In 2008, archaeologists in Germany made a startling discovery. In Swabian Jura, where caves in limestone cliffs sheltered ancient humans, a figurine was unearthed from rubble. Carved from mammoth ivory, the figure showed a naked woman. Such figures have been found before where this “Venus” emerged, for the figure found in Hohle Fels Cave was named for a Roman goddess, as has been common since these figures were first discovered more than a century ago. In Austria (Willendorf and Galgenberg), France (Brassempouy, Laussel), and other European sites (Doln√≠ V√ªstonice in the Czech Republic, Moravany in Slovakia, Monruz in Switzerland, Mal‚Äôta in Russia), archaeologists have found tiny figures of naked women. They are among the most ancient artworks of humanity, carved from stone or bone or molded from clay between twenty and thirty thousand years ago.
That long ago, during the Paleolithic Era, humans lived in small groups hunting and gathering foods. Recent studies suggest a large proportion, up to 80 percent, of their diet came from plant foods like berries, fruits, and roots, which scholars assume were gathered by women. Meat, while providing necessary nutrients, was less readily available and required significant strength and skill to acquire, and it is presumed hunting was a predominantly male occupation, although women may have trapped small mammals and caught fish. What distinguishes this period of human history from earlier ones is that for the first time humans began to use stone tools. This revolution led to others, such as the establishment of year-round villages and the invention of art.
What knowledge we have of these ancestors comes from scanty traces of their daily lives. Only material resistant to decay survives the millennia: bone, stone, fired clay. We have no way of knowing how ancient humans dressed or what footwear they favored. We have no Paleolithic fishing nets or traps, no spears, no baskets. We do not know how they organized their societies or traced their descent lines. We have no idea what languages they used. But because they carved bone and painted on stone, we can see and appreciate their art.
The cave paintings at Lascaux and Pech-Merle in France show that these ancient humans had a sophisticated sense of beauty and a command of painterly techniques. In Lascaux, animals leap and prance around the walls and roof of a series of interlocking caves. At Pech-Merle, spotted horses and woolly mammoths adorn the walls, and the outline of a hand suggests the presence of the artist. In addition to such painted galleries, we have dozens of examples of Paleolithic portable art in the form of expressive incised drawings of animals on bone and delicate carvings of “Venus” figurines.
Before 2008, experts dated these figures to be-tween 28,000 and 24,000 years ago. Despite the span of time involved and despite the stylistic diversity in the figures, the Venuses share an emphasis on female sexual characteristics. Breasts and pubic triangle are always exaggerated; thighs and buttocks can be disproportionately large as well. This emphasis seems to have been so important that many Venuses have no facial features and only sketchy arms and legs. They are never clothed, although some wear what appear to be woven belts, and most have elaborate hairstyles. Contemporaneous cave paintings, with their highly realistic depiction of prey animals, show that these artists did not lack pictoral ability. Rather, the artists appear to have selectively exaggerated certain aspects of female anatomy.
Although we cannot know whether men or women (or both) made the carvings, or what they meant, interpretations abound. Among these is the idea the images represent the first known deity: a goddess. This theory is supported by the fact that virtually the only human images found in such ancient art are these full-bodied naked females, with the artists otherwise focusing their energies on animals. But this idea is a controversial one, especially among male scholars, some of whom prefer to label the figures as “Paleolithic pornography,” projecting today‚Äôs sexual behavior into the distant past. Because for nearly 2,000 years, male monotheism has been the dominant religious pattern, the idea that ancient humans honored a goddess as their primary divinity is unsettling to many, scholars and nonscholars alike.
From the book Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines. Copyright ¬© 2014 by Patricia Monaghan. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.