John Frederick Walker

Oldest Prehistoric Ivory Venus Figure

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on May 15, 2009

In Ivory’s Ghosts, I described how archaeologists at the University of Tübingen found the oldest known carving in a cave in SW Germany in 2007—a mottled, inch-high 35,000 year-old figure of a mammoth, shaped from that species’ ivory. The mammoth, of course, is the ancestor of the modern elephant.

Today it was announced that a nearby cave held another surprise: a small ivory carving of a woman of similar antiquity, which would make it the oldest of the so-called “Venus” figures, those famously bulbous Ice Age female forms. Many were amulets, likely worn around the neck, and held close to the flesh. The especially fleshy example uncovered, with its enormous breasts and exaggerated genitals, is a striking example, and from a period not previously known for human female imagery.

The Venus of Hohle Fels. Foto: H. Jensen. Copyright: Universität Tübingen

The Venus of Hohle Fels. Foto: H. Jensen. Copyright: Universität Tübingen

Were these “Venus” figures magical objects, teaching tools, sex toys or….? I discuss some of the possibilities in the book, and concede that we may never know what they meant to early humans. But we do know, as I explain, quite a bit about the importance of ivory in prehistory. Mammoths weren’t hunted for their ivory—it was a by-product of the never-ending hunt for food.

But it didn’t take long to discover ivory was an amazing material for sculpture. It’s not as hard as rock, doesn’t split like bone or wood; it has no discernable grain but a perfectly latticed cellular structure, allowing superb detail to be carved, and—this helps explain ivory’s allure through the ages—a wondrous, silky, milky surface when polished that’s very seductive to the eye and the touch.

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