Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Female "Venus" Figurine

Made at least 37,000 years ago

September 2008, Hohle Fels, Swabia, Southwestern Germany

Mammoth ivory

24 inches tall

This tiny ivory figurine will rewrite history, says Nicholas Conard, head of a team of archaeologists who recently discovered her among flint chips and burnt animal bones. Found in a cave in southwestern Germany, the "Venus" of Hohle Fels, which is at least 37,000 years old, is likely the earliest depiction of a woman and one of the oldest examples of figurative art. Before her discovery, human imagery was unknown from the Aurignacian period, the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, about 40,000 years ago, when the earliest Homo sapiens inhabited Europe. According to Conard, the Venus pushes back the date of figurative art by at least 5,000 years and refutes the notion that three-dimensional female imagery only developed in the Gravettian period (28,000-22,000 years ago), when artwork became much more common.

Most of the Venus, except for her left arm and shoulder, has been recovered. In place of a head, she has a polished carved ring, indicating that she may have been worn as a pendant. The deep incised lines on her stomach, some of which extend around her back, are suggestive of clothing or a covering of some type. Her exaggerated breasts, extended buttocks, carefully carved hands and fingers, and visible genitalia, are similar to later Paleolithic female figurines.

There is a long history of debate over the meaning of Paleolithic Venuses because of their clear and often exaggerated sexual attributes. But Conard feels confident that they are an expression of fertility, a common theme in art through the ages. Also at Hohle Fels, Conard recently found a 35,000-year-old flute made of vulture bone that is thought to be the oldest crafted musical instrument in the world.