, discovered in Morocco, dated between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago, also has traces of red-ochre coating. Perhaps the division of the earlier Venus figurines from those found in Eurasia is not warranted.
The time when the Venus figurines were spreading from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the Black Sea was also the time when Neanderthals/Denisovans and Homo sapiens inhabited those very areas. Perhaps the combination of the two produced the first examples of widespread, symbolic creations in Europe.
Sources and interesting reading:
Curry, Andrew, “The Cave Art Debate,” Smithsonianmag.com, March 2012
da Silva CM. 2010, “Neolithic Cosmology” Journal of Cosmology 9:2207-2010.
Duhard J-P. 1991. “The shape of Pleistocene Women,” Antiquity 65(248):552-561.
“A Female Figurine from Basal Aurignaic,” Nature (459) 248-252, 14 May 2009
“Oldest Art,” Encyclopedia of Art, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/oldest-art
Tattersall I, Schwartz, JH (June 1999) “Hominids and Hybrids: The place of Neaderthals in human evolution,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96 (13) 7117 – 9
Sofer, O, Adovasio, JM. And Hyland, D.C. “The Venus Figurines,” Current Anthropology (41) August-October, 2000
“Venus Figurines,” www.visual-art.cork.com
“Venus of Laussel,” archaeology.about.com/od/upperpaleolithic/qt/Laussel
White, Randall, “The Women of Brassenpouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation,” Journal of Archaeological Method (13) 4.
Witcombe, Christopher, “The Venus of Willendorf – Mother Goddess,” arthistoryresources.net
Webley, Kayla “Top 10 Earth Goddesses,” Time, 22 April, 2011