“Prehistoric pin-up”? Paleolithic fertility carving dubbed “pornography”

The back-slapping homosocial bonding continues. This time, it’s over a Palaeolithic sculpture.

You heard right.

figurine

This Aurignacian mammoth-ivory carving has been found in Germany by Nicholas Conard, and published in a letter to Nature. It’s thought to be the oldest human figurative art known to us. The life-giving breasts and vulva are particularly prominent, reminiscent of the famous Venus of Willendorf fertility goddess statue of a few thousand years later.

Science writer Ed Yong calls it a “Prehistoric Pin-up“. [Edit 16 May 09 – Ed has re-thought this in response to this thread, apologised, and changed the headline.]

Yahoo News headlines it “Obsession with Naked Women Dates Back 35,000 Years“.

The Independent goes for “erotic art for cavemen“.

Reuters decided it’s a “Sexy Venus“.

ScienceNow has “The Earliest Pornography?”

The Sun, unsurprisingly, headlines it “The world’s first Page 3 Girl”.

Blogger the Crusty Curmudgeon’s take is “It’s Official: Cavemen Were Obsessed With Sex Too!“, and Neatorama commenters went for “men have had their head in the gutter for 35,000 years. Abandon all hope for us” [Gauldar], “I sure do love the rubenesque woman.” [Loomis], and “Maybe this was early lesbian art?” [Medussa].

The discoverer’s comments included this:

“How we interpret it tells us just as much about ourselves as about people 40,000 years ago.”

And what I’m getting from this is that the sexual male gaze is the only lens through which many men can see the world. The ubiquity of the pornographic gaze oozes out over everything it touches, attempting to obliterate other explanations and all nuance. Fertility is sexy to some, sure; it can also be about life and beauty and mystery and spirituality. I suspect this is the women’s business of some of my ancestors, not an ancient Playboy bunny.

~~~

ETA 15 May 2009: I have the full Nature paper now, and I think what we have here is the usual complete failure of the scientific press to read the source. The paper talks about the figure as a fertility symbol, not as a wank object. It is possible that some more mainstream sources got confused at the word “sexual features”, not realising that in academia this means “reproductive characteristics”. But that’s no excuse for the science press.

Quotes from the source:

[detailed description of object] … The split between the two halves of the buttocks is deep and continues without interruption to the front of the figurine, where the vulva with pronounced labia majora is visible between the open legs. There can be no doubt that the depiction of oversized breasts, accentuated buttocks and genitalia results from the deliberate exaggeration of the sexual features of the figurine.[…]

Many of the features, including the extreme emphasis on sexual attributes and lack of emphasis on the head, face and arms and legs, call to mind aspects of the Venus figurines well known from the European Gravettian, which typically date from between 22 and 27 kyr BP16,17. The careful depiction of the hands is reminiscent of those of Venuses such as the archetypal Venus of Willendorf.[…]

With this discovery, the widespread notion that three-dimensional female depictions developed in the Gravettian can be rejected. Interpretations suggesting that strong, aggressive animals or shamanic depictions dominate the Aurignacian art of Swabia, or even of Europe as a whole, must be reconsidered. Although there is a long history of debate over the meaning of Palaeolithic Venuses, their clearly depicted sexual attributes suggest that they are a direct or indirect expression of fertility.



Categories: Culture, gender & feminism, history

Tags: , , ,

14 replies

  1. *facepalm*

    What is the most saddening for me is that it reminds me of my favorite statue depiction of the Goddess (Pagan/Wiccan). A beautiful round fat woman whose pregnant belly is the Earth and her breasts ripe w/ life. It is joyful and beautiful, and my favorite depiction of the Goddess as Mother.

    Some things are not about the Male Gaze, and not meant for sexual consumption. Some are meant to celebrate the beauty that is the life giving capabilities in many women. Life, as part of a cycle, not some cheap pin-up for male arousal.

  2. How apt that I have just finished reading Alice Walker’s “Possessing the Secret of Joy”. Which makes this appropriation/trivialisation feel even more like a contamination.

  3. Grue.

  4. Hint for the boys: pornography is NOT “worship of the feminine”, it’s about the male obsession with their own dicks.
    When Freud came up with the idea of “penis envy” did he also say anything about phallic narcissism or is that considered right and an appropriate response?
    DeusExMacintosh’s last blog post..Home Secretary criticises police-bashing

  5. Erm hi. I sheepishly acknowledge that the “prehistoric pin-up” headline was inappropriate and trivialising. I’ve now changed it to something less rubbish.
    Apologies.
    Ed

  6. I want to just point to one thing: whoever created that figurine was involved in a work of sacred art. This makes it equivalent in meaning to mediaeval cathedrals, the various madonna and child paintings, the various statues of the gods, goddesses and heroes of the classical Greek and Roman cultures, and the dreaming paintings of the Aboriginal people. To be looking at such things and saying the equivalent of “cop the norks on that!” is to belittle the religious beliefs of the creator, and to effectively deny their religious content.
    I wonder how many of the people who are describing this particular figurine (as well as all the other such figurines) as “ancient pornography” got annoyed by “Piss Christ” or the “Black Madonna” statue? How many of those writers would respond to the belittling of whatever it is they hold sacred (be it money, country, god or family) in a highly emotionally charged fashion, and get thoroughly offended?
    The creator may well be long dead. The insult is still there. It was sacred once, and should be treated as sacred now.

  7. It may well have been a talisman worn by pregnant women to help them birth safely (through a large vagina) and have plentiful milk. If there is a connection between cave paintings being to help “bring on the animals depicted” for hunting, then I can’t see why this couldn’t have been about getting women safely through childbirth and ensuring a good milk supply.

  8. Cheers, Ed. Good on yer. Now to convince every news outlet in the world… *sigh*

  9. I’ve updated the post with what the source actually said:
    I have the full Nature paper now, and I think what we have here is the usual complete failure of the scientific press to read the source. The paper talks about the figure as a fertility symbol, not as a wank object. It is possible that some more mainstream sources got confused at the word “sexual features”, not realising that in academia this means “reproductive characteristics”. But that’s no excuse for the science press.
    Quotes from the source:

    [detailed description of object] … The split between the two halves of the buttocks is deep and continues without interruption to the front of the figurine, where the vulva with pronounced labia majora is visible between the open legs. There can be no doubt that the depiction of oversized breasts, accentuated buttocks and genitalia results from the deliberate exaggeration of the sexual features of the figurine.[…]
    Many of the features, including the extreme emphasis on sexual attributes and lack of emphasis on the head, face and arms and legs, call to mind aspects of the Venus figurines well known from the European Gravettian, which typically date from between 22 and 27 kyr BP16,17. The careful depiction of the hands is reminiscent of those of Venuses such as the archetypal Venus of Willendorf.[…]
    With this discovery, the widespread notion that three-dimensional female depictions developed in the Gravettian can be rejected. Interpretations suggesting that strong, aggressive animals or shamanic depictions dominate the Aurignacian art of Swabia, or even of Europe as a whole, must be reconsidered. Although there is a long history of debate over the meaning of Palaeolithic Venuses, their clearly depicted sexual attributes suggest that they are a direct or indirect expression of fertility.

  10. “How we interpret it tells us just as much about ourselves as about people 40,000 years ago.”
    The other comments, I absolutely agree, were rubbish. But this one from Conard is pretty standard theory of history – history *is* interpretation, and we can only see the past through the lens of the present, no matter how hard we try to put aside our assumptions. I think that Conard is commenting on this, as any historian might.

  11. But this one from Conard is pretty standard theory of history

    Of course. I don’t have a problem with that comment at all – I had hoped that the post made it clear that I was agreeing wholeheartedly with it, but perhaps I’ve written it badly.

  12. It wasn’t clear to me, but that could have been comprehension fail on my part – it’s been a long week!

  13. “I wonder how many of the people who are describing this particular figurine (as well as all the other such figurines) as “ancient pornography” got annoyed by “Piss Christ” or the “Black Madonna” statue? How many of those writers would respond to the belittling of whatever it is they hold sacred (be it money, country, god or family) in a highly emotionally charged fashion, and get thoroughly offended? ”
    I’ve just been reading about a Renaissance art movement that was all about showing Jesus naked with an erection… I wonder what the people who got annoyed by Piss Christ or the Black Madonna would have thought about that.

  14. Stephen Colbert is onto it – “Nobody wants their porn stash found 30 000 years after they die! I’m sure he told his caveman friends “When me die, break porn in six pieces and bury in cave.””
    The Colbert ReportMon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30cCaveman Porn Stashcolbertnation.comhttp://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:227663Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage
    …. of course, Colbert is satire, taking the piss out of (on the whole) right-winger men.

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