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Archeologists Find Oldest Representation Of A Female Body

May 14, 2009

German anthropologists believe they may have found the oldest man-made representation of a human figure in the form of a grotesquely exaggerated sculpture of a female body.

The roughly 3-inch tall figurine carved of mammoth ivory portrays a woman with disproportionately large breasts, prominent buttocks and very pronounced genitals. 

The artifact, which has been dubbed the Venus of Hohle Fels, was discovered in an ongoing excavation in southwestern Germany.  Based on the results of more than 30 independent radiocarbon measurements, scientists have put the age of carving at somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 years.

The remarkably detailed figure displays a ring in place of a head and is believed to have been designed as a sort of pendant.  Originally found in six fragments, the figure is still missing its left arm and shoulder, which researchers are hopeful will turn up as excavations of the cave’s sediments continue in the coming months.

Other findings in the cave include painstakingly carved statuettes of horses, waterfowl and a human-like lion displaying male sexual organs.  The bones of cave bears, deer, rhinos and horses have also been excavated from the cave.

The level of sophistication of the ornaments found in this cave and others throughout the Schwabian region of southern Germany have led a number of anthropologists to believe that these complex cave systems like that at Hohle Fels may have served as a sort of artists’ workshop for primitive human cultures.

Scientists believe that these early masterpieces are likely the work of the Aurignacian culture, one of the earliest human populations to settle in Europe.  If so, it would suggest that figurative art is likely a Euoropean phenomenon that came about even before rival Neanderthal species of hominids had gone extinct, at a time when modern human’s predecessors were still in the early stages of developing their more complex linguistic and representational skills.

The prominent breasts, buttocks and genitals of the tiny carving are typical features of later Venus figurines and drawings, which are generally understood to be early symbols of fertility.

“As one male colleague remarked, nothing has changed in 40,000 years,” said Nicholas Conard, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tubingen and the proj’s leader.  “It is the oldest example of figurative art in any class, making it all the more surprising that the figurine presents such a powerful, sexually aggressive image.”

Conard explained that the striking homology of features between the Venus of Hohle Fels and other similar figurines that appear thousands of years later during the Gravettian period suggest that there was likely a shared cultural tradition.

“All place emphasis on sexual attributes and lack emphasis on the legs, arms, face and head, made all the more noticeable in this case because a carefully carved, polished ring ““ suggesting that the figurine was once suspended as a pendant ““ exists in place of a head,” he added.

Professor Paul Mellars, an archeologist at the University of Cambridge, wrote a commentary about the Venus to accompany the publication of the group’s findings in Nature magazine.

“It’s at least as old the world’s oldest cave art,” Mellars wrote, adding that the observer “can’t avoid being struck by its very sexually explicit depiction of a woman.  The breasts really jump out at you.”

In an interview with Discovery news he added, “I assume it was a guy who carved it, perhaps representing his girlfriend “¦ Paleolithic Playboy?  We just don’t know how it was used at this point, but the object’s size meant it fit well in someone’s hand.”

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Image Credit: AFP

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