An ivory statuette of a well-endowed woman discovered in Germany suggests that humanity's earliest art might have been of the erotic variety. Digging in a cave near Stuttgart last fall, University of Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard unearthed what he says is the most ancient representation of a human female yet found--and, at more than 35,000 years old, one of the oldest sculptures ever discovered.
The tiny statuette--just under 6 centimeters tall and 3.4 centimeters wide--was carved out of a single piece of mammoth ivory. It has dramatically exaggerated breasts and a detailed, enlarged vulva. The headless figurine is topped with a knob that Conard suggests might have been used to attach it to a thong or cord for use as a necklace or personal ornament.
The find came 100 years almost to the day after the 1908 discovery in Austria of the "Venus of Willendorf," perhaps the most famous example of so-called Venus figurines that proliferated across Europe 20,000 to 25,000 years ago. The Willendorf find was made of stone and about twice as big, but it also emphasized large breasts and a clearly carved vulva.
In a paper in tomorrow's issue of Nature, Conard argues that his statuette is about 10,000 years older than the Austrian find. It's the latest in a string of Stone Age statuettes discovered in the Swabian Jura, a region near Stuttgart, whose limestone caves made for excellent shelters and have preserved artifacts remarkably well. The others have been representations of animals and birds, whereas this is the first human figure found.
Conard's team uncovered the fragments in a cave called Hohle Fels, which has yielded small figurines of animals and a mysterious half-man, half-lion figure(ScienceNOW, 17 December 2003). Conard also found swan-bone flutes--potentially the earliest musical instruments--in a nearby cave.
There's no way to know what the statuette was used for or what meaning it carried, although scientists theorize that it might have been used in shamanistic rites or was simply pornography. Anthropologist Paul Mellars of Stony Brook University in New York state says the focus on exaggerated sexual features fits with other artifacts found from the period, including phalluses carved out of bison horn and vulva inscribed on rocks. "It's sexually exaggerated to the point of being pornographic," Mellars says. "There's all this sexual symbolism bubbling up in that period. They were sex-mad."
Conard used radiocarbon dates from bones and other artifacts found nearby to date the figurine. "It's at least 35,000 calendar years old, but I think it's much older than that," Conard says. The fragments were found within a few centimeters of each other close to the bottom of a layer that represents the first arrival of modern humans in Europe--a period known as the Aurignacian that dates back 40,000 years. "This confirms figurative imagery is part of the Aurignacian from day one," Conard says.
Not everyone agrees. Archaeologist João Zilhão of Bristol University in the United Kingdom says Conard is cherry-picking the best dates to reinforce his case that modern humans began creating art almost as soon as they arrived in Europe. "It's a very important find and highlights the good work the Tübingen group is doing," Zilhão says, but he argues that the figurine seems likely to be from about the same period as the other artifacts found in the Swabian caves--5000 years after humans arrived in Europe. The art's timing plays into a larger debate over the origins of human behavior and whether early modern humans were cognitively more advanced than the Neandertals they competed with and eventually replaced (ScienceNOW, 13 September 2006).
Regardless of its precise age, the figure shows that artists have been interested in certain aspects of the female form for a very long time, says Conard. "I showed it to a male colleague, and his response was, 'Nothing's changed in 40,000 years.'"