The Paleolithic (or Old Stone Age) lasted from around 30,000 BC to 10,000 BC and yielded the first achievements in human creativity, preceding the invention of writing. Man-made artifacts from this period show the very earliest signs of workmanship, from small personal adornments and cave paintings to the prevalent Venus figurines. All generally accepted Paleolithic female figurines are from the Upper (or oldest) Paleolithic archaeological cultures of Gravettian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian.
“Venus figurine” is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women portrayed with similar physical attributes. Archaeologists used this now-controversial term, inspired by the ancient Greek goddess of love, to classify artifacts found mostly in Europe but sometimes as far east as Siberia.
These figurines were carved from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite, or limestone), bone or ivory, or formed with clay and fired. The latter are among the oldest ceramics known. In total, over a hundred such figurines are known—virtually all of modest size, between 1.5 in and 9.8 in height. Considering most human settlements during this period were nomadic, these statuettes exemplify prehistoric portable art.
Description and Physical Characteristics
The majority of Venus figurines appear to be highly stylized depictions of females, and follow certain artistic conventions. Most of them are roughly diamond-shaped, with two tapering terminals at top (head) and bottom (legs) and the widest point in the middle (hips/belly). In some cases, certain parts of the human anatomy are exaggerated: abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, and genitalia, but others appear to be quite elongated and thin. By contrast, other anatomical details are either neglected or absent, especially the arms and feet.
The high amount of fat around the buttocks of some of the figurines, called "Steatopygia," has led to numerous controversies and speculations. Some authors see this feature as depicting an actual physical property, resembling the Khoisan tribe of southern Africa, while others interpret it as a symbol of fertility and abundance.
Main Examples of Venus Figurines
The Venus of Brassempouy, found by Édouard Piette, is a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Paleolithic. It was discovered in a cave in Brassempouy, France in 1892. About 25,000 years old, it is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face and hairstyle (Figure 1).
The Venus of Willendorf, also known as the Woman of Willendorf, is 4.3 in high statuette of a female figure made between 24,000 and 22,000 BCE. It was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy at a site near Willendorf, a village Austria. It is carved from an oolitic limestone not local to the area, and tinted with red ochre. The statuette is now in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria (Figure 3).
In September 2008, archaeologists from the University of Tübingen discovered "Venus of Hohle Fels," a figurine woman carved from a mammoth’s tusk, dated to at least 35,000 years ago. This figurine represents the earliest known sculpture of its type, and the earliest known work of figurative art altogether. The ivory carving, found in six fragments in Germany's Hohle Fels cave, represents the typical features of Venus figurines, including the swollen belly, wide-set thighs, and large breasts (Figure 2).
There are many different interpretations of the figurines, often based on little argument or fact. Like many prehistoric artifacts, the cultural meaning of these figures may never be known. Archaeologists speculate, however, that they may be emblems of security and success, fertility icons, pornographic imagery, or even direct representations of a mother goddess or various local goddesses. The female figures appear to have no practical use in the context of subsistence. They are mostly discovered in settlement contexts, both in open-air sites and caves; burial contexts are much more rare.