Venerable Venuses: Paleolithic Artifacts

Prehistoric peoples offer a wealth of enigmatic mysteries for the modern archeologist to uncover. Physical artifacts, such as tools made of bone and miniature statues of humans and prehistoric animals, may provide clues to the thinking and psychology of our ancestors. One of these artifacts commonly studied is the mystifying Venus figurine, named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. This article will describe the Venus figurine, then summarize its artifactualized existence and the various creation theories surrounding it. The article will pay specific attention to anthropologist McDermott's hypothesis that they may have served a unique place within the prehistoric notion of femininity. This discussion will show that these miniature figurines may have served as more than mere fertility and sexual trinkets, instead serving as a form for prehistoric women to grapple with their own ideas of gender and femininity.

First discovered throughout Europe and the wide stretches of Siberia, Venus figurines are three-dimensional statues depicting the naked form of a woman. With each one providing similar physical properties to classify them all in the same category of Venus figurine, these statues date back from c. 33,000 to 20,000 BCE (Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art; Fagan & Beck, 1996). Most of the discovered artifacts are from the Gravettian period (26,000 to 21,000 years ago) (Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art; Fagan & Beck, 1996). Each artifact offers its own unique perspective on the female form, with exaggerated anatomical proportions of breasts, thighs, vulva, and hips. There is a consensus that these figurines focus heavily on the female form’s reproductive qualities, as very few of the figurines discovered pay close attention to facial features or bodily extremities such as arms and legs. One of the most famous examples of a Venus figurine, perhaps one of the most well-known prehistoric sculptures in general, is the “Venus of Willendorf”, shown below.

The Venus of Willendorf is the most famous Venus.

The Venus of Willendorf adopts a self-reflective air, gazing down upon herself with her arms rested upon her breasts. Her head bends down as if she were looking upon her own body in the same vein as the modern viewer would. This self-reflective quality present within the Venus of Willendorf allows a modern audience to contemplate its creator's intent tens of thousands of years ago. As such, the following portion of this article describes various theories posited by archeologists to comprehend the reason behind these creations. Nevertheless, it should remain critically noted that this article is an inscription of modern reasoning for prehistoric actions. As Soffer et al. state (2000):

The Venus of Willendorf, then, within her culture and period, rather than within ours, was clearly richly and elaborately clothed in inference and meaning. She wore the fabric of her culture. She was, in fact, a referential library and a multivalent, multipurpose symbol.

This article, therefore, provides an introspective look into prehistory. These statues may have fulfilled multiple purposes for their creators. Viewing these figurines within the narrow lens of modern art may be inscribing a contemporary bias for the actions of the past. Nevertheless, theorizing about the potential intent behind such artifacts allows for a greater understanding and empathy with our human past.

The Venus of Hohle Fels, found in Southwestern Germany. Note the similarities to the Venus of Willendorf.

Numerous creation theories exist for the Venus figurines. Many academics view them as religious or ceremonial icons depicting priestesses of the time and influential figures within their community. Other older hypotheses have argued that these Venus figurines serve as fertility symbols precisely due to the highly exaggerated depiction of female reproductive organs. Though each theory is interesting in its own right, perhaps the most introspective hypothesis was that of anthropologist Ray McDermott. McDermott argues that women of the era actually crafted these figurines. According to the hypothesis, the women crafted the figurines in their own self-image, depicting themselves as if they would have potentially seen their own nude bodies from a top-down perspective without the aid of modern reflective technologies such as mirrors or cameras to guide them. She believes these artifacts depict “analog representations of women looking down on their changing biological selves” (McDermott, 1996, p. 1). Modern photographs of women looking upon themselves appear nearly identical to the articulation and perspective of body parts such as breasts, stomach, and vulva, as seen in Venus figurines (McDermott, 1996). McDermott takes her hypothesis even further in remarking that the first instances of human image-making, as seen in these Venus figurines, were likely “an adaptive response to the physical concerns of women”, preoccupied with the changing perspectives as the body physically ages (McDermott, 1996, p. 1).

Although it is impossible and impractical to definitively ascertain the exact intentions of works created tens of thousands of years ago, in an era considerably different from one’s own modern age, this unique self-reflective aspect of McDermott’s “feminine image” thesis allows a modern viewer to observe such Venus figurines with a newfound appreciation. As a potential manner in which prehistoric women grappled with their own worries of what exactly it means to be female, their own notions of gender and preoccupations with the changing body associated with age and childbirth, these figurines allow one to self-reflect upon the continuities and remarkable similarities of modern gender.

Image 3: projected view of women's own body (left) compared to side view of Venus figure

The idea of prehistoric gender is a fascinating one, specifically in regard to manners in which notions of femininity and concerns over bodily age take shape. Though it is impossible to ever fully comprehend the intent behind the creators of these works, many archeologists and scholars have posited various theories as to the reason behind their existence, such as ritualistic and fertility intentions. Despite their creation tens of thousands of years ago, spanning across the width of Europe, archeologists still lack a consensus explaining their creation. Regardless of the view that one takes, the Venus figurine remains – and will continue to remain for the considerable future shrouded in mystery. This article has showcased how anthropologist McDermott has offered a significant hypothesis of Venus figurines being a way for prehistoric women to visualize both themselves and the physicality of the female form, created during an era in which mirrors and other manners of viewing oneself did not yet exist. A common light of creativity, arthood, and perhaps even notions of gendered femininity remain a common link between modernity and the past evidenced within works such as the Venus of Willendorf.

Bibliographical References

Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. (n.d.). Prehistoric venus figurines (30,000-20,000 BCE). Venus Figurines, Prehistoric: Definition, Characteristics, Interpretation. Retrieved from

Fagan, B and Beck, C. (1996). Venus Figurines. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford University Press, pp. 740–741

McDermott, L. R. (1996). Self-representation in Upper Paleolithic female figurines. Current Anthropology, 37(2), 227–275.

Soffer, O., Adovasio, J. M., & Hyland, D. C. (2000). The “Venus” figurines. Current Anthropology, 41(4), 511–537.

Visual References

Author Photo

Dana Kit

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