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AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST

Science, the Media, and Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic
Figurines
April Nowell and Melanie L. Chang

ABSTRACT Using the recent discovery of the Hohle Fels figurine as a catalyst, in this article we briefly review
the history of scholarship regarding Upper Paleolithic figurines that are often referred to as “Venus” figurines.
We integrate this review with a critical examination of the assumptions underlying the “Venus hypothesis”—the
perspective that these artifacts are best understood as sexual objects—based on the available data from both inside
and outside of the field of Paleolithic archaeology. We suggest that interpreting the figurines in a purely sexual
context obstructs their objective, scientific study and has unintended social consequences. Following from this, we
consider why the Venus hypothesis persists in the popular media and scholarly research despite decades of reflexive
critiques. Finally, building on these critiques, we argue for the importance of contextualization in the study of Upper
Paleolithic figurines and discuss new approaches to their study. [Upper Paleolithic, figurines, pop culture, media,
science]
´
`
`
`
R ESUM
E´ Utilisant la decouverte
recente
de la figurine de Hohle Fels comme catalyste, le present
article passe en
`
´
´
´ ere
´
revue brievement
l’histoire de la recherche concernant les figurines du Paleolithique
superieur
auxquelles on ref
´
´
´
le plus frequemment
par le terme de figurine “Venus”.
La revue comporte un examen critique des presuppositions
` de Venus”,
´
sous-jacentes a` “l’hypothese
notamment qu’il s’agit de fac¸on plausible d’objets sexuels, s’appuyant sur
´ disponibles, dans le cadre mediatique
´
´
les donnees
populaire en dec¸a` ainsi qu’a` l’interieur
du domaine de la recherche
´
´
´
sur le Paleolithique.
Nous suggerons
que toutes interpretations
dans un contexte exclusivement sexuel masque une
´
´
´
demarche
scientifique objective comportant des repercussions
sociales imprevues.
Poursuivant ce raisonnement,
`
´
´
nous abordons les causes d’une telle persistence de l’hypothese
Venus
dans le monde mediatique
ainsi que dans
´
´
la recherche´ erudite, malgre´ des decennies
de reflection
critique. Finalement, nous fondant sur ces critiques, nous
´
´
´
soutenons l’importance de replacer l’etude
des figurines du Paleolithique
superieur
dans leur cadre contextuel et
´
´
´
´
´
discutons de nouvelles demarches
pour leur etude.
[Paleolithque
superieur,
statuettes feminines,
culture populaire,
´
medias,
science]
RESUMEN Usando el reciente descubrimiento de la estatuilla Hohle Fels como un catalizador, en este art´ıculo
brevemente revisamos la historia del cuerpo de conocimientos sobre las estatuillas del Paleol´ıtico Superior que
´ con una examinacion
´ cr´ıtica de las
a menudo se refieren como las figuras de “Venus”. Integramos esta revision
´
asunciones subyacentes de la “hipotesis
de Venus”—la perspectiva que estos artefactos se entienden mejor como
´ disponible tanto de dentro como fuera del campo de la arqueolog´ıa
objetos sexuales—basados en la informacion
paleol´ıtica. Sugerimos que interpretando las estatuillas en un contexto puramente sexual obstruye su estudio
´
objetivo, cient´ıfico y tiene consecuencias sociales imprevistas. Siguiendo esto, consideramos por que´ la hipotesis
de

C 2014 by the American Anthropological
AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 116, No. 3, pp. 562–577, ISSN 0002-7294, online ISSN 1548-1433. 

Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/aman.12121

engraved Aurignacian “Venus” of Hohle Fels (see Figure 1). Since their discovery in the late 1800s. scientific study and has unintended social consequences. created a sensation when it was discovered (Conard et al. and fired loess. where the Hohle Fels figurine is housed.P. behaviors. The Urgeschichtliches Museum Blaubeuren.000 B. and Upper Paleolithic Figurines 563 ´ e investigacion ´ academica. almost aggressively.000 B. 2009). Since World War II. The term Venus was introduced at this time in reference to the perceived resemblance of some figurines to the so-called “Hottentot Venus. 9. estatuillas. The echo chamber expands to include scientists in other fields. . building on these critiques. we argue for the importance of contextualization in the study of Upper Paleolithic figurines and discuss new approaches to their study. and the mass media may be expected to present related news in a manner that is designed to attract the maximum readership. but its morphology inspired hyperbolic introductions in the mass media. the popular press was echoing voices originating from within scientific institutions. Shuchman and Wilkes 1997). However. who stated. in part due to the fact that many early approaches to Paleolithic parietal art assumed that the imagery was related in some way to human sexuality. . mostly female figurines (and a handful of more abstract portable artworks that are sometimes considered to be part of this corpus) are known from the Upper Paleolithic record (Beck 2000.” It is not unusual for paleontological or archaeological discoveries from the Paleolithic to receive widespread popular press coverage. who may unquestioningly apply such facile interpretations in their own research to “naturalize” and legitimize modern biases. cultura popular. scientific inquiries have tended to focus on perceived gender and sexual characteristics of the figurines without racial connotations. . Its dimensions (66 mm in length) are modest. “[The Hohle Fels figurine is] sexually exaggerated to the point of being pornographic . focusing on the perceived “African” or “Hottentot” characteristics of certain pieces and identifying them as representatives of “a conquered people” (Piette 1895:129–130. . Perhaps surprisingly. Laver. quoted in White 2006)..P. ivory.000 to ca. . We suggest that interpreting the figurines in a purely sexual context obstructs their objective. We integrate this review with a critical examination of the assumptions underlying the “Venus hypothesis”—the perspective that these artifacts are best understood as sexual objects—based on the available data from both inside and outside of the field of Paleolithic archaeology. in an article headlined “Archaeologists Unearth Oldest 3-D Pornography. [man’s] emotions swung. Homage to Venus [1948:2] Over 200 anthropomorphic. Nelson 2004).000-year-old sex object” with an “explicitly. more inquiries from other scientists. the Object of Desire. They are made from a variety of materials. between these two poles . UPPER PALEOLITHIC FIGURINES AS SEXUAL OBJECTS Woman was [the] Gate of Life . –J. a Khoisan woman who was brought from South Africa to Europe in the early 19th century and exhibited in a sensationalist and exploitative fashion across England and France (White 2006). . including stone. we briefly review the history of scholarship regarding Upper Paleolithic figurines that are often referred to as “Venus” figurines.” Sartje Baartman. sensationalist language becomes problematic when placed in a scientific context. dating to 35. sexual nature” (Mellars 2009:176–177). The Register newspaper quoted a well-respected Paleolithic archaeologist. and values. In this article. Researchers benefit from such coverage. They were sex-mad” (Page 2009). while Science asked whether the figurine could be the “earliest pornography” (Curry 2009). Initial analyses identified “racial” types. There’s all this sexual symbolism bubbling up in that period. and gender (see discussion in Bahn and Vertut 1997 and references therein). basados en estas cr´ıticas. however. Finalmente. T he headless. Finally. they validate it. fertility. advertised it as an “earth mother or pin-up girl. argumentamos por la importancia de la contextualizacion estudio de las estatuillas del Paleol´ıtico Superior y discutimos nuevas aproximaciones para su estudio. Following from this. Kelly HaysGilpin (2004) argues that this change in perspective has less to do with the properties of the art itself or related ethnographies and more to do with the interpretive frameworks .Nowell and Chang • Science. The figurine was described as the “world’s first Page 3 Girl” (The Sun 2009) and “smut carved from a mammoth tusk” (The Economist 2009). we consider why the Venus hypothesis persists in the popular media and scholarly research despite decades of reflexive critiques. The general public is fascinated by human evolution. interpretations of these figurines have reflected the social and political contexts of the times. [Paleol´ıtico ´ ciencia] Superior. ´ ´ Venus persiste en los medios populares de comunicacion a pesar de decadas de cr´ıticas ´ en el reflexivas. as highly publicized research tends to receive more citations in peer-reviewed journals. and more funding opportunities than research that receives less popular attention (Caulfield 2004. bone. and occur over wide geographic (from France to Siberia) and temporal ranges (40. Nature referred to the figurine as a “prehistoric pinup” and a “35.” as if those were the only two possible interpretations.) (Delporte 1993). When individuals and institutions involved in archaeological research and discovery draw on the language of the popular media. Media. medios de comunicacion.

be they handaxes (e. 2013) and at Upper Paleolithic cave sites in Borneo (Chazine 1999.. 116. while a recent review of an Ice Age portable art exhibit at London’s British Museum is careful to consider authorship of the art from a variety of perspectives (Kohn 2013). [the figurines] appear to represent brave acts among males of a group and would qualify them as trophies” (1978:7). Dobres 1992b. 1999b. By extension. This is an inaccurate assessment of the corpus of Paleolithic art. touched. and fondled by men. “Venus” of Hohle Fels: lateral and front views (photo credit: H. it is equally invalid to assume that female figurines were made only by men. Jonaitis 2007) but also because subsequent studies of handprints and finger fluting in European caves such as Rouffignac. and El Castillo (Sharpe and van Gelder 2004. 2011b) as proving that the male obsession with pornography . we believe that the assumption of male authorship is based primarily on the accepted wisdom that “great art” has. This observation seems to be equally true of the Venus hypothesis. they illustrate that the available data cannot be used to argue that most Paleolithic art was made exclusively by boys and men. Conkey and Tringham 1995).. As Rosemary Joyce has observed. “the choice of which features to observe and explain begins with the questions we think are yet to be debated and which ones we assume are already answered” (2008:8). For example. Chazine and Noury 2006) indicate that men. Snow 2006. throughout history.g. It’s all part of our ancestral conditioning. 2004.. or even commemorate acts of violence against women by men. . for themselves or for other men . For example. Dobres 1992b. adolescents. Jensen. . The Venus hypothesis is based on a series of primarily androcentric assumptions about the archaeological past that have been the subject of numerous pointed. 2006c. LeroiGourhan 1967:90. 2006a. Onians with Collins 1978. not only because specialists are hard-pressed to identify any unambiguous examples of “violent hunting scenes” or “sexually charged” images (Bahn 1986. Kohn and Mithen 1999) or Upper Paleolithic figurines. publisher of Penthouse magazine [quoted in McCaughey 2008:72] It is commonly assumed.g. the strapline (summary of the article) chosen by an editor reads.g. Nelson 1990. Randall Eaton confidently asserts that “whether the females were raped. –Bob Guccione. were male (e. stolen or killed. –Onians with Collins. in the context of an academic consideration of Upper Paleolithic figurines. Pech Merle. in which the figurines are variously described as serving to educate men. photo courtesy of Professor Nicholas Conard). “Venus” Figurines Were Made by Men for Men The bulging Venus figurines with enormous buttocks and pendulous breasts. 3 • September 2014 FIGURE 1. No. MarciaAnne Dobres (1992b:12–15) identifies a series of “prehistoric Barbie Doll” models describing common archaeological interpretations of “Venus” figurines. titillate men.000 years old reveal how early man saw and stylized the world around him and put art before practical concerns” (emphasis added). that are employed. While such studies do not positively identify who made Upper Paleolithic figurines. Russell 1991). been made by men only and on the notion that the perceived sexual natures of the figurines would uniquely appeal to men. in both academic and popular discourses. reflexive feminist critiques over the past 20–30 years (e. . The assumption of male authorship is often perpetuated in the media. Only Men Are Aroused by Visual Stimuli This may be very politically incorrect but that’s the way it is . described a recent study in evolutionary psychology (Ogas and Gaddam 2011a. . carved. The Origins of Art [1978:63] It is commonly assumed that the makers of Paleolithic artifacts. a magazine considered by much of the general public to be a reliable source of scientific information. Onians 2000. 2006. in the following sections we specifically examine the scientific validity of the assumptions underlying the Venus hypothesis and consider why it remains so persuasive for many scholars and laypeople alike. who characterizes the overwhelming majority of Paleolithic art as “sexually charged images” and violent hunting scenes and argues that the images are best interpreted as graffiti created by sexually excited teenage boys based on handprints in cave art. the drawings or carvings were made. Building on the groundwork of these more general critiques. “Figures up to 40. Discover. see also discussions in Conkey 1997. Conkey and Spector 1984. 2006b. Chazine and Fage 1999a.1 This point of view also underlies a recent popular book by Arctic biologist Dale Guthrie (2005). and even very young children and babies may be associated with or have been responsible for such markings.564 American Anthropologist • Vol. For example. Conkey and Gero 1991. women. not only that the makers of Upper Paleolithic figurines were male but also that they were motivated to make figurines because men find erotic meaning in images and objects while women do not. While the gender(s) of the artists who created Upper Paleolithic figurines remain unknown (Bahn 1986). along with vulva drawn on the cave walls were undoubtedly male art creations.

“much has been written and said about the supposedly visual nature of men’s sexuality and the supposedly non visual nature of women’s” (2003:131). a sample of modern people drawn from a single Western culture group at a specific point in time—is untenable. and menopause. Guthrie (2005) argued. The writers. but see Thompson and O’Sullivan 2012) posits that eager. when seen in person. Singh 2006. careful observations of figurines such as the “Venus” of Lespugue (esp. The WHR has been described as an indicator of fertility and long-term health (Buss 2004. provisioning capacity). Singh and Singh 2006. pregnancy. clinical measures of biological arousal. Why are the findings of recent studies (and market research data) so different from those of the Kinsey Reports? These differences beg the question of what has changed about human sexuality between the 1950s and today. that women are sexually stimulated by visual representations of male nudity (Lancaster 2003). while coy. and low WHRs (small waist.” that all Upper Paleolithic female figurines cluster together around a ratio of 0.g. Rupp and Wallen 2009) demonstrate that overall interest. as an unquestioned characteristic of human sexuality (Lancaster 2003). 1948. choosy women eschew surface evaluations and instead shrewdly calculate mate value in contexts such as status or income (i. Upper Paleolithic figurines are actually extremely diverse in style and morphology (see Figures 2 and 3. which suggested that (Western) men are sexually aroused by nude photos and drawings while (Western) women are not.” based on their waist-to-hip ratios (WHRs). Such views are greatly influenced by the findings of the landmark Kinsey Reports (Kinsey et al. and Upper Paleolithic Figurines “dates back to Cro-Magnon days.7 (see Tripp and Schmidt 2013). see also Dobres 1992a. Studies performed in the 1980s and 1990s found. Specifically. nude form was thought to be reminiscent of classical sculpture (White 2006).655 (i. was termed the “Venus Impudique” or “Immodest Venus” because its slim.000-yearold Venus of Hohle Fels [that] boasts even more prodigious hips and mammaries—and titanic labia. It is not plausible that significant evolution in human sexual response has occurred during this time. research exploring female response to sexual imagery has in fact challenged many assumptions regarding gender-based differential response. According to Roger Lancaster.e. Media. using objective. Women in Antiquity [1957:19 quoted in Russell 1998:263] Upper Paleolithic female figurines are stereotypically described as “hyper-female. with close to 13 million women in the United States watching pornography online monthly. Evolutionary psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker therefore argued that “it would make no sense for a woman to be easily aroused by the sight of a nude male” (1997:471–472). the very first figurine to be discovered. Wing et al. one-third of all visitors to adult websites are women.Nowell and Chang • Science. All of the Figurines Are the Same These figures must indicate what the men who produced them found interesting and desirable. both of which change throughout a woman’s life due to factors such as puberty. Singh and Singh 2006).” that “men’s brains are designed to objectify females. Kukkonen et al. vice president of Hustler magazine. as well as in mainstream feminist discourse. see figure 46 in Cook 2013:97) suggest that it may be overly reductive to describe the exploration of form engaged in by the sculptors of some of these figurines as . the rise of and normalization of feminism.” with exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics. While it is (or should be) clear to anthropologists that responses to “erotic” images are highly culturally mediated. rather. Salmon 2012. The WHR describes the amount and distribution of body fat in living women. In The Nature of Paleolithic Art. 1953). Cultural and historical changes—including the sexual revolution. “pornography and people’s tastes for assorted forms of erotic images are not outside the history of 565 men’s and women’s changing desires” (2003:133). A more likely explanation is that.” and that “this objectification of women extends deep into the mists of prehistory” (Ogas and Gaddam 2011b:47). There have been some attempts to quantify the morphological variation in these figurines to facilitate interpretation. timing. large hips) are thought to be desirable across cultures (Buss 2004. Theresa Flint. Singh 1993. More recent studies (Chivers et al. WHR also varies across populations (Singh and Luis 1995). By extension.” This sensationalist article received a great deal of attention because it conformed neatly to the accepted wisdom about gender and sexuality. However. as Lancaster observed. this is not the accepted wisdom that is perpetuated by the media and by some scholars outside of anthropology. According to Nielson/Net ratings (Blue 2009). Rice 1981). This interpretation also assumes that Paleolithic sexual attraction was strictly heterosexual and based on reproduction and fertility. 2004. 1991). and duration of sexual arousal are comparable between men and women. but no face [and] the 40. stated in an interview that 56 percent of her stores’ customers are women (Blue 2009).e.. This claim of gender-based differences in sexual response has been repeated in the sociobiological literature. 2006. Buss 1994. Henss 1995. 2007. Guthrie (2005) devotes approximately 70 pages to the argument that all “Venus” figurines represent “paleo-erotica. slightly below the cross-cultural ideal of 0. and the eroticization of the male body in advertising and pop culture—may all explain these changes (Lancaster 2003). Furthermore. in 1864. The contemporary “ideal” female WHR cross-culturally is 0. the scientific literature on sexual selection and evolutionary psychology (e. In fact. who were also the study’s authors (2011b:47).000year-old Venus of Willendorf that “features GG-cup breasts and a hippopotamal butt.7) and that therefore Paleolithic men must also have preferred women with small waists and curvaceous hips. Seltman. Nelson 1990. –C. based on a study of 53 “Venuses. aggressive men seek youth and beauty as indicators of fertility.. the assumption that Paleolithic people would have responded to images of female nudity in the same manner as modern people—or.. support these conclusions with references to Upper Paleolithic figurines such as the 26.

and it is possible that he included Magdalenian figurines in his study. male animals. “if the figurines are read ‘literally. No. Magdalenian figurines feature much more abstract representations of the female form.” They found that WHRs varied significantly rather than clustering around “ideal” values. Guthrie does not list the figurines he included in his sample. FIGURE 2. and possibly male fantastical characters (e.2 All of the Figurines Are Female [The figurines] match almost exactly the erotic interests of the sensually alert modern male. Many figurines appear hourglass shaped from the back but are apple shaped when viewed from the front (Tripp and Schmidt 2013). 3 • September 2014 Range of diversity in Upper Paleolithic figurines: (a) Dame de Brassempouy. Collins and J. Alison Tripp and Naomi Schmidt (2013) tested the hypothesis that all or most Gravettian “Venus” figurines (ca. Further compounding the difficulty of measuring photographs.000 B. focused solely on female sexual characteristics. many abstract forms such as the artifact commonly referred to as the “rod with breasts” from Dolni Vestonice (see Figure 4) are routinely described as female: “This statuette shows us that . Wien).566 American Anthropologist • Vol. photo courtesy of Mus´ee d´Arch´eologie nationale et Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en Laye). (b) Marionette figure. 28. and calculating WHRs using Magdalenian figures would therefore have significant effects on the resulting data (Tripp and Schmidt 2013). and in fact it is impossible to deduce WHRs from photographs because it not possible to accurately “measure the exact protrusions of the belly or the buttocks” (Tripp and Schmidt 2013:59). Western Europe. In addition. There are figurines of nude males. 116.011.15) than those reported by Guthrie (2005). some figurines lack anatomical landmarks such as navels. As Tripp and Schmidt note. How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth [1986:113–114] Although discussions of Upper Paleolithic figurines are often framed as though all of the figurines are female.) are characterized by low WHRs as well as the argument that these figurines represent “paleo-erotica. 25. Tripp and Schmidt measured either the figurines themselves or reliable casts.000 BP (France) (photo credit: MAN and Lo¨ıc Hamon. Geißenkl¨osterle. “The Origins of Art” [1978:13] [The figurines are] .000–21. but these are not interpreted within a sexual framework. . a straight line from the ice-age to Rodin and the playboy bunnies of later days. and Hohle Fels in Germany). Onians.970. –Bj¨orn Kurt´en. This interpretation contradicts the assumption that all of the figurines represent women of reproductive age.g. with higher average WHRs across geographical samples (i. 0. The discrepancies between the findings of Guthrie (2005) and Tripp and Schmidt (2013) may be explained by the fact that. 1. (c) Venus of Willendorf. many are quite obviously not female.. at least not in a straightforward manner. 25. While at least half of all Upper Paleolithic figurines cannot be unambiguously classified as male or female (Dobres 1992a). It is very difficult to consistently and accurately measure circumferences using two-dimensional images. while Guthrie relied on photographs to make measurements.e. –D. . and Russian Plains. the lion-human hybrids from Hohlenstein-Stadel. Central Europe.000 BP (Austria) (photo courtesy of the Naturhistorisches Museum. 0.’ the appearance of variation in nearly all the samples [supports] Rice’s (1981) hypothesis that the ‘Venuses’ represent women of all ages since WHR is not constant throughout a woman’s life” (2013:59). In a recent study.961. 26.. 1.000 BP (Czech Republic) (photo from the collection of and courtesy of the Moravsk´e zemsk´e muzeum). Siberia.P.

not because the image itself resembles an actual vulva but because.Nowell and Chang • Science. or bifurcated as female (see detailed discussion in Bahn 1986).000 BP (Czech Republic) (photo from the collection of and courtesy of the Moravsk´e zemsk´e muzeum). the artist has neglected all that did not interest him. In the volume chapter entitled “Soft Curves. Full Figures: Female Sculptures”—even though many of the images included in the chapter are either male or are decidedly not full-figured females. it may just as easily be argued that such abstract figures are male as that they are female. open-angled.000 BP (Siberia. and Upper Paleolithic Figurines 567 Range of diversity in Upper Paleolithic figurines: (a) Figurine from Malta 23. the inferential leap from a Q-shaped engraving to a vulva to erotica was completed by the popular press.4 Thus. Media. triangular.” a similarly ambiguous “neck with breasts. “A Precursor to Playboy: Graphic Images in Rock” with an accompanying figure that depicted a nude “mudflap girl” in the center of Paleolithic animals painted on a cave wall (Figure 5b). Joyce (2008) commented that the relevant literature makes it seem more difficult to sex skeletons. 25. than to “sex” figurines that are categorized based on cultural conventions for depicting gender. Paul Bahn and Jean Vertut argue . photo copyright and courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum). Researchers often focus on how female bodies differ from male bodies (the presumed default) rather than seeing them as human bodies. Even if it is argued that the engraving is a highly stylized or abstract image of a vulva. Thus. oval. similar oval images have been described as vulvas. the identification of the “rod with breasts” as female is part of a larger tendency to describe any image in Paleolithic art that is circular. France (see Figure 5a) as a vulva. it is impossible to know that the Q-shaped image has been interpreted correctly because we have little knowledge of the cultural conventions that might have been used to depict “disembodied” vulvas during the Paleolithic or even if vulvas—detached and free-floating from actual representations of bodies—were being depicted at all. Russia) (photo credit: Vladimir Terebenin. who described an engraved block found in an early Aurignacian level at Abri Castanet. This results in the disarticulation of the female body into parts. (b) Venus from Dolni Vestonice. or even more likely. In some cases.” and a “forked” piece of ivory are all described as female. that it represents male genitalia. A recent example is provided by Randall White and colleagues (2012). The New York Times reported the Abri Castanet discovery in an article headlined. FIGURE 3. Is the description of the Dolni Vestonice artifact as a “rod with breasts” the most parsimonious explanation of its form or is it possible. Referring to the notion that certain symbols or shapes always represent female gender with erotic intent as “one of the most durable myths of prehistory” (Bahn 1986:99). as suggested by Alice Kehoe (1991)?3 The interpretations of nearly all Upper Paleolithic portable artworks as female is perpetuated in both the Ice Age art exhibit at the British Museum referred to above and in the volume that accompanies it (Cook 2013:68–70). such as the stick-like figurines from Siberia (see Figure 3b) or are isolated heads such as the Dame de Brassempouy (see Figure 2a) and the gender-ambiguous “portraits” from Dolni Vestonice—the “rod with breasts. stressing his sexual libido only where the breasts are concerned—a diluvial plastic pornography” (Absolon 1949:202). historically. for which sex is a biological reality.

these constructs are given authority and legitimacy and made to appear natural (see discussion in Joyce 2008. and those which were depicted may well have been intended simply to indicate gender. 8. 1997. Lewin 1993). and only two genders. 116. Blackwood 1984. 1978).g. Bourrillon. By applying modern Western constructs of gender to the past. translated and cited in Nelson [1990:16] Discussions of Upper Paleolithic imagery often assume that this corpus of art represents only two sexes. that “images of female genitalia are far rarer than has been claimed in the past.. Voss 2008). 1967. gender constructs vary cross-culturally among modern human populations (e. Classic examples include the tremendously influential works of Annette Laming-Emperaire (1962) and Andr´e Leroi-Gourhan (e. “Rod with breasts. 2009. the mother who gives and transmits life is also the woman who gives and shares pleasure: could the paleolithic have been insensitive to this novel duality? –H. Creed 1984. as anthropologists are aware. Kulick 1998. photo courtesy of Randall White) and (B) the illustration created by The New York Times to accompany its article on the find (illustration credit: Chris Gash. historically. Paleolithic Systems of Meaning Recognized Only Two Genders For [paleolithic men] as for us . native North American “two-spirit” individuals (commonly referred to as “berdaches” by Western academics) have been considered to house both male and female essences in a single body (Blackwood 1997. 1966. rather than be erotic. . Castanet Project. FIGURE 4. the vast majority of Paleolithic art is clearly not about sex.. 3 • September 2014 (A) Engraved “vulva” from Abri Castanet (photo credit: R.568 American Anthropologist • Vol. . Voss 2008). No. at least in an explicit sense” (1997:89). these ideas remain implicit in scholarly interpretations. and that there is a one-to-one correlation between sex and gender. Kalra 2012. both of whom divided all cave art (figurative and nonfigurative) into male and female symbols. However. Devore 1989.5 centimeters. Delporte. While both Laming-Emperaire and Leroi-Gourhan abandoned this approach and most scholars have moved away from such explicit categorizations of Upper Paleolithic art. For example.g. . therefore projecting dominant modern Western gender constructs into the past..” mammoth ivory. Dolni Vestonice (Czech Republic) (photo from the collection of and courtesy of the Moravsk´e zemsk´e muzeum).g. illustration courtesy of Chris Gash). Jacobs et al. FIGURE 5. 1997. Image de la Femme dans l’Art Pr´ehistorique [1979:308]. and in some cultures gender is thought to emerge or change over time (e. Prine 2000.

Rather. Tringham and Conkey 1998). Being Unclothed Is Erotic Female figures [in Paleolithic art] often appear in sexually inviting attitudes. which may be quite the same as those in the most brazen pornographic magazine. –Bj¨orn Kurt´en. or whether they were real people (that is. played flutes (Conard et al. the curator of the 2013 Ice Age art exhibit at the British Museum. one being that it is not clear that all of the figures he cites are actually female. and. Dobres 1992a. Guthrie (1979:68. 143–144.000 years before agriculture. Media. 2001) as well as standardized items of personal adornment (Vanhaeren and d’Errico 2006) and other forms of portable art (Conard 2003). As Bahn notes. To illustrate this point. divided the figurines into categories: pregnant. In those local histories. men’s and women’s lives could develop in many different ways” (2008:13). was in place during the Paleolithic. This is likely as true of the Upper Paleolithic as any other period. . in the case of a figurine described as representing a young woman who had not yet had a child. There are also anatomically detailed pictures of the vulva. Kvavadze et al. manufactured complex tools (Bar-Yosef 2002). showing the female sex organ sometimes frontally. In 2013. How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth [1986] In 1979. sometimes inverted and from the back. 2002). Earth Mother”). figure 10). we do not know what it meant to be a man or a woman (or some other gendered category) during the Upper Paleolithic. is not described as assuming a “common erotic pose” or as “pornographic” (see Lorblanchet 2010:437. We now know that 15. . In India. and as scientists we should endeavor to uncover evidence of gender constructs through data analysis rather than impose modern Western gender constructs on the data that we collect. figures 6–7). But it goes beyond the pinup mentality with a mixing of the idea of figurines as erotic with the notion of fertility . 1996. while Australia moved to allow citizens to identify as “intersex” on official documents such as passports (Chappell 2013). but see Soffer et al. open to penetration. Guthrie’s argument is problematic for a number of reasons. As Sarah Nelson noted. 2000. the question of whom the women portrayed by Paleolithic figurines might have been. rather than other more fluid ways of thinking about gender and gender relations. who demonstrated as much as 30 years ago that it is not always possible to distinguish pregnant women from nonpregnant women and mothers from nonmothers (Bahn and Pettitt 2013). and eunuchs. the figures are taken out of context—the “female” figures from Pech Merle. Jill Cook. dyed loom-woven textiles and made nets (Adovasio et al. and this should be our starting point when studying its archaeological record. may now identify as “other” on official ballots (Shields 2010). flaunting her sexual potential. those who identify with a “third sex” (hijras). 2009). . Related to this point is the assumption. transgenders. Soffer 2004. [2002] and Joyce [2008] for a discussion of the variation in textiles and clothing depicted on figurines). a “nude” engraving of a male from the same region as Pech Merle. In early 2014. the figurines are described purely in terms of the feelings that they might have evoked in Paleolithic men.5 This approach is outmoded and particularly surprising given the work of Patricia Rice (1981) and Pamela Russell (1993). 2009. subjects instead of objects). Valladas et al. women are explicitly described as functional—their uses are to satisfy men’s desires and to produce children” (2004:127–128). who act (in this context) as surrogates for modern viewers (archaeological researchers). Upper Paleolithic peoples fired ceramics. engaged in extensive trade 569 networks. Joyce 2008. including transvestites. are more highly stylized than Guthrie’s redrawing suggests and have been described variously in the literature as “women-bison” and “womenmammoths” (Lorblanchet 2010:29. “it is clear that an attitude toward women as sex objects has been read into the distant past. “people often see what they want to see in rock art. Our conceptions of life during this period for all peoples have changed significantly in recent years. Furthermore. and I think it is safe to say that few of Guthrie’s [2005] interpretations would be readily accepted by most specialists in Ice Age art” (2006:575). exemplified by the 2010–11 Urgeschichtliches Museum Blaubeuren exhibit discussed above (“Pin-Up Girl vs. figure 19) also argues that the “Venus” of Dolni Vestonice is wearing nothing but stockings or thighhigh boots and suggests that a figurine from Kostenki 1 in Russia is engaging in “bondage” (Guthrie 2005:365. this understanding does not characterize traditional approaches to studying Upper Paleolithic figurines (see Conkey 1997. Guthrie wrote: “The female figures in Paleolithic art bear a great resemblance to the images portrayed in men’s toilet stalls and in erotic magazines” (1979:63). Hays-Gilpin 2004. “for archaeologists. is only rarely addressed. figure is not numbered. Our current understanding of life in the Upper Paleolithic is richer and more complex than ever. Guthrie compared anthropomorphic figures that have been described as female from the European Upper Paleolithic with illustrations of “common erotic poses” based on photographs from the October 1979 German edition of Playboy Magazine. Nelson 1990. While it is clear to anthropologists that it is not valid to assume that the traditional binary Western system of gender. Germany became the first western European nation to allow a third gender option (“indeterminate”) on birth certificates. beyond child-bearing age. As Joyce writes. Furthermore. for instance. For example.Nowell and Chang • Science. that we understand Paleolithic gender roles. In addition. and created parietal art (Clottes and Geneste 2012. who is also portrayed as leaning forward. differences from place to place sketch out a landscape filled with unique histories. and Upper Paleolithic Figurines Joyce 2008). Soffer et al. the online social network Facebook added 50-odd options to the traditional binary “male” and “female” gender categories that users may choose from to self-identify (Weber 2014). The fact is.000 to 25.

much of the recent scholarship discussing the figurines (other than the announcements of new discoveries. see Farbstein 2010. 2011a. Augusta 1960).g. some of the most influential scholars in Paleolithic archaeology have tended to make assumptions about the meanings and makers of Paleolithic art that are problematic. few comprehensive studies of Upper Paleolithic figurines that postdate these reflexive critiques have been published in English (but for notable exceptions. and even less human than do men who have not viewed such images (Heflick and Goldenberg 2009. H. By embedding such assumptions deep into our evolutionary past—(1) that the authors and intended audiences of media or art are heterosexual males and (2) that men are subjects and have agency while women are objects and do not—such voices of authority naturalize them. see figures 6–7). symbolizing aspects of female gender such as sexuality. No. These blocky statuettes are described as being depicted in a “symmetrical and neutral” fashion (Porr 2010:99. photo courtesy of the Landesmuseum W¨urttemberg.g. innovative tradition of research on non-Paleolithic figurines that has long questioned binary gender categorization and heteronormativity . Furthermore. Ogas and Gaddam 2011a.. preagricultural society where particularly “female” characteristics were prized (e. First. there is an extensive. fertility. Rudman and Borgida 1995). Third.g. less competent. 2011b. 2011b)—actually comes from outside the field of anthropology.. Second. 100. Molnar 2011. 2012. despite the existence of pointed and reflexive feminist critiques (including recent discussions by Hays-Gilpin 2004. Why Does the Venus Hypothesis Have Such Staying Power? FIGURE 6. We believe that there are at least three possible explanations for its persistence. Zwietasch. Guthrie 2005. Loughnan et al. These studies usually unquestioningly accept and echo pre-1990s interpretations that the figurines functioned in context primarily as sexual objects. Conard 2009)—including those publications that have garnered the most media attention (e. 3 • September 2014 viewing sexualized images of women are more likely to perceive them to be less moral. that they were used in rituals involving the purposeful destruction of figurines (Soffer et al. equally plausible (or implausible and equally untested) alternative interpretations of Upper Paleolithic figurines have tended to be treated as niche or fringe studies by paleoanthropologists and have had relatively little lasting impact on the popularity of the Venus hypothesis. that they represent female self-portraits (McDermott 1996). evolved behavior is in turn often eagerly accepted and amplified by the popular media. Men The question remains as to why the Venus hypothesis continues to be so pervasive in both scholarly and popular contexts. 2010). Frankenstein. 1993b). 2010.. Mammoth (top) and bison (bottom) statuettes from the nearby Aurignacian site of Geißenkl¨osterle (photo credit: P.. A large body of research in social science suggests that the control of perspective and the objectification of women in modern media and social practice are not harmless. whether consciously or unconsciously. Stuttgart. or that they are illustrative of a gynocentric. and fecundity. focusing on aspects of figurines ranging from their roles in psychohistorical frameworks for art appreciation (Bullot and Reber 2013) to their depictions of patterns of human obesity during the Upper Paleolithic (King 2013). e. Farbstein et al. These alternative hypotheses include the propositions that the figurines functioned to create and maintain social alliances (Gamble 1982). DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS Social Consequences of the “Venus” Hypothesis In this article we have argued that. Stuttgart).g. 1993a. 116.570 American Anthropologist • Vol. while women who perceive themselves to be objectified are observed to “narrow their social presence” or withdraw in social interactions (Saguy et al. discussed below). that they acted as good luck charms or totems during childbirth (e. less likeable. Landesmuseum W¨urttemberg. The perspective that sexual objectification is a natural. Nesbitt 2001). It can be argued that by turning this objectifying “gaze” (Mulvey 1975) onto our evolutionary past. Gimbutas 1982). some modern Western archaeologists validate it and serve to perpetuate its negative effects within modern Western society.

and. Therefore. 2001). by comparing artifacts made of similar and different materials. Knapp and Meskell 1997. context is critical to understanding meaning. see Kirkness 1999. decoration. her approach is one that “positions art production within its social context and recognizes that the physical qualities of handmade figurines result from individual and group considerations of material properties. As Nicholas Conard observed. and the development of communities of practice. This close reading of the archaeological materials allowed her to demonstrate that even though these Upper Paleolithic peoples shared a unified cultural identity to a large extent. the only scholars studying Paleolithic figurines who have cited this body of work are the same researchers who called for a reexamination of the Venus hypothesis in the first place. This perspective allows for the study of relationships among technology. questionable interpretations and assumptions about the artifacts and what they meant to Paleolithic people. materiality. in the recent work by Cook [2013]). two sites in the Czech Republic dating to the early Upper Paleolithic that are normally considered to be tightly linked culturally. As Farbstein notes. we suggest examining “details that result when different artists try to do the same thing in order to understand the significance of variation” rather than shoehorning Paleolithic figurines into interpretive rubrics relying on notions of “erotica” or “fertility.. knowledge or skills required of the makers.g. just like contemporary material culture. symbolic behavior. 2013. Rebecca Farbstein’s research on Upper Paleolithic figurines from Eastern Europe (e. It is critical to conceptualize these figurines as products of local histories that reflect cultural practices and beliefs that were specific to certain times and certain places. aesthetics. fragmented body of the Hohle Fels figurine. In conclusion. many paleoanthropologists embed current constructs of gender and gender relations into the past. The interpretation of these figurines through a sexual lens is problematic for many reasons but most of all because their possible “erotic” significance is a hypothesis that should be tested rather than a meaning that can be assumed. 2007 for this approach applied to Copper Age figurines). repair. It is clear that “Venus” figurines should be studied in the same manner as other Paleolithic artifacts. age. this tradition appears to have had limited impact on the study of Paleolithic figurines. 2011a. Marcia-Anne Dobres (2000. Farbstein (2010:9) demonstrates how figurines can be a window onto or a “physical expression” of a society’s priorities and interests and. and therefore tacitly accepting.Nowell and Chang • Science.g. Bailey 1994. When placed into a broader context. local traditions and values were dynamic and could differ based on local histories. 571 Building on earlier work by Margaret Conkey (e.. and the social context of figurine production (e. Following Joyce (2008). as in life. the blocky. burials. acquisition strategies and technical choices” (2010:9). decision making. Rather than interpreting the figurines in a vacuum. By not challenging. by recording more than 100 distinct technical and stylistic characteristics of the figurines. the Hohle Fels figurine becomes part of a larger tradition of visual representation that does not rely on analyses of its secondary sexual characteristics.. for example. or refuse areas. but there are equally as many (perhaps more emotionally compelling) questions about their meanings and cultural roles that cannot be answered with the kinds of data that are currently available. “how we . Farbstein cloaks them within layers of context by considering such anthropomorphic figures alongside zoomorphic figures. society. For example. Contextualization and New Approaches to the Study of Upper Paleolithic Figurines In archaeology. local knowledge. in this way. To the best of our knowledge. there are many legitimate scientific questions that we can ask about Upper Paleolithic figurines. materializing practices. Farbstein argues for an approach that combines an anthropology of technology with the concept of chaˆıne op´eratoire (“operational sequence”. 2010. in ritual pits. in some cases. Kokkinidou 1997. 1993). or mounted or worn as jewelry. However. seems less idiosyncratic and less overtly sexual or “pornographic” (as specifically suggested by some academics and the popular media) when compared to bison and mammoth figurines from the nearby Aurignacian site of Geißenkl¨osterle (see Figure 6) that are very similar in proportions and style. The resulting data have permitted Farbstein not only to identify broad social and technical traditions across cultural landscapes but also to tease out what she has referred to as “nuanced differences” between closely related settlements (Farbstein 2011b:142). and reuse (Tringham and Conkey 1998). 2007. Farbstein et al. by studying figurative and nonfigurative images together. possibly with negative social effects. and Upper Paleolithic Figurines and has focused on the construction of identity.g. the third possible explanation for the persistence of the Venus hypothesis is that many of the most cogent and relevant critiques of such gendered interpretations in a broader archaeological context have simply gone unread by most Paleolithic archaeologists. Tringham and Conkey 1998) and to compare them with other examples of portable art. Media. In this regard. 2011b. alteration. see also Gaydarska et al. and these studies are rarely cited by Paleolithic archaeologists (this is the case.g. she is advancing the study of Paleolithic figurines. by undertaking basic analyses that examine raw materials. For example. covered with engraved lines.” It is also necessary to consider the different contexts in which the figurines are found (e. and indicators of action (Joyce 2008). and others. 2012) represents an important new direction in the study of Pleistocene visual cultures. Farbstein (2010) analyzed ivory figurines from Pavlov 1 and Dolni Vestonice 1.. The roles of such figurines in Paleolithic society may also be illuminated by studies of artifact modification. Farbstein was able to demonstrate that the people working with ivory at these sites conceived of and manufactured figurines in distinct ways. Through her analysis. Nakamura and Meskell 2009).

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