LONDON—About 35,000 years ago, prehistoric artists across Europe suddenly discovered the female form—and the art world has never been the same. The explosion of voluptuous female figurines sculpted out of limestone, ivory, and clay directly inspired Picasso and Matisse. Researchers have debated the figurines' meaning for decades. Now, two scientists think they have the answer. Presenting their work here last week at the European Palaeolithic Conference, they claimed that the objects started off as celebrations of the female form, then later became symbols that tied together a growing human society.
The talk, part of a special exhibition on Ice Age art at London's British Museum, surveyed the more than 20,000 year-history of female figurines, which are found at dozens of archaeological sites from Russia to France. The earliest such objects, which include the famous Venus of Willendorf from Austria (see photo) and a statuette recently found in Germany that some have called the "earliest pornography," date from as early as 35,000 years ago and are generally called the "Willendorf style" of prehistoric art.
It's an overtly sexual, earthy style: Many of the intricately carved figurines share features such as large, pendulous breasts, huge buttocks, and chubby legs with no feet. They display "female nakedness in all its splendor," said presenter Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, who co-authored the work with archaeologist Olaf Jöris, both of the MONREPOS Archaeological Research Centre in Neuwied, Germany. Nevertheless, she pointed out, individual figurines differ in many aspects. They vary greatly in size; some are slim rather than fat; and some are hairless while others bear what appear to be elaborate headdresses, possibly reflecting clothing that prehistoric women actually wore. Moreover, during the Willendorf period, male figurines, many anatomically correct with penises and detailed facial features, also appear frequently, and occasional sculptures depict men and women side by side.
But beginning about 16,000 years ago, Gaudzinski-Windheuser told the audience, the Willendorf style gave way to a new type of image belonging to the so-called "Gönnersdorf style," named after a site in Germany that features both figurines and engravings of a much more schematic, stylized female form. The Gönnersdorf females, which are found throughout central and Western Europe, are headless and sport smaller breasts, although they usually have large, protruding buttocks. They were apparently meant to be viewed in profile, as their features are only clear when seen from the side. Engravings of these images on cave walls often depict scenes of a number of women together in groups, possibly dancing. Males are rarely depicted, either in sculptures or in engravings.
Gaudzinski-Windheuser and Jöris hypothesize that the Willendorf and Gönnersdorf styles express very different meanings. The Willendorf figurines, they argue, represent the overall idea of femaleness, but the emphasis is on individual women, represented by the many differences among the figurines. As a parallel, Gaudzinski-Windheuser suggested that the cute and chubby fictional stars of the children's TV show, Teletubbies—Tinky Winky, Po, Laa-Laa, and Dipsy—symbolize the common idea of a perfect, child-friendly world, and yet each Teletubby has their own individual personality. (For example, each is a different color and has a different symbol on its head.) Such a symbolic system, in which both individual and group identity were expressed simultaneously, might have been suitable for the earliest modern humans who colonized Europe about 40,000 years ago—and who probably lived in small, close-knit groups, especially as Ice Age glaciers spread across Europe and forced them to cluster together in warmer refugia, she said.
In contrast, the Gönnersdorf style arose near the end of the last Ice Age, about 16,000 years ago, when the glaciers were retreating and human populations grew and expanded, including into northern Europe. The new, abstract style of female figurine was much more standardized, with little individual variation, and could be made by nearly anyone, as opposed to the great artistic skill it took to make a Willendorf statuette, Gaudzinski-Windheuser told the meeting. These later depictions, which were unlikely to represent individual women, were used for communication of commonly held ideas of "femaleness" across far-flung social networks in Europe, which still needed to keep in touch to survive. In this way, she concluded, the images helped to solidify a "communal identity" among widely dispersed human populations.
Some researchers at the meeting, while cautioning that such interpretations are necessarily speculative, say that the pair's thesis has merit. "I rate it highly," says Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. The figurines helped cement the social networks of expanding populations "whose insurance policy was having friends and relations over as big an area as possible." The change in styles from voluptuous to schematic females, Gamble adds, shows that "it's not over" even after "the fat lady sings."
Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at the Durham University in the United Kingdom, agrees. "Sabine and Olaf remind us" that prehistoric art could have "dramatically different" functions as conditions changed for human societies, he says. But Randall White, an archaeologist at New York University in New York City, says that he is "not a fan" of the hypothesis, arguing that it oversimplifies the dichotomy between the two styles of female depictions, which he thinks were not as clear-cut as the MONREPOS archaeologists claim.