The world's first Stone Age art, or
simply a prehistoric basalt pebble
The Stone Age Venus of Berekhat Ram is a small pebble made of basalt rock, excavated in 1981 near the Lake of Berekhat Ram ('high pool') in the northeastern Golan Heights.
The stone has several incision marks made by early humans, allegedly to accentuate its female humanoid shape.
The object measures 35 mm in length, 25 mm in width, and is 21 mm thick. It weighs 10 grams.
It was excavated and first analyzed by archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar from the Institute of Archaeology, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Archaeologists believe that this humanoid pebble is one of the oldest pieces of prehistoric art known to science, although this interpretation remains a matter of debate.
For a short guide to the theory and practice of archaeological digs, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.
The pebble exhibits three or more grooves, made by a sharp-edged stone, which lend it the appearance of a female human.
One groove is a deep incision that encircles the narrower end of the object, suggesting the head. Two shallower U-shaped grooves cut into the sides supposedly suggest the arms.
Recent microscopic research by the American paleolithic scholar Alexander Marshack, confirms that these markings are the result of human intervention and not the work of nature.
This conclusion have been largely confirmed by archaeologists Francesco d'Errico and April Nowell, who also supported the idea that the markings were both symbolic and non-utilitarian.
Following these investigations, the pebble became known as The Venus of Berekhat Ram, although it bears no resemblance to the European venus figurines of the later Gravettian culture of the Upper Paleolithic, such as the Venus of Willendorf (25,000 BC).
No one is suggesting that this lithic shape is high art.
For one thing, there's no suggestion that the object as a whole was sculpted by human hand - simply that it was picked up and recognized as looking like a woman, and then given a few touches to make it look even more like a woman.
This modification is the artistic bit.
Even so, the process was at heart a creative one, even if the execution was rudimentary and casual. Later venus sculptures might be carved from scratch from a blank piece of stone or ivory, but initial prototypes (by definition) were always going to be rudimentary and inchoate.
It's true that the Lower Paleolithic is not known for a plethora of mobiliary art, let alone prehistoric sculpture, but then its main artistic focus would probably have been body and face painting, whose only traces would be "paint workshops" containing stores of pigment.
The fact that such stores (of ochre and manganese), dating back to 307,000 BC, have been found in Africa, Europe and Australia, suggests that Homo erectus was an active user of decorative pigmentation, and thus had artistic tendencies deep in the Lower Paleolithic.
The artistic status of the Berekhat Ram figurine was seemingly confirmed, eighteen years later, by the discovery of a similar figurine in Morocco - known as the Venus of Tan-Tan, also dating to the Acheulian culture between 500,000 and 200,000 BC).
(Note: We use the lowest age for both figurines - namely, 230,000 BC for the Golan object and 200,000 BC for the Moroccan object.)
The Venus of Berekhat Ram has been dated to between 230,000 and 700,000 BC.
The reason for the very wide age range is because it was found sandwiched between two layers of residue: an upper layer dating to 230,000 BC, and a lower layer dating to 700,000 BC.
But even the lowest figure places it among the world's oldest art ever recorded.
To see how the pebble figure of Berekhat Ram fits into Stone Age art as a whole, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
A number of experts, including, Angela E. Close, João Zilhão, Steven Mithen and Thomas G. Wynn, do not view the Venus of Berekhat Ram as a work of art. Instead, they argue that:
(a) the modification marks on the pebble are not man-made but naturally occurring;
(b) even if man-made, they are utilitarian not artistic;
(c) the figure doesn't resemble a female human in the first place. For example, the American scholar Angela E. Close claimed it reminded her of a penguin or a phallus depending on the viewing angle.
The debate continues.
(1) Goren-Inbar, Naama (1986). "A Figurine from the Acheulian Site of Berekhat Ram". Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society. ISSN 0334-3839
(2) Marshack, Alexander (1997). "The Berekhat Ram figurine: a late Acheulian carving from the Middle East". Antiquity. 71 (272): 327–337
(3) d'Errico, F.; Nowell, A. (2000). "A new look at the Berekhat Ram figurine: Implications for the origins of symbolism". Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 10 (1): 123–167. With comments by João Zilhão, Steven Mithen, Thomas G. Wynn, Ofer Bar-Yosef, Angela E. Close, and Alexander Marshack.