The Venus Figurines as Early Human Sculptural Art

Venus of Hohle Fels, side and front views
Venus of Hohle Fels, side and front views. Photos by H. Jensen; Copyright University of Tubingen

A "Venus figurine" (with or without the capital V) is the name given to a type of figural art produced by humans between about 35,000 and 9,000 years ago. While the stereotypical venus figurine is a small carved statue of a voluptuous female with large body parts and no head or face to speak of, those carvings are considered part of a larger cadre of portable art plaques and two- and three-dimensional carvings of men, children, and animals as well as women in all stages of life.

Over 200 of these statuettes have been found, made of clay, ivory, bone, antler, or carved stone. They were all found at sites left behind by hunter-gatherer societies of the European and Asian late Pleistocene (or Upper Paleolithic) periods during the last gasp of the last Ice Age. Their remarkable variety--and yet persistence--within this 25,000 year period continues to amaze researchers.

The Venus and Modern Human Nature

One of the reasons you're reading this may be because images of the physicality of women are an important part of modern human cultures. Whether your specific modern culture exposes the female form or not, the uninhibited depiction of women with large breasts and detailed genitals seen in the ancient art is nearly irresistible to us. Nowell and Chang (2014) compiled a list of modern-day attitudes reflected in the media (and scholarly literature) that they recommend we try to avoid:

  • Venus figurines were made by men for men
  • Only men are aroused by visual stimuli
  • All of the figurines are the same
  • All the figurines are female
  • Paleolithic systems recognized only two genders
  • Being unclothed is erotic

We simply cannot know for certain what was in the Paleolithic mindset or who made the figurines and why.

Consider the Context

Nowell and Chang suggest instead that we should consider the figurines separately, within their archaeological context (burials, ritual pits, refuse areas, living areas, etc.), and compare them to other artwork rather than as a separate category of "erotica" or "fertility". The details that we seem to focus on--big breasts and explicit genitals--obscure the finer elements of the art for a lot of us. One notable exception is Soffer and colleagues (2002), who examined the evidence for the use of netted fabrics drawn as clothing features on the figurines.

Another non-sex-charged study is by Tripp (2016), who looked at examples of Gravettian-era figurines and suggested similarities in the central Asian group indicate some kind social interaction among them. That interaction is also reflected in similarities in site layouts, lithic inventories, and material culture, so she's probably on to something there. 

The Oldest Venus

The oldest venus found to date was recovered from the Aurignacian levels of Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany, one of the several pieces of carved ivory art from this cave site. When found, the Hohle Fels venus was in six fragments, but when the fragments were reassembled they are the nearly complete sculpture of a voluptuous woman (her left arm is missing).

Three other ivory carvings were found at Hohle Fels--a horse's head; a half-lion, half-human being; and a waterbird. See the photo essay on the Hohle Fels figurines for more discussion.

Function and Meaning

Theories about the function of Venus figurines abound in the literature. Different scholars have argued that the figurines might have been used as emblems for membership in a goddess religion, teaching materials for children, votive images, good luck totems during childbirth, and even sex toys for men (see Lesure 2002 and the comments afterward for a comprehensive discussion).

The images themselves have also been interpreted in many ways. Different scholars suggest they were realistic images of what women looked like 30,000 years ago, or ancient ideals of beauty, or fertility symbols, or portrait images of specific priestesses or ancestors.

Intriguingly, McDermott suggests that the figurines may have been self-portraits made by women, arguing that the body parts are exaggerated because if you don't have a mirror, your body is distorted.

Venus Examples

  • Russia: Ma'lta, Avdeevo, New Avdeevo, Kostenki I, Kohtylevo, Zaraysk, Gagarino
  • France: Laussel, Brassempouy, Lespugue, Abri Murat, Gare de Couze
  • Austria: Willendorf
  • Germany: Hohle Fels, Gönnersdorf
  • Italy: Balzi Rossi
  • Czech Republic: Dolni Vestonice, Moravany, Pekárna
  • Poland: Wilczyce, Petrkovice, Pavlov
  • Greece: Avaritsa

Sources

Conard NJ. 2009. A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. Nature 459(7244):248-252.

Dixson AF, and Dixson BJ. 2011. Venus figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of fertility or attractiveness? Journal of Anthropology 2011(Article ID 569120).

Fiedorczuk J, Bratlund B, Kolstrup E, and Schild R. 2007. Late Magdalenian feminine flint plaquettes from Poland. Antiquity 81:97-105.

Huyge D. 1991. The "Venus" of Laussel in the light of ethnomusicology. Archeologie in Vlaanderen 1:11-18.

Lesure RG. 2002. The Goddess diffracted: Thinking about the figurines of early villages. Current Anthropology 43(4):587-610.

McDermott L. 1996. Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines. Current Anthropology 37(2):227-275.

Nowell A, and Chang ML. 2014. Science, the Media, and Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic Figurines. American Anthropologist 116(3):562-577.

Raghavan M, Skoglund P, Graf KE, Metspalu M, Albrechtsen A, Moltke I, Rasmussen S, Reedik M, Campos PF, Balanovska E et al. 2014. Upper Palaeolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans. Nature 505(7481):87-91.

Soffer O, Adovasio JM, and Hyland DC. 2000. The "Venus" Figurines: Textiles, basketry, gender, and status in the Upper Paleolithic. Current Anthropology 41(4):511-537.

Tripp A. 2016. A Cladistics Analysis Exploring Regional Patterning of the Anthropomorphic Figurines from the Gravettian. In: Mendoza Straffon L, editor. Cultural Phylogenetics: Concepts and Applications in Archaeology. Cham: Springer International Publishing. p 179-202.