Cavemen Liked Big Butts and They Cannot Lie

Acouple of online editions of U.K. newspapers reported the recent finds of 30 carvings recovered at an archaeological site in Poland, dating to about 15,000 years ago. Most anthropologists and archaeologists would probably be immediately familiar with the Venus Figurine motif, but the recent media report was been picked up by a few blogs, each appealing to the title gag.

(Note: This post originally appeared on Anthropology.net in March 2007 and I was considering a follow up post linking to it, but couldn’t find it in the archives. I think a few posts were lost Kambiz’s server move. I’m reposting it here and using it for my Four Stone Hearth entry this fortnight with more (hopefully) on the Venus Figure motif in the future.)

Venus Figurines of the Paleolithic and Their Caricatured Features

Admittedly, the gag is funny, but looking deeper at the Venus Figurines reveals an interesting and fascinating motif and one that, amazingly enough, spans large geographic and chronological ranges. The distinctive motif has been found from Spain and France to Russia and back down to Anatolia and Mesopotamia (Turkey and Iran/Iraq). They date to as far back as 24,000 years and as recent as the Bronze Age, perhaps about 5,000 years ago.

Venus of Willendorf
The motif itself includes several prominent and relatively consistent features. In almost all cases the figure is obese, often very obese. Voluptuous breasts and thighs, and an overall curvaceous appearance are features present almost without fail. Other frequently occurring characteristics include the presence of unusually small arms and legs, prominent buttocks, the lack of feet, and obvious vaginal features like a pronounced vulva. Regional features are also notable: the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps the most recognizable Venus Figurine, appears to be wearing a hat or headdress. The goddess figurines of Çatalhöyük are depicted seated in a throne flanked by felines with her hands resting on their heads. She’s also presented as giving birth and James Mellart, who excavated Çatalhöyük in the 1950s, interpreted the shrine where such a figurine was discovered to be a birthing place. A goddess seated between two felines was also found in a Çatalhöyük granary, suggesting that fertility may, indeed, be a theme there.

But did cavemen prefer big butts? The recent media reports about the Polish Venus carvings note that historians attribute this reverence for curves and voluptuousness as attributes that were considered to be ideal for prehistoric societies since they implied wealth and healthy diet.

They also suggested she would be a successful mother, able to produce lots of children and sent out a message to other men that her partner was a strong and successful hunter – making him more attractive to other women.

But this is the Venus Figurine simplified. The fact is, any speculation on what the figurines really meant is, well, speculation. It’s a fact that they span many societies and still have a relatively common appearance. It’s a fact that they greatly out-number male figurines. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines accurately represented what a fat woman looks like, so there must have been fat women from whom the craftsman / artist derived inspiration. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines included details like vulva. And it’s a fact that some features were prominent (breasts, stomachs, buttocks, vulva) and detailed while others were not (feet, arms, face). It’s a fact that red ochre has been found in association with some of the figurines.

When these facts are considered, it becomes clear that the artist spent some time on the details that he wanted to be noticed and diminished the details that were insignificant. The Venus of Willendorf, for instance had a hat: a very detailed and complex representation of a woven textile that must have involved much of the artist’s time. Seven concentric rows that circle a rosette comprise the headgear and dimples, folds and rolls of adipose were carefully crafted. Yet, the artist omitted a face and feet. Could this mean she’s an anonymous representation of the “perfect” woman for the sophisticated hunter-gatherer? Or could it have been a way of representing a generic mother goddess? The pronounced vulva and red ochre that the Willendorf figure was painted in may have, together, been reminiscent of menstruation and thus fertility. Certainly a prehistoric woman with large stores of fat would be better equipped to nourish children and a caricatured, obese representation might have been used to refer to the mother goddess who nourishes all life. Her lack of feet (they weren’t broken off –they were never added) may have been intentional, affording the goddess figurine no way to depart from her assigned station (a birthing shrine or granary); or, maybe, the artist simply wasn’t good at feet and didn’t find them important. Without feet, the figurine couldn’t have been stood up nor would it sit or lie in any manner that appeared natural or intended. But it could be held and the person holding it would feel the curves and the shape of the figure.

Originally, the Venus Figurine was named “Venus” as a joke. A pejorative meant to demean the “uncivilized” and “primitive” opinion of beauty that the “caveman” obviously had. The irony isn’t lost, however, if the figurine motif is, indeed, a goddess. Venus was, of course, the Roman goddess of beauty and love, an analog of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and consistently depicted in the nude. The Roman/Greek version, however, is more in line with the modern (or, at least, Western) idea of beautiful, sensual, and sexually attractive with her thin form and ample, but not pendulous, breasts. Nor was her pubic region depicted as more than a mere space, absent of vulva, vaginal lips, and the details present in her more ancient predecessor.

There is much more that can be written on the Venus Figurine, so perhaps I’ll revisit this subject again in the future. But I’ll close with the following thought: the most convincing evidence to me that the Venus of Willendorf (and, therefore, probably most of the Venus figurines) was a goddess and not a representation of an actual person is the hat and lack of face. Traditionally, representations of elites (kings, queens, nobility, and gods) include headgear. That the face was omitted might signify that there was more anonymity involved than a female ruler, shaman, oracle, or other elite. Certainly the reverence for feminine attributes might indicate matriarchal societies existed, or at least a much less patriarchal one than more recent human cultures are guilty of.

Further Reading:

Evans, Martin (2007). Why cavemen liked curvy cavewomen … like Kylie. Daily Express, Tuesday, March 13, 2007. http://www.express.co.uk/news_detail.html?sku=1356

Soffer, Olga; Adovasio, J.M.; Hyland, D.C. (2000). The “Venus” Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic, Current Anthropology 41, pp. 511-537.