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Several questions/answers about the Venus figurines.

January 13, 2014

The Venus figurine phenomenon has produced many an interesting and diverse hypotheses from anthropological and archaeological experts. This non-academic observer will expand upon the discourse and questions posed in earlier posts. And how qualified am I to comment? Well, how qualified are all the academics? I have never held a Venus figurine in my hand. I have had to; get my “fix” from books, videos and internet perusals. The majority of the academics have at their disposal the exact same informational resources for forming their opinions and conclusions. Those luckiest enough to have held in their hands better than 10 in total of these artifacts is a rare number of academics. The majority who research these artifacts do so vicariously with the help of all walks of scientists doing research in this field and the dissertations they present. Logistics just do not allow any one individual to have physically examined all the artifacts. I have perused a significant body of the information available and hope to present an interesting and slightly diverse bit of hypotheses after three years of personal investigation.

Was it art? Randall White asks the question, “When does symbolic representation become art and why should we care?”1. The making of bifacial stone tools in the era of Homo erectus demonstrates a cognitive application of symmetry. The genetic hominid pattern as we evolved has demonstrated that through conscious and non-conscious production, first developed in tool fabrication, we eventually developed an art history. Palaeolithic humans had application of thought to create objects of adornment and discern between objects of art and tools for survival. The collection of figurines shows no evidence that they were used as tools. They were prized personal and portable possessions that were of importance to the individual owner or owners. The argument for objects of craft versus art seems implausible as they had no purpose as a tool or fixture. They were objects of art and our ancestors knew they had value because the equity of hours to create them was known, and our cognitive ability to discern intrinsic value is an easy conclusion to state. These were objects that were perceived as “different” versus other items of Palaeolithic creation. The concept of art may not have been part of early Homo sapien consciousness, but some of our ancestors most obviously had reverence for possessing one or several of these artifacts.

To care or not to care is a trite question, Mr White. I am a great admirer of your body of work, but I take umbrage with part two of the question you propose in this lecture. Taking a quote from another of your publications; “While we cannot help but be influenced and informed by ethnographic knowledge of hunter gathers, we must be careful not to impose that knowledge on the distant past. Rather, we must evaluate with great precision the degree to which the archaeological record for the past conforms to our expectations from the ethnographic present2. The quote above resonates the same message you conveyed in the lecture cited earlier. I do get the message that we must be precise as possible with the ethnography. I was a little shocked that you posed a question about not caring. The Venus figurines are most definitely one of the earliest forms of art. It does demonstrate a threshold meme in our evolution. In my estimation, a darn good reason to care.

When did we make this leap to creating symbolic figurines and images? Blombos Caves in South Africa revealed evidence for paint making. It documents the first known instance for the deliberate planning, production and creation of a pigment compound, and for the use of a container 3. Between 100,000 to 70,000 B.C.E. we were using pigment compounds for a purpose. Personal adornment is plausible and by 40,000 B.C.E. we have our oldest artifact of Homo sapien creation, the Venus of Hohle Fels (Venus of Tan-Tan and Berekhat Ram aside). The Lake Toba super volcano eruption around 70,000 B.C.E. had a significant effect on the global Homo sapien population and the sheer lack of all types of artifacts after the eruption is reflected in the lack of art artisans and tool makers to create them. Over the next 10,000 years the population rebounds and out of Africa we ventured, and by 40,000 B.C.E. our species has had many thousands of years co-existing with the Neanderthals. It is possible that some of our early ancestors could have been influenced by objects created by Neanderthals, but the cache of figurine discoveries lean more to a Homo sapien hand. Adornment most definitely came first and creating objects for sheer visual pleasure came second. Subject to a find that is older than the Venus of Hohle Fels, which was not the first of its kind, we made this leap between 70,000 to 40,000 B.C.E..

What compelled our ancestors to create figurines of predominantly nude females on the edge of a gigantic glacier? Of course there were seasonal conditions that would have allowed for unclothed months of existence. The Mal’ta Buret figurines found in Siberia around Lake Bakal do distinctly show articles of clothing being worn on the carved figures, but the vast majority depict the nude feminine form, as depicted from the artifacts discovered in central and western parts of Europe. The concept of modesty would not have invaded the consciousness of hunter gather societies for thousands of generations. One needs only to examine modern Neolithic people alive today in the equatorial regions to see that modesty is not part of the tribal makeup. The only need to wear clothing would be for cold weather survival. Ceremonial reasons would potentially be another, but did we have ceremonies as part of our culture at that time? O. Soffer, J.M. Adovasio and D.C. Hyland have covered the organic clothing evidence found on Gravettian era figurines in a 2000 publication and outlining the evidence for head coverings, belts and attire made from organic materials 4. This is evidence for weaving skills to have existed in this epoch, but none of the figurines from the Upper Palaeolithic Gravettian examples are clothed appropriately for a northern climate. Sites that have revealed evidence of clothing are rare, but the funerary evidence from the Sungir site in Russia, is evidence for clothing and lavish bead adornment discovered on the adults and children exhumed. We were wearing clothing, but doubtful that we had closets of spring and fall collections. The clothing would be for the practical purpose of staying warm when needed, and stored away when summer days arrived. So males and females most likely wore nothing or scant clothing during the warmer days of summer. The models would have been in view daily for 40% to 50% of the year. The compulsion to recreate our own image is one plausible conclusion and images of others another. Something stronger than the above hypothesis compelled our ancestors to create these figurines. Time for the next question.

Would it have been possible for our ancestors, male and female, to achieve corpulent form based on the diet of this Upper Palaeolithic epoch? A successful hunting tribe that had developed the skills to take down the large megafauna would have been able to provide their collective with a significant quantity of animal protein and fat. Not all tribes would be as successful at large megafauna hunting. The prowess of one tribe over another and a moral code could definitely have played a role. And the morale code may have had an element of early sexism in it. The measure or status of the best hunter would be that if his mate or additional mates were of sturdy size, he would have been held in higher esteem. If his mate or harem does not bare any visual perception of starvation, this could be a status symbol. The corpulent form could possibly have been perceived as being a measure of success when viewed by the more gracile of form, small fauna hunting tribes who were not as successful. My apologies for the stereotypical male perspective construct for the above paragraph.

Carbon Isotope scans of bones has been done on 14 different humans from the Upper Palaeolithic 5. From these scans, expert scientists in this field can make very precise determinations as to the consistent diet of our ancestors. The most recent studies reveal that we also had a high freshwater and ocean marine diet to supplement our large herbivore diet as well. Here are two quotes from the Michael P. Richards and Erik Trinkaus 2009 article:

It is tempting to see the difference as being somehow cognitive, in that Neanderthals were unable to alter their (albeit very successful) subsistence strategies, whereas modern humans were more creative and were able to exploit resources more than the Neanderthals 6.

Moreover, the relatively rapid dispersal of modern humans into most of Europe and the evidence for limited if widespread assimilation of Neanderthals into those populations imply markedly higher effective population sizes of those modern humans. Larger modern human populations may well have promoted the variable exploitation of a broader range of resources, ones requiring greater effort or technological investment for their acquisition 7.

Our sturdy Neanderthal tutors would have been an influencing role model for our invading Homo sapien ancestors. Our ancestors in other parts of the globe did not have Neanderthals around to affect their culture. The perception of bigger is better is a cognitive construct that resonates today within the consciousness of our modern culture. It most definitely would have been perceived as a measure of success by our ancestors. Success would have stimulated population growth. Larger tribes would have created diversity of human form. A moral code for protection and an altered role in the collective, a life avoid of hard tasks, plus a genetic steatopygous condition, are all potential contributors for the Venus models. The daily diet elements were definitely in place for some of our ancestors to achieve an obese form. It is one plausible degree of conjecture I would propose that could at the least answer the question above. Albeit potentially a rare occurrence, corpulent form was revered as a measure of success in the eyes of our Palaeolithic ancestors.

Why do almost all of the figurines have no feet? This is one of the easier traits of the figurines to answer. For the purpose of display the figurines had the legs tapered to a point for insertion into an earthy or muddy pedestal. Although the skill sets of the carvings vary from excellent to crude, there are not many figurines that have feet. The carving of feet would have been relatively easy to do based on the carving skill that the collection displays. Another plausible conjecture is that the owner of the figurine might have carved a simple wooden base to allow the Venus to stand upright. The wooden base would be lost for all time. Where are the bases carved from the same material of the figurines? Maybe they have been found, but not realized as part B of another artifact. The tapered legs are a stylistic similarity that demonstrates an exchange of ideas over generations. This question and the hypothesis that I have just stated can be found in similar text from numerous sources and is a completely plausible explanation for the missing feet question. I cite no sources as there are several similar consensuses to be found in academic articles on the Venus figurines. It lends credence to the fact that were displayed and fairly solid evidence for visual appreciation, at bare minimum.

What are the homogeneous features that define these statuettes with a unique designation of “Venus Figurines”? Non-homogeneous exceptions can be easily cited, but focusing only on the predominantly similar feature is where I will stay in this discourse. Generalizing—exaggerated breasts, abdomen, buttocks, hips, thighs, vulvas, and no facial features, no arms, no hands and the lack of feet as discussed above. There are several academic conclusions that the figurines appear to represent the pregnant female form, but this postulation inerrancy can be easily challenged. The easy counter argument “is she pregnant or she obese” and I will address the pregnancy topic later. Anyone can do the quick video perusal online to view the image collection of these amazing figurines. Sorting out the contemporary Venus images from the Palaeolithic is quite easy and the homogeneous features are easy to discern. Our ancestors had 3000 plus generations to create and share theses cultural icons. A non-academic admirer like yours truly will never have the opportunity for hands-on examination of an authentic figurine, but winnowing out a conclusion from image perusal alone I would conclude that the homogeneity of these statuettes is evidence that they achieved a status of cultural awareness across a vast territory for many, many, thousands of years.

What other interpretive frameworks has the science on the figurines overlooked? As I have mentioned in other posts there are two speculations that have received little or no commentary from the past century of dissertations, articles and books. If we have 200 plus figurine examples made from stone, bone, tusk, antler and clay in the archaeological record, the same skills could have easily been transferred to wood. If there have been discoveries of Palaeolithic figurines (Venus or other) made from wood, then they have eluded anything that I have researched. Perfect preservation conditions for a wooden Palaeolithic figurines that would allow for discovery in this century, are a virtual impossibility. The organic features of wood just do not facilitate the archaeological find. Into the realm of speculation and postulation, it seems an easy conclusion to make that Palaeolithic sculptures created many Venus figurines from wood. It would be just too easy to do! The sheer number of figurines pervading the Upper Palaeolithic territory would be higher, combined with the more current discoveries that the populations were much larger than originally estimated and we have our first, “FAD!” Broker the idea that they were used as currency and we have our first monetary units. I have no academic credentials at risk, thus it is very easy for me to propose an interpretation totally absent of evidence. Adding my two intuitive interpretations to the inventory of interpretations may be perceived as hubris, but they are both plausible speculations.

What is my interpretation of the potential spiritual aspect of the Venus figurines? A century of interpretations precedes me and to comment on all the variant ethnography will just not be possible. I will leave that for a future post. New studies with current technology are doing an excellent job on unlocking new minute details of each figurine and revising the dating of the earlier discoveries. The homogeneous phenomenon has many detractors, but the stylistic similarities cannot be overlooked. To echo words of Randall White cited earlier, we must be more precise when imposing our modern assessment of civilization as we see it today and how sacrosanct it is with our hunter gather past. Unlocking the stylistic similarities is an appropriate tactic to take, to better understand the impetus behind their creation. To the land of the hypothetical I will go 25,000 years from now—what would be written in a futuristic archaeological dissertation about the discovery of several thousands of homogeneous artifacts that depict a man being nailed to a wooden cross? All knowledge of Christianity is lost and much new and different spiritualities have taken over. Suffice to say that the academics of this future era would come to the possible conclusion that our Middle Holocene ancestors had a fascination with this grotesque execution practise. The ethnography would be an interesting read. And any 20th/21st century interpretations of Venus figurines, the figurines “purpose” as the root question, can potentially all be judged as floccinaucinihilipilification 8.

These figurines were a bonding symbol very much like the Christian icon is a bonding symbol. The 2000 year anniversary of the crucifixion will happen sometime between 2028C.E. and 2034C.E.. The Christian symbol has had less than 2000 years of iconicity and the Venus figurines had 20,000± years of symbolic status for our Palaeolithic ancestors. Trading routes, burial rites, innovation albeit shared or plundered were fostering a cultural “big bang” of exchange of ideas. Cooperation was breeding more cohesive communities. Having the symbol could possibly have meant you were part of a shared philosophy. A more peaceful philosophy—maybe—wild conjecture indeed. The corpulent form versus the pregnant female on merit alone will pull any inquiring conjecture to the fertility attestation. Thus as I have attested in a previous post that I would state that one of the two original spiritualities was the pregnant female. I avoid making any comment with any reference to a “Goddess” symbol as I feel that this is a cognitive construct that has more Neolithic foundation versus any Palaeolithic era. A homogeneous goddess concept which translates to a supernatural enthusiasm versus within the atmosphere fertility spirituality—I believe that the latter conjecture is a more plausible construct. Add to this equation the veritable thousands of organic renditions of these figurines that are lost to the ages and we have our first sacred symbol/fad. Many things are developing in tandem that strengthens group solidarity and commonality of purpose. The symbol of the female form is being used to express a commonality of purpose and the best plausible conclusion is that its sector of belief revolved around reproductive enhancements.

Art for art sake—maybe—social status on par with men—plausible—self representation theory—the weakest of all theories from my perspective. An early superstitious shamanistic doll to prevent miscarriages, or a pre-coitus ritual use, and I can keep going with more, but these homogeneous objects we have to examine today tell us that our species maintained a very simple but consistent cultural iconicity with creating Venus figurines for a long, long time. A spiritual significance and bonding icon from our evolutionary past that cannot be ignored.   

            

 

  1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfVlbla6HJO Randall White lecture on Prehistoric art.
  2. http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/anthro/programs/csho/Content/Facultycvandinfo/White/RWarticles/RW_2007_Human%20Revolution.pdf Randall White Publication 2007; System of Personal Ornamentation in the Early Upper Palaeolithic.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blombos_Cave#cite_refHenshilwood_.26_d.E2.80.99Errico_2011_50-0 Wikipedia; Blombos Caves.
  4. http://www.unl.edu/rhames/courses/current/venus1.pdf The “Venus” Figurines; O. Soffer, J.M. Adovasio, and D.C. Hyland 2000.
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2752538/ Michael P. Richards, Erik Trinkaus Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 September 22; 106(38): 16034 16039. Published online 2009 August 11. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0903821106
  6. (Ibid.)
  7. (Ibid.)
  8. Floccinaucinihilipilification; the estimation, action or habit of deeming something as worthless.
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