Stone Age statuettes don disputed apparel

Ancient carved figurines of women have long attracted speculation as possible fertility symbols, mother goddesses, gynecological teaching devices, or even Stone Age erotica. More than 200 of these figures have been found at archaeological sites from France to Russia and have been dated to around 27,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Front and back of Venus figurine that may wear woven cap and upper-body straps. Soffer/Holland/Current Anthropology

From behind, Venus of Lespugue may show either a low-hanging skirt or a second figure’s long hair. Soffer/Holland/Current Anthropology

These ancient creations, known as Venus figurines, often display exaggerated genitals, breasts, stomachs, and buttocks. On closer inspection, however, many Venus figurines wear carved renderings of finely woven caps, hairnets, belts, bands across the chest, and skirts, as well as necklaces and bracelets, according to a controversial report in the August–October Current Anthropology.

“We’re not addressing the meaning of these figurines, but we’ve shown that there’s clothing on some of them,” says Olga Soffer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who directed the study. “They depict a fiber-weaving technology that until recently we didn’t know existed in the Stone Age.”

Soffer and her coworkers previously identified impressions of woven material on 27,000-year-old pottery from a Czech Republic site (SN: 5/23/98, p. 332: Many archaeologists regard this as the oldest known evidence of weaving.

Soffer concludes that some Venus figurines were “richly and elaborately clad in the woven and plaited finery of their time.” Her work has received much media attention in the past year, and scientific critiques are now emerging, including several published with the new report.

In its analysis of the carvings, Soffer’s team identifies regional differences in Venus apparel. In western Europe, the figurines often exhibit a hair net, depicted as crisscrosses, and, in some cases, show a belted string skirt. A French find known as the Venus of Lespugue wears a belted skirt low on the hip, beneath protruding buttocks, the researchers assert.

In central and eastern Europe, figurines feature hats that portray a style of weaving using coils of fiber, the researchers contend. In their view, woven upper-body bands, belts, and jewelry also appear on many of these Venuses. In central Europe and farther west, belts on Venus figurines hang low on the hip; in eastern Europe, belts circle the waist, Soffer’s team says.

The researchers describe about two-dozen figurines that wear clothing. Stone Age women took charge of weaving and basketry, as they do in traditional societies today, the scientists propose. The detail portrayed indicates that women either carved the clad Venuses or guided those who did, the team theorizes.

Linda R. Owen of the University of Tübingen in Germany calls the new report a “spectacular” insight into the life of prehistoric women.

However, some of the evidence appears dubious, says Margherita Mussi of the University of Rome. For example, Venus of Lespugue most likely portrays two women, one of them upside down, Mussi holds. The alleged skirt is actually the hair of the upside-down woman, she says.

Also, even the allegedly clad figurines remain largely nude and emphasize sexuality, says Janusz K. Kozlowski of Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland.

“The vast majority of Venus figurines don’t have good evidence of clothing of any type,” contends Randall K. White of New York University. Many suspected examples of woven caps might instead depict hairstyles, he says.

Although women are weavers in modern foraging groups, researchers can’t assume that they played that role in the Stone Age, he adds.

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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