The discovery of a 40,000-year old figurine reignites debate among archaeologists about the origins-and true purpose- of art
The oldest sculpture of a human being is so small it could be hidden in your fist. Carved out of mammoth ivory, the 40,000-year-old figurine clearly represents a woman, with ballooning breasts and elaborately carved genitalia. The head, arms and legs are merely suggested. â€śYou couldnâ€™t get more female than this,â€ť says Nicholas Conard, the Ohio-born archaeologist whose University of TĂĽbingen team found the sculpture at the bottom of a vaulted cave in southwestern Germany in the fall of 2008. â€śHead and legs donâ€™t matter. This is about sex, reproduction.â€ť
The discovery of the â€śVenus of Hohle Felsâ€ťâ€”named by Conard for the cave where it was foundâ€”made news around the world. Headlines called the busty statuette â€śprehistoric porn.â€ť But the Venus renews a serious scholarly debate that has flared now and then since Stone Age figurinesâ€”including a waterfowl, lions and mammothsâ€”were first discovered early last century at Hohle Fels and nearby caves. Were these literal representations of the surrounding world? Or artworks created to express emotions or abstract ideas?
Some experts viewed such pieces as â€śhunting magicâ€ťâ€”representations of sought-after game animals and, therefore, survival tools, not works of art. The problem is, many of the figurines discovered so farâ€”predators such as lions and bearsâ€”donâ€™t correspond to what prehistoric people ate. (Their diet consisted largely of reindeer, bison and horse meat, according to bones that archaeologists have found.) Others perceive some prehistoric figurinesâ€”including a half-lion, half-man â€”not as imaginative works but literal depictions of hallucinations experienced by tribal shamans.