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Venus of Hohle Fels

Oldest sculpture of human figure
Dated 38,000-33,000 BC

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Mammoth ivory Venus of Hohle Fels, German statuette
Venus of Hohle Fels. Image by Ramessos. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Venus of Hohle Fels: Summary

The Venus of Hohle Fels is a tiny ivory carving of a female body, which was created during the Aurignacian era, between 38,000 and 33,000 BC.

She is the world's oldest representation of a purely human figure.

This unique item of prehistoric sculpture, also known as the Venus of Schelklingen, was discovered in 2008 at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southern Germany.

Like other venus figurines - such as the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice - it represents a caricature of the female form.

Anthropologists conjecture it has totemic value as a symbol of reproduction or fertility.

The Venus of Hohle Fels is one of several items of mobiliary art which have been found in the region, such as the therianthropic Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Vogelherd Cave ivory carvings of mammoths and horses.

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Why is the Venus of Hohle Fels Important?

Answer: Because it is the oldest prehistoric art of its type - the oldest representation of a purely human figure. (See: World's Oldest Art.)

Some animal or therianthropic carvings were created around the same time, but purely human figures were unknown.

It was one of several pieces of Upper Paleolithic art created by artists living in the Swabian Jura, which suggests that the Aurignacian culture was unusually progressive in the region.

The Venus of Hohle Fels was created up to ten thousand years before any other venus figurine. Which is really quite amazing.

On the other hand, neither the Hohle Fels cave, nor the other paleolithic caves of Hohlenstein-Stadel and Vogelherd, have produced any worthwhile rock art, such as petroglyphs or cave paintings.

To understand how the Schelklingen Venus fits into the evolution of paleoart, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (540,000 BC).

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Discovery and Dating

Fragments of the Venus of Hohle Fels was recovered from the cave of "Hohle Fels" ("hollow rock") near Schelklingen, by a team of scientists from the Department of Prehistory at the German University of Tubingen, under Professor Nicholas Conard.

The six pieces were unearthed in a well-preserved state about 3 metres underground, some 20 metres from the cave entrance.

They were lying in a layer of red-brown, clay sediment which was carbon-dated to the early Aurignacian culture, thus refuting the idea that figurative art only emerged in the later phases of the Aurignacian around 30,000 BC.

The well-preserved condition of the fragments and the fact they were lying within centimetres of each other, indicates that the Venus experienced little if any disturbance during its interment.

A few feet away, researchers also uncovered a flute carved out of a vulture bone, dating back to 34,000 BC - which makes it one of the oldest known musical instruments in the world, after the Neanderthal Divje Babe flute from Slovenia (50,000-60,000 BC).

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Description & Characteristics

The Venus of Hohle Fels is 6 cm in height and was sculpted from a woolly mammoth tusk.

It has an obese squat body with broad shoulders, wide hips and thick haunches.

The venus has no head. Instead, a carved ring protrudes from between the shoulders, suggesting that the sculpture was worn as a pendant or other adornment.

The figure has prominent breasts, while its two stubby arms with their distinct hands and fingers rest on the upper part of the abdomen.

The figure's buttocks and genitals are depicted in exaggerated detail, while its legs are no more than stubs.

The figurine shares numerous physical characteristics with other Venus sculptures.

For instance, its obese shape, exaggerated female attributes and undeveloped arms and legs, are reminiscent of the Venus of Moravany (Slovakia), the Venus of Lespugue (France), and the Gagarino venuses (Russia) from the Gravettian era (30,000-20,000 BC).

In 2015, the team found two more fragments made out of mammoth ivory, discovered in the Hohle Fels cave, that belong to a second venus figurine.

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Interpretation

The exaggerated reproductive attributes imply that the venus was designed as a fertility symbol of some description, perhaps to bring its wearer luck in conceiving a child.

According to team leader Conard, "You can't get more female than this. Head and legs don’t matter. This is about reproduction."

The Venus of Hohle Fels does not look like sophisticated ivory carving, but most experts in paleolithic art agree that the carving of a human figure represents a definite advance in the cultural development of mankind.

Here, the non-naturalistic emphasis on female reproduction shows that the artist had less interest in a literal representation of the surrounding world, and more interest in expressing (more advanced) symbolic ideas of conception and fertility.

Meantime, scientists at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, recently published a paper suggesting that obese figurines symbolized the hope for abundance and a well-fed community.

Whatever its exact significance, the Venus of Hohle Fels represents an early milestone in human creativity that eventually spread all over the world.

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References

(1) "It must be a woman." Researchers from the University of Tübingen present fragments of a new female figurine from Hohle Fels Cave at the Urgeschichtlichen Museum Blaubeuren. UT Press Release: July 22, 2015.
(2) "Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?" Dixson, Alan F.; Dixson, Barnaby J. (2011). Journal of Anthropology. 2011: 1–11.

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