Primitive prototype Stone Age art
dating to 200,000-500,000 BC
The Venus of Tan-Tan is one of the oldest examples of prehistoric art known to archaeology. The next oldest artworks in Africa are the South African engravings at the Klasies River Caves (100,000-85,000 BC).
It was excavated in 1999 by German archaeologist Lutz Fiedler, from a river terrace deposit on the north bank of the Draa River, near the Moroccan town of Tan-Tan.
It was later examined and described by the paleolithic scholar Robert G. Bednarik.
The quartzite figurine weighs 10 grams and measures roughly 6 centimetres in length, 2.5 centimetres in width, and 1.2 centimetres thick.
The object was created by natural geological processes, although its surface is marked by minute traces of red pigment, which appears to be iron and manganese.
Whether this pigment was manually applied in the form of ochre paint is not clear.
The Venus of Tan-Tan has a humanoid shape which - like the Venus of Berekhat Ram, a similar figurine excavated 18 years earlier from the Golan Heights - is emphasized by grooves cut into the object.
According to Bednarik, some of these markings are the work of nature, while others are man-made incisions done to deliberately accentuate the object's anthropomorphic features.
The object was discovered sandwiched between two layers, neither of which showed signs of disturbance.
The upper layer contained sediments, fossils and artifacts from the Middle Acheulian period (approx 200,000 BC); the lower layer is older and dates to the Early Acheulian period (at least 500,000 BC).
If the object was created by natural geological processes, why is it considered to be art? The answer is, because it was deliberately modified to look even more like the human figure it resembled.
Its artistic quality comes from these symbolic, non-utilitarian modifications.
Bednarik's theory is that the object's humanoid shape was recognized by Lower Paleolithic Homo erectus, who added his own creative emphasis and then decorated it with red ochre pigment.
The discovery of its Golan cousin, which was modified in a similar fashion, no doubt adds to the plausibility of this theory.
Of course, no one is suggesting that the Venus of Tan-Tan is an accomplished work of prehistoric sculpture.
For one thing, there's no suggestion that the object was created by human hand - simply that it was picked up and recognized as looking like a human, and then given a few extra touches to make it look even more like a human.
These touches are the artistic input that transforms the natural object into a piece of primitive prototype art.
The two figurines are to some extent mutually supportive of their status as paleolithic art, although Bednarik's theory has yet to be taken up by other scholars.
Indeed, Professor Stanley Ambrose of the University of Illinois, has expressed the provisional opinion (not having studied the object directly) that the supposed man-made markings on the object were caused by natural weathering.
If the Venus of Tan-Tan was created between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago, it may have been created not by Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis, but by the more primitive Homo erectus.
Was this early species capable of artistic expression? Could they really create art all those years ago? The answer is Yes. A growing number of finds show that Homo erectus was quite capable of creating symbolic, non-utilitarian markings that we can safely construe as prototype Stone Age art.
An impressive example of such Homo erectus art is the Trinil Shell Engravings found on the island of Java.
These carvings are the world's oldest art, dating to between 540,000 and 430,000 BC.
In addition, numerous Acheulian "red ochre workshops" used by Homo erectus, have been discovered in Africa, Europe and Australia, showing that the species was very familiar with the creation and application of decorative pigments.
Another possibility, is that modern Homo sapiens was responsible for the venus. Modern humans reached the Middle East around 210,000 years ago, although numbers are thought to have been small. They would certainly possess the artistic capability needed.
(1) Bednarik, Robert G. (2003). "A Figurine from the African Acheulian". Current Anthropology. 44 (3): 405–413.
(2) Bednarik, Robert G. (2003). "The earliest evidence of palaeoart". Rock Art Research. 20 (2): 89–135.
(3) Joordens, J., d’Errico, F., Wesselingh, F. et al. Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving. Nature 518, 228–231 (2015).