Humanity’s Oldest Sculptures: Researchers New Theory on “Venus” Figurines May Have Solved Mystery

Venus Figurines

Credit: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

Investigators say humanity’s oldest sculptures may be linked to climate change, diet.

One of world’s earliest examples of art, the enigmatic `Venus’ figurines carved some 30,000 years ago, have intrigued and puzzled scientists for nearly two centuries. Now a researcher from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus believes he’s gathered enough evidence to solve the mystery behind these curious totems. 

The hand-held depictions of obese or pregnant women, which appear in most art history books, were long seen as symbols of fertility or beauty. But according to Richard Johnson, MD, lead author of the study published today in the journal, Obesity, the key to understanding the statues lays in climate change and diet. 

“Some of the earliest art in the world are these mysterious figurines of overweight women from the time of hunter gatherers in Ice Age Europe where you would not expect to see obesity at all,” said Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine specializing in renal disease and hypertension. “We show that these figurines correlate to times of extreme nutritional stress.” 

Early modern humans entered Europe during a warming period about 48,000 years ago. Known as Aurignacians, they hunted reindeer, horses and mammoths with bone-tipped spears. In summer they dined on berries, fish, nuts and plants. But then, as now, the climate did not remain static. 

As temperatures dropped, ice sheets advanced and disaster set in. During the coldest months, temperatures plunged to 10-15 degrees Celsius. Some bands of hunter gatherers died out, others moved south, some sought refuge in forests. Big game was overhunted. 

It was during these desperate times that the obese Venus figurines appeared. They ranged between 6 and 16 centimeters in length and were made of stone, ivory, horn or occasionally clay. Some were threaded and worn as amulets. 

Johnson and his co-authors, Professor (ret.) of Anthropology John Fox, PhD, of the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, and Associate Professor of Medicine Miguel Lanaspa-Garcia, PhD, of the CU School of Medicine, measured the statues’ waist-to-hip and waist-to-shoulder ratios. They discovered that those found closest to the glaciers were the most obese compared to those located further away. They believe the figurines represented an idealized body type for these difficult living conditions. 

“We propose they conveyed ideals of body size for young women, and especially those who lived in proximity to glaciers,” said Johnson, who in addition to being a physician has an undergraduate degree in anthropology. “We found that body size proportions were highest when the glaciers were advancing, whereas obesity decreased when the climate warmed and glaciers retreated.” 

Obesity, according to the researchers, became a desired condition. An obese female in times of scarcity could carry a child through pregnancy better than one suffering malnutrition. So the Venus figurines may have been imbued with a spiritual meaning – a fetish or magical charm of sorts that could protect a woman through pregnancy, birth and nursing. 

Many Venus figurines are well-worn, indicating that they were heirlooms passed down from mother to daughter through generations. Women entering puberty or in the early stages of pregnancy may have been given them in the hopes of imparting the desired body mass to ensure a successful birth. 

“Increased fat would provide a source of energy during gestation through the weaning of the baby and as well as much needed insulation,” the authors said.

 Promoting obesity, said Johnson, ensured that the band would carry on for another generation in these most precarious of climatic conditions.

“The figurines emerged as an ideological tool to help improve fertility and survival of the mother and newborns,” Johnson said. “The aesthetics of art thus had a significant function in emphasizing health and survival to accommodate increasingly austere climatic conditions.”

The team’s success in amassing evidence to support its theory came from applying measurements and medical science to archaeological data and behavioral models of anthropology.

“These kinds of interdisciplinary approaches are gaining momentum in the sciences and hold great promise,” Johnson said. “Our team has other subjects of Ice Age art and migration in its research sights as well.”

Reference: “Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity may Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change” by Richard J. Johnson, Miguel A. Lanaspa and John W. Fox, 1 December 2020, Obesity.
DOI: 10.1002/oby.23028

9 Comments on "Humanity’s Oldest Sculptures: Researchers New Theory on “Venus” Figurines May Have Solved Mystery"

  1. “The figurines emerged as an ideological tool to help improve fertility and survival of the mother and newborns,”

    Another example of a speculative hypothesis stated as fact instead of emphasizing it is an alternative working hypothesis.

    • Nicholas Jones | December 1, 2020 at 12:35 pm | Reply

      The headline reads: “Researchers new THEORY”. What’s up will all the recent nitpicking scientist bashing commentary on this site? My imagination went to writing a story incorporating this idea. The girl is given a venus amulet by her mother in law when she is arranged for her son during a meeting of the tribes as a welcoming gift as, she is to leave the meeting with her new clan, serving to make clear the mother in law’s and her new clan’s expectations.

      • Nicholas Jones | December 1, 2020 at 1:00 pm | Reply

        Afterthought: in a formal manner, in being a matriarchal society where nothing happens without a mother’s arrangement, the mother approaches the mother of the daughter, her son in tow behind her. She indicates the daughter and offers the amulet taken from her neck in a formal proposal. I believe using our imaginations in this manner, connecting the dots knowing cultural practices known to exist today in certain populations still existing living the most ancient templates, will have the most accurate results

      • Jones,
        Apparently you and the editor(s) don’t know the difference between conjecture, hypothesis, and theory. “Theory” is usually reserved for a formal hypothesis that has been subjected to many experiments or other attempts at invalidation and has withstood the “Test of Time.” The most recent hypothesis doesn’t automatically get priority over long-held hypotheses. In fact, the bar is higher for new hypotheses because there hasn’t been time to properly evaluate the new work.

        Sloppy scientists and science editors deserve to be reminded that they are doing a disservice to science and society by their careless statements. Judging from your comments, I doubt that you could extemporaneously explain the Scientific Method if your life depended on it.

        I agree with “The 10th Man” that applying behavior of modern humans to interpret the behavior and motives of humans from 30,000 years ago is going out on an evolutionary limb, as it were.

  2. Your all just blowing smoke up each others asses. The thoughts and outlooks of people just 4000 years ago might as well have been Martian. Go further back and your modern perspectives are really shyt. Guess a good bedtime story is prerequisite to getting grants.

  3. Nicholas Jones | December 4, 2020 at 12:14 pm | Reply

    Okay, my mother presented her children with copious amounts of quality literature I consumed voraciously and made good use of for homework from my pre-teen days hoping her children would be orders of magnitude more informed than her generation of my family. So Learned from Plato, Aristotle, Sir Issac Newton, who I will remind you, got seriously into the arcane superstitious world of Alchemy which when subjected to his application of the disciplined Scientific Method actually laid that very framework, and the foundations of modern chemistry. I do know the boundaries and where those boundaries are the most critical, say in the field of medicine as well as which disciplines nitpicking hampers progress by impeding intuition and creativity. This one area of curiosity informed imagining of what it was like living in this culture or that in different eras has been a layman’s interest of mine. Having consumed immense volumes of written and video about archeology and anthropology of modern near stone age and actual stone age peoples living today the world over I have observed too many commonalities, not only in the far-flung cultures living today but also in tools and ritual objects in ancient archaeological sites. Anyone who has been paying attention would never think that these people might as well be Martians, hypotheses, theorems, and theories regardless. Stupid ego-ass braying nitpicking stifles scientific creativity in these fields. I have always known to view details with a grain of salt. They are ongoing works in progress.

    • Jones
      Newton is not remembered for dabbling in alchemy and the occult. His great achievements were when he stuck to things that he could prove by repeatable experiments and mathematics.

      Despite the opportunities provided by your mother, I stand by my assessment that you don’t understand the Scientific Method. Your remark, “Stupid ego-ass braying nitpicking stifles scientific creativity in these fields” proves it. The essence of the Scientific Method is that claims have to withstand the criticism and experiments of peers. That means, no matter how creative your imagination may be, it isn’t science if it can be shown to be illogical. It is not science if there is no factual support for your conjecture. It is necessary to publish your hypotheses and the facts you think support them, and allow peers to judge your logic and facts to see if they have merit. Anything less MIGHT qualify as science fiction. While science is rarely a contact sport, it is adversarial!

  4. Its Christmas for Godsakes cant we all just get along!

  5. Am I missing something? Well fed/over fed totems of increased fertility in ice age Europe has been the speculation since the first Venus figurines were discovered. What’s different here?

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