A Woman Rewrites History—the Venus of Hohle Fels

By LIZ HAGER

Venus

The Venus of Hohle Fels. (Credit: Photo by H. Jensen; Copyright: Universität Tübingen)

Uncovered last fall in a cave in the Swabian province of Germany, the Venus of Hohle Fels has caused quite a stir in both the anthropology and art worlds since her official unveiling yesterday.  Made at least 35,000 years ago, she is the earliest known example of carved figurative art, predating her more famous cousin, the Venus of Willendorf, by some 10-15,000 years.

In unapologetic school-boy titillation style, some reporters succeeded in embuing a venerable and sacred ancient notion of fertility with debased modern-world associations. Egregiously, The Huffington Post headline screams out—Venus of Hohle Fels: PREHISTORIC PORN. Lest we be too hasty in our condemnation, however, let us note that even normally staid Nature captioned its picture of the figurine as “Prehistoric Pin-up.”

All the tittering generated by this depiction of a “traditional model” female (to steal a well-turned moniker from Mma Precious Ramotswe, owner of the  No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) is in danger of overshadowing to the public the truly revolutionary nature of this find—that one tiny woman (she’s only about 2 1/2 inches long) has radically changed our views on the origins of not only Paleolithic, but figurative art.

Venus of Willendorf, stone figurine,
approximately 25,000 years old (courtesy Naturhistorische Museum, Vienna)

Given the strata in which she was found, scientists conclude this Venus was made in the earliest part of the Aurignacian period (for the Aurignac cave site at the foot of the Pyrenees where Paleolithic paintings artifacts were first discovered in 1860s). Often touted as the first “modern” humans, the Aurignacians were a clever people, whose development of a wide range of innovative tools guaranteed the survival of their genes and their culture. Relatively sophisticated tools allowed them to create the bold monumental paintings of Altamira/Lascaux , as well as tiny body ornamentation—pendants, bracelets, and talismans—found throughout the caves of France, Spain, and Germany.  The hook where her head should be makes this figurine a fertility amulet. But worshipped and worn by whom, woman or man or both?

Until the discover of the Venus of Hohle Fels,  female imagery was entirely unknown among the Swabian Aurignacian peoples. Animals and human/beast figures have predominated among the small caches of articles of adornment from this area, naturally leading anthropologists/archeologists to speculate that the Swabian Aurignacian culture was aggressive and male-oriented.

This Venus throws that notion onto its head. One hopes that the study of this relic will shed more light on the early cult of Magna Mater, Mother Earth, equally important as a force in human life.  We moderns have a lot to learn from this diminutive woman.

Photo: Courtesy The Martian Chronicles.

The Venus of Hohle Fels forms a center piece for a major exhibit Ice Age Art and Culture
September 18, 2009 – January 10, 2010.
Stuttgart, Germany

Connections Beyond

Venus of Dolní Věstonice

Venus of Brassempouy

Venus d’Aix

Ivar Lissner—Man, God, and Magic

Don’s Maps—Paleolithic figurines

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3 Responses to “A Woman Rewrites History—the Venus of Hohle Fels”

  1. bondroit eve Says:

    don’t you think that on some images the sculpture looks like a man and a woman kissing?

  2. Call it porn or erotica or whatever you’d like; it reveals how compelling and consistent our human interest in corpulence, fertility and carnality have been for most of our cultural history…and a darn good thing. The sustaining of the gene pool is dependent on more than just technology. It required the mind to focus on the vessel of procreation, and the will to pursue it with all seriousness. Pleasure is not a trifling thing for animals, but a genuine motivator without which our survival might not have been so successful.
    These venus figures are anything but the only only allusion to this long standing interest in imagery that suggests, describes and beckons sexuality. The cave paintings that survive are rich with sexual allusion as one would expect from a species of visually advanced and adept apes who are everybit as interested in sex as any of our cousins.

  3. nice article, but why rewrites history?

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