Stone Age figurine has contentious origins

Ivory female carving may be at least 35,000 years old, alter views of how Stone Age art developed

Some women have mysterious pasts, but a few have mysterious prehistories. Archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany has found one such lady. She’s carved out of ivory, boasts exaggerated sexual features and fits in the palm of his hand.

STONE AGE POSE A newly discovered ivory figurine of a woman with exaggerated sexual features, shown from the front and side, may date to at least 35,000 years ago. If so, the find would challenge the view that it took thousands of years for modern humans to create figurative art after reaching Europe. H. Jensen/U. of Tübingen

Conard says that his discovery, reported in the May 14 Nature, demonstrates that artistic renditions of the human form, called figurative art, originated in Europe between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. That’s thousands of years before most researchers had thought, during a time so close to initial European settlement that newcomers would have had to rapidly invent such cultural advances or import them from Africa.

“This discovery radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Paleolithic art and is perhaps the earliest example of figurative art worldwide,” Conard says.

Some researchers are skeptical of that claim. In their view, Conards’ find supports an earlier proposal that figurative art emerged in Europe roughly 32,000 years ago, more than 5,000 years after modern humans reached Europe.

Excavations in southern Germany’s Hohle Fels cave last year yielded six fragments of the figurine that have since been pieced together, Conard reports. Standing about 6 centimeters tall (2.4 inches), the mammoth-tusk sculpture depicts a woman with huge, projecting breasts, enlarged genitals and a massive belly and thighs.

Short legs and a small right arm — the left arm is missing — further accentuate the figurine’s sexual attributes. Instead of a head, a carved ring sits atop the ivory woman’s broad shoulders. Polish on the ring suggests the figurine was suspended and worn as a pendant, Conard says.

Several deeply incised, horizontal lines extend from the abdomen to the back of the figurine.

Conard uncovered the specimen amid stone, bone and ivory tools characteristic of the Aurignacian period, when modern humans first reached Europe. Researchers estimate that the Aurignacian period, during which the Neandertals died out, lasted from about 40,000 to 29,000 years ago.

Researchers have found many ivory carvings of animals and mythical creatures at Hohle Fels and nearby caves over the past 70 years. These caves are located just north of the Danube valley, a likely route into Europe for early Homo sapiens.

Radiocarbon dates from Hohle Fels, as well as the figurine’s position near the bottom of a series of Aurignacian soil layers, suggest a minimum age of 35,000 years for the find, in Conard’s view.

He regards the Hohle Fels figurine as a precursor of the famous Venus figurines that have been found over the past century at European sites dating to between 29,000 and 25,000 years ago.

Archaeologist Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge in England also sees a connection between the Hohle Fels carving and the sexually exaggerated features of later Venus figurines.

Other archaeologists dispute Conard’s conclusions. Based on the series of radiocarbon dates at the German site, Randall White of New York University thinks Conard is being generous with the figurine’s age. White estimates the figurine is about 32,000 years old, roughly the same age as a painting of a woman in France’s Chauvet Cave and depictions of female genitalia at another French site.

“This is a great find, but it supports rather than refutes my argument that there was no figurative art in Europe until the later Aurignacian, more than 5,000 years after initial settlement by modern humans,” comments João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in England, who also thinks the figurine was made around 32,000 years ago.

Because the Hohle Fels carving is unusually small and was designed as a personal ornament, Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux I in Talence, France, regards it as unrelated to larger, non-ornamental Venus figurines.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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