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Ancient Venus rewrites history books

Female figure was carved from a mammoth tusk 35,000 years ago.

The Hohle Fels Venus could be the oldest known example of figurative art. Credit: H. Jensen / University of Tübingen

A 35,000-year-old prehistoric sculpture of an exaggerated female form found in Germany could be mankind's earliest artistic attempt to represent itself.

The Hohle Fels Venus, uncovered at the cave that shares her name in the southwest province of Swabia, is a 6-centimetre long depiction of a woman carved from mammoth ivory.

In this week's Nature, Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, reports finding her in six pieces in 20081.

Conard says the discovery should radically change our thinking about Palaeolithic art (see slideshow). Previous sculptures from the Aurignacian culture found in Swabia have focused on animals or half-animal/half-human figures, with no female figures. The Hohle Fels Venus predates the famous Gravettian Venuses by more than 5,000 years, blowing apart suggestions that it was that era that developed three-dimensional female idols.

The pieces of the Swabian figurine "were recovered in association with characteristic stone, bone and ivory tools belonging to a period, the Aurignacian, that represents the earliest settlement of Europe by fully anatomically and genetically modern human populations, and which saw the simultaneous demise of the preceding Neanderthals", says Paul Mellars, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, UK2.

The figure is explicitly — and blatantly — that of a woman. Paul Mellars , University of Cambridge

"And the figure is explicitly — and blatantly — that of a woman," he says, "with an exaggeration of sexual characteristics (large, projecting breasts, a greatly enlarged and explicit vulva, and bloated belly and thighs) that by twenty-first-century standards could be seen as bordering on the pornographic."

Mellars adds that while symbolic expressions have been found in Africa dating back to at least 75,000 years ago, attempts to represent reality with 'figurative art' currently appears to be an exclusively European phenomenon.

References

  1. Conard, N. J. Nature 459, 248–252 (2009).

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  2. Mellars, P. Nature 459, 176–177 (2009).

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Cressey, D. Ancient Venus rewrites history books. Nature (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2009.473

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