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Mal'ta Venuses

Prehistoric ivory figurines
Baikal Siberia: 20,000 BC

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Ivory Venus of Mal'ta, National Museum, Prague
One of the venus figurines of Mal'ta. (National Museum, Prague). Image by Zde. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Mal'ta Venuses: Summary

The Mal'ta Venuses are a set of prehistoric venus figurines, consisting of 29 tiny female figures, which were discovered in a "house-pit" in the Baikal region of Siberia.

Part of the Maltinsko-Buretskaya culture, they are dated to about 20,000 BC, towards the end of the Gravettian era of the Upper Paleolithic. This makes them the oldest art in Siberia.

The design of the Mal'ta statuettes is somewhat different from Western European specimens. The figures are simpler, but with far less emphasis on female body parts.

The figurines are in the collection of Upper Paleolithic art in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

The Mal'ta sculptures are closely associated with the nearby "Buret Venuses".

However, they are not linked to the well-known "Venus figurines of Kostenki" (22,500 BC), or the "Avdeevo Venuses" (21,000 BC), or the "Gagarino Venuses" (20,000 BC), which, together with the "Zaraysk Venus" (18,000 BC), form their own centre of prehistoric art, within the Kursk-Voronezh-Lipetsk triangle in central Russia.

The figurines produced by this group of sites share many of the characteristics of Western European venuses.

For details of Russian venuses from the Magdalenian period, see: "Venus of Eliseevichi" (13,000 BC, Bryansk).

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Location & Excavation

The Mal'ta archaeological site (later related to the Afontova Gora-Oshurkovo culture) is located on the left bank of the Belaya, an offshoot of the Angara and Yenisei Rivers, near the village of Mal'ta, in the Usolsky District, about 100 km northwest of Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

It was discovered in 1928, and subsequently underwent a series of excavations, carried out successively by Sergey Zamyatnin, Georgy Sosnovsky, and Mikhail Gerasimov.

Most of the Paleolithic finds were achieved during excavations led by M. Gerasimov during the period 1928–1958, before current investigations, led by G. I. Medvedev and E. A. Lipnina, concentrated on dating, microstratigraphy and cultural differentiation of the assemblages.

In addition, a recent painstaking study of the Mal'ta Venuses was conducted by Dr. Lyudmila Lbova and Dr. Pavel Volkov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Their findings are summarized below.

Mal'ta Archaeological Site

Mal'ta is a multi-layered site with evidence of human occupation spanning the entire Upper Paleolithic, from 41,000 to 10,000 BC.

It is believed to be the oldest site in eastern Siberia, although there is no sign of any pebble cores, wedge-shaped cores, burins, or large side scrapers, that are usually present in other Siberian Paleolithic camps.

The absence of these items, combined with a style of paleolithic art which is found in only one other local site - Buret - makes Maltinsko-Buretskaya culture unique in Siberia.

According to Gerasimov, the main Mal'ta layer harboured a ‘Gravettian-style’ stone tool industry with stone and ivory objects found at about 15 "house-pits", all dating from about 21,000 BC.

This assemblage contained a whopping 13,000 artifacts, of which more than 850 items were cultural or artistic in nature.

As far as the paleoart goes, the Mal'ta collection contains over 800 ivory and bone objects.

It includes around 30 "venus figurines"; a series of animal and bird figures; one engraving carved on an ivory plaque; and a large quantity of decorative adornments, including pendants, ivory and stone bracelets, tiaras, rings, perforated beads, ivory items, and buttons ornamented with carved zigzag lines.

For more about the evolution of Stone Age sculpture, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

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Mal'ta Venus Figurines

The prehistoric sculpture at Mal'ta consists of 29 female figurines, including: 23 more or less whole figures, plus three blanks, three fragments, and two separate heads.

Two statuettes are fashioned ​​out of reindeer antler, the remainder are made from mammoth ivory.

The figurines can be divided into two broad categories: (1) full-figured women, and (2) women with a thin, delicate bodies.

They range in height between 13cm and 3cm, with the average height being 7cm.

But the most important characteristic of the Mal'ta Venuses is that they differ in several significant ways from their European counterparts, and also from their Russian cousins within the Kursk-Voronezh-Lipetsk triangle.

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Venuses Reevaluated

A close study of the Mal'ta figures was performed recently by Dr Lyudmila Lbova and Dr Pavel Volkov. Their findings were published on Feb 18th, 2016, in the Siberian Times.

The research was conducted at Novosibirsk State University, as part of the 'Interdisciplinary Study of Primitive Art of Eurasia', a collaboration of Novosibirsk State University's Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography and the University of Bordeaux.

For decades, the Mal'ta carvings were thought to belong to the class of European venus figurines, that depicted idealized nude female figures that may have been used for "fertility rituals" or "increase" ceremonies etc.

However, Lbova and Volkov have revealed that the figurines are not idealized nude females: they are carvings of ordinary individuals - including men, teenagers, and children, as well as women - and they are not nude but fully clothed.

These findings were achieved using microscopic technologies, which enabled researchers to discover and identify lines on the figurines- depicting details of clothes - that were invisible to the naked eye.

Researchers were able to see hats, shoes, bracelets, bags - even back packs.

They also saw that the original Siberian artists had drawn different hairstyles, hats, and other accessories, while taking care to highlight the different fabrics such as fur and leather.

Neither Lbova nor Volkov could shed any light on why these figures were made, but they are convinced that the realistic details of clothes, accessories and hairstyles proved that the figurines depicted real people, maybe the artists' relatives.

Lbova said: "I strongly doubt that these were the images of abstract goddesses or spirits in the sense often used to understand so-called Venus depictions."

In light of this in-depth study it seems clear that the symbolic meanings currently attributed to the Mal'ta Venuses will have to be reevaluated.

For the oldest cave paintings in Russia, see: Kapova Cave (14,500 BC).

For another exceptional item of Russian mobiliary art, see: the Shigir Idol (10,000 BC).

References

(1) "L'Art paléolithique d'Europe orientale et de Sibérie." Abramova Z. 1995: Grenoble: Jérôme Millon.
(2) "The Siberian Paleolithic site of Mal'ta: a unique source for the study of childhood archaeology." Lbova, L. (2021). Evolutionary Human Sciences, 3, E9.
(3) "L'image de la femme dans l'art préhistorique." Delporte H. 1979: Paris, Picard.
(4) "More on the Venus Figurines". Schlesier, Karl H (2001). Current Anthropology. 42 (3): 410–412.
(5) Reply to "More on the Venus Figurines." Soffer, O., Adovasio, M., Hyland D. Current Anthropology, Volume 42 (3) 410-412.

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