"Pornographic" Statue Could Be World's Oldest Piece of Figurative Art

By Eliza Strickland | May 13, 2009 4:51 pm

Venus of Hohle FelsA tiny ivory carving of a busty woman may be not only the oldest known example of erotic art–it may be the oldest art depicting any human figure at all. Named the Venus of Hohle Fels after the cave in southwestern Germany where it was recently excavated, the object dates to at least 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, based on more than 30 radiocarbon measurements conducted at the site [Discovery News]. The statue is also “bordering on the pornographic” by our modern standards, one expert says, with its huge, bulbous breasts and oversized genitalia.

Germany’s southern caves were presumably inviting sanctuaries, scholars say, for populations of modern humans migrating then into central and western Europe. These were the people who eventually displaced the resident Neanderthals, around 30,000 years ago. Dr. Conard reported that the discovery was made beneath three feet of red-brown sediment in the floor of the Hohle Fels cave. Six fragments of the carved ivory, including all but the left arm and shoulder, were recovered. When he brushed dirt off the torso, he said, “the importance of the discovery became apparent” [The New York Times].

The Venus, which is described in a paper in Nature, was carved from a woolly mammoth tusk, and measures just over two inches long. In place of a head the statue has a polished ring, suggesting that the carving may have been hung from a string and worn like a pendant. The newfound object reminds experts of the most famous of the sexually explicit figurines from the Stone Age, the Venus of Willendorf, discovered in Austria a century ago. It was somewhat larger and dated at about 24,000 years ago, but it was in a style that appeared to be prevalent for several thousand years. Scholars speculate that these Venus figurines, as they are known, were associated with fertility beliefs or shamanistic rituals [The New York Times].

Or there may be a simpler explanation for why the Venus of Hohle Fels was carved, argues anthropologist Paul Mellars, who wrote a commentary on the find in Nature. “If there’s one conclusion you want to draw from this, it’s that an obsession with sex goes back at least 35,000 years…. But if humans hadn’t been largely obsessed with sex they wouldn’t have survived for the first 2 million years. None of this is at all surprising” [LiveScience], he says.

Human-made art goes back further in our history; the first abstract, geometric designs date from around 75,000 years ago. But the jump to figurative art is a significant cognitive step, researchers say, and could be tied to the development of language, another symbolic system. Jill Cook, an expert on ancient figurines, says the Venus “shows that people at this time in Europe had reached a stage in development of the brain which enabled objects to be symbolised and abstracted…. You’re dealing with a mind like ours, but simply a different time and environment” [New Scientist].

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DISCOVER: The Natural History of Art explores the field of “evolutionary aesthetics”
DISCOVER: The First Masterpieces wonders why our ancestors started painting their caves
DISCOVER: Secret Science in Art finds physics at work in masterpieces

Image: H. Jensen; Copyright University of Tubingen

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
  • A Non Name

    Boobs!

  • Socratic Method Man

    One really begins to worry about how universal this lunge towards puritan ideals is when “experts” – presumably professionals – feel compelled to hang terms like “pornographic” and “sexually explicit” on something as shorn of context as a prehistoric representation of the female form. It gives the impression that they just see it as some kind of paleological spank material, with all of the value and charm of something scribbled on bathroom tile.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Hot. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen anime with figures like that in it.

  • mb

    and the scientists say the creators of this piece were neanderthals. i would direct them to the previous two posters for the real missing links!

  • MichaelG

    Would you consider David or The Thinker “bordering on pornographic”? Is a crucifix an example of sadomasochismic art? What’s next for Discover Magazine, toilet jokes and bathroom humor to describe the results of
    research at Bath, England? How about breast jokes as part of reporting on
    the protection of Native American Mounds?

    Eliza Strickland, you should apologize for your bad taste in this writing.
    The fact that Paul Mellars has a one track mind that is derailed is no excuse for your own writing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    MichaelG — you should see the quotes I didn’t use!!!

    mb — actually, the researchers believe the statue was created by early Homo sapiens, not Neanderthals.

  • Jumblepudding

    Was it just the limitations of the materials to carve with, or does it seem like primitive man glorified a fairly “zaftig” female body shape in his sculpture?

  • http://arkonbey.blogspot.com arkonbey

    @MichaelG. You’re comparing apples and oranges here. First, it is true that the researchers have no idea as to the true nature of the piece. Their judgment of ‘borderline pornographic’ is based on what they see. Oversized/exaggerated genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics can truly be considered ‘borderline pornographic'; Jessica Rabbit comes to mind.

    But, your other assertion, that we should compare this to ‘classical’ art is flawed. There was plenty of borderline- and total pornography in ‘classical’ art. In the Roman section of the Boston MFA there are tiny, exquisitely carved figurines of dwarfs with gigantic penises and quite a few Ukiyoe prints feature men with large penises and women with over-sized vaginas. How would you classify them?

    To recognize that something has the potential to titillate is not the sign of a dirty mind, especially in an anthropological setting.

  • Matthew

    The “zaftig” female body shape was glorified up until the 1900s. It used to be a full-bodied woman was indicative of fertility and the ability to rear healthy children. It was only from about 1920 on that thin women becamse the new “ideal.”

    In concert with the Rubenesque idealization was the desire to be pale. Only poor people were thin and tan, since they worked outside and never got enough to eat. Now we all want to be skinny and leathery. Go figure.

  • FILTHpig

    Pornographic for who? Looks like a frozen chicken from Safeway… mmm, chicken.

  • Joe from the southwest

    Well sex is nothing new it has been around since creation. I am pretty sure that the same nerves in the genital area that exist on man and woman today existed back then. I think some people are short sight it that they can not see beyond the present. Overall, this is a great discovery and it tells us that sexual fantasies are nothing from the present. In the present however, they may be on some kind of steroids.

  • bigmamared

    Maybe “she” was having a time of self actualization in which she did a self portrait of how she felt she was seen or how she saw herself. Why would one assume the maker of the piece was male? women also use tools…this could be more about power than porno.

  • kate sisco

    In college I was thrilled to learn that perhaps civilization began with a woman-centered city. No war, Mohenjo Daro, etc. Sadly, the happy feeling faded when I read about the coco de mer whose original form was copied into these ‘woman goddess’ statues; note the lack of heads.

    Actually the single species of ‘us’ resulted from our nature of rapid reproduction (as compared to the Neanders, Archaic, etc) and our intolerance. I see no altruism in history.

    As an interesting aside, consider why cave art was practiced deep inside caves requiring much planning for lighting, pigments, etc which has led to almost any theory being considered. Here I offer mine: the practice of representational ‘seeing’ painting was a forbidden practice and why? Because it was deviant. It was not normal. What was normal was ‘seeing’ as an out of body experience. Thirty years ago history/natural art books included strange depictions of what seemed to be the scene as seen from above. One assumes since the Neanders possessed this quality, the ability in the CroMagnons was seen as evidence that some crossover occurred, perhaps in cannibalism. In as much as this out of body art was made long after civilization started, one can consider that the out of body ‘seeing’ became a ‘talent’ defining a shaman or wizard, etc., slowly disappearing from the remaining homo species, us. The new normal, representational painting from a standing on the ground point no longer had to be hidden, it was as everyone saw.

  • Angie Katherine

    I bet it wasn´t supposed to be sexy. I think somebody depicted some ancient goddess of fertility. People had a far more positive attitude towards women and goddesses back then.

  • Yvonne

    This is definitely older than the Kalpa Vigraha, the oldest Hindu artifact. But from the few photographs of the Kalpa Vigraha posted on the net it is obvious that the art of sculpture or statue-making was already quite advanced when the Kalpa Vigraha was cast. There could be older, as yet undiscovered metal statues that were made BEFORE the Kalpa Vigraha. Some parts of the globe had strikingly advanced cultures and advancements: One barely shaping a piece of bone into an artifact, while another smelting metal and crafting a more defined human form. But wooden or bone artifacts would certainly be older than metal stuff, I guess. Amazing!!!

  • http://kali-yuga.org Kamal S.

    Yvonne,
    The Kalpa Vigraha has most certainly not been established as “the oldest Hindu artifact” indeed there is no substantiated information about it whatsoever, none of the sources on it are remotely credible, and it has all of the trappings of a hoax.

    Until it can be examined openly then there is nothing that can be said about it and all speculation concerning it is simply a matter of lies and un-substantiated rumor. To assert something as fact without substantiating it is a matter of fraud. No one out there propagating this matter has bothered to try to verify its existence, whether or not tests were done, who did the tests, and where.

    There is no proof that the Kalpa Vigraha is older than the 20th century. Could it be ancient? Certainly, it is possible.

    But possibility is not fact, and it is dangerous to assert things that are merely possible as being fact, when they are not.

    Next Angie claims that “People had a far more positive attitude toward women and goddesses back then.” this conflates two separate issues together in confusion, positive attitudes toward women, and positive attitudes toward goddesses. They are not the same thing. And neither has been proven for “back then.”

    We honestly have almost no knowledge of the belief structures of archaic humanity, and we honestly have almost no knowledge of their social practices and structure, especially in matters of gender and sexuality – though we have clues, some clues and hints are tantalizing, but an intellectually honest person admits this and refrains from trying to project her or his hopes dreams and expectations on people living 40,000 years ago.

    We can try to project our current knowledge of primal peoples still living, and their culture, onto people of the extreme past. But this is a limited attempt. Westerners typically are wont to project their own egalitarian “noble savage” mindset onto these peoples and ignore their nuanced cultures, however, and this does not bode well for understanding people from 20,000 years ago.

  • Harbs

    Wow, really? I never would have thought that Discover would resort to Titles like this just to lure people in…

    @kate “No war…” Ha?! Women really think that if human society was a Matriarchy there would be less conflict? No, I heartily disagree. It would be just as bad, and just as good. Men would have been discriminated against the same way women were, only as slave-warriors instead of womens’ historical role as slave-wives.

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