by Cian MacFhiarais, 2001


The beliefs and practices of our distant ancestors are for the most part lost in the mists of antiquity and archaeologists do not know for certain what religious and social traditions were adhered to 20,000 to 30,000 years before present. Certain glimpses into this ancient past are however possible through the analysis and interpretation of archaeological sites and artefacts. In this way it becomes possible through systematic investigation to reconstruct aspects of European prehistory through the vestiges of human activity.

Of particular interest within European prehistory are the remnants of the earliest known artistic depictions and in particular the female statuettes known as Venus figurines, the presence of which was evident in their dispersal across vast regions of Europe. By looking at occurrences of Venus figurines, the wider climatic and cultural context and the various interpretations that have been proposed by archaeologists it is possible to gain insight into aspects of this phenomenon and gain an insight into European prehistory.

The forms of aesthetic art that emerged during the Upper Palaeolithic are divided into parietal art such as cave wall paintings, engravings and relief sculpture and mobiliary art such as figurines and portable objects (Fagan, 1998). The earlier mobiliary art focused on vulvas, animal depictions and human figurines, generally of the female form (Collins and Onias, 1978:11, cited in Dickson 1990). The animal statues and other mobiliary art were by no means as prevalent as these so-called female Venus figurines, which featured prominently over vast expanses of Europe and were found from the Russian steppe to south-west France and northern Spain, covering a distance of over 4000 km.

Numerous similarities and correlations seem to occur across different sites, seemingly pointing to a somewhat universal symbolism and a sense of uniformity throughout European female figurines. Although asserting that the central archaeological message and the mythology of the Gravettian group has to do with woman, Delporte warns against all- encompassing generalisations with regard to these matters and asserts that the concept of woman personified in the figurines is not homogonous and alludes to various roles and representations He states that these diverse roles included woman as generator of life; as generator of pleasure, and as a sort of central axis around which are organised different manifestations of thought and expression (1993:256).

The very magnitude of distribution over vast areas of Europe shows that understanding the nature of the Venus figurines is a crucial step in understanding the beliefs and social system of the earliest anatomically modern humans in Europe. Hahn reiterates this by stressing the importance of analysing the complete archaeological context when trying to gain an understanding of such mobiliary art; in particular its function in the correlated behavioural and cultural systems (1993:229).

Although there are reported dates for Venus figurines ranging from 29,000-14,000 years B.P, by far the majority of the Venus figurines appear between 23,000 and 25,000 B.P (Gamble, 1981:97, cited in Dickson, 1990), at a period that is referred to in Eastern Europe as the Gravettian and in Western Europe as the Perigordian. Dickson suggests that the remarkable similarity of the figurines over these vast geographical areas points to these two archaeological traditions being part of the same extended cultural province (1990:65).

Famous Venus statuettes include the Venus of Willendorf from Austria, the Venus of Lausel and the Savignon Venus. There are many theories as to what the figurines represented and the relationship that these had to society as a whole. The depiction of the female form that is common in the mobiliary art of the period points to wider societal and cultural issues of great importance. Many scholars have assumed that figurine features such as exaggerated breasts, sexual organs, hips and buttocks allude to these objects being used to signify and encourage fertility, to represent an idea of female beauty or alternately to portray an ancient Mother Goddess (Berenguer, 1973, cited in Dickson, 1990:102-3).

The role of women in society during the Upper Palaeolithic is not known, however the central role of female figurines in the artwork could point to a correlation with the place of women in society. There are some theories that suggest a possible matriarchal social structure and the worship of the divine in feminine form, or the increased role and social status of women in the populace. Dickson brings to light an interesting point in relation to this possibility by emphasising that the Upper Palaeolithic was the first time in prehistory that grave goods were buried with females (Dickson, 1990:214). Other theorists point to the statues as being fertility or cult objects, or that the enormous distribution of these Venus figures could allude to a ritualistic exchange system with the figurines playing a central role in inter territory relations (Cunliffe, 2001: 69).

An important element in the appearance of such artistic traditions was the emergence of abstract thinking (that was previously lacking in the population) and the subsequent occurrence of rapid societal change during the Upper Palaeolithic period. Such drastic change is evident through the existence of art, jewellery and ornamentation, which reflect the complexity of the social systems and belief structures that arose from the beginning of the Aurignacian period (33,000-29,000 BC). The utilisation of such phenomena has been explained as being clearly indicative of diverse, differentiated and specifically organised social systems (Knecht et al, 1993). According to Dickson, the preponderance of such social systems characteristically suggests the existence of institutional forms of religious belief and practice (Dickson, 1990:12).

As well as representations of Venus figurines carved from various materials such as ivory or limestone there is also evidence of the production and firing of ceramics. Fired figurines made from clay and pulverised bone has been found at one famous site, Dolni Vestonice (White, 1993; Gamble, 1986:324; Vandiver et al 1993: 259-272). The first excavation at this site was in 1925 and subsequent work has shown that clay figurines were exploded (possibly on purpose) within the kilns. The astounding discovery that 99.9% of these Vestonice figurines were broken has led some theorists to believe that remnants and rejects of production may have been left at the kilns or that the sites indicate a ceramic waste disposal area (Absolon & Klima, 1974, cited in Vandiver et al, 1993: 272). Other archaeologists interpretations strongly favour the idea of ceramics being ritually broken or exploded within the kilns (Voight, 1983; Pearson, 1988, cited in Vandiver et al, 1993:272).

There are many ways in which the drastic changes in the archaeological record can be perceived with the emergence of anatomically modern humans. Such changes include social factors, art and the use of antler and bone tools. With regards to variation in the location of sites there is a definite shift away from the ocean-side to river sites (possibly due to transportation benefits), and there are also established structures that were previously lacking as well as a greater magnitude of sites (Cunliffe, 2001).

There are two predominant contrasting viewpoints with regards to the drastic changes that occurred in the Upper Palaeolithic and the cultural developments that emerged during this time. Some theorists have argued for a hypothesis that promulgates the evolution of the existing Neanderthal populations (Garrod, 1953; Neuville, 1951, cited in Knecht et al, 1993). In opposition to this theory however, many archaeologists have now come to believe that cultural replacement occurred by way of anatomically modern humans from external areas settling in Europe and this theory is now generally accepted as most probable. It is believed that an emigration of anatomically modern humans from Africa occurred approximately 100,000 B.P and that these people spread to the Middle East and finally arrived in Europe by 30,000 40,000 B.P. The reason for such late settlement of Europe would reflect the harsh climatic conditions from 100,000 until approximately 43,000 B.C during which time Europe was enveloped in a freezing glacial environment (Fagan, 1998: 129).

Theories that propose to ascertain the possible meaning of Upper Palaeolithic art tend to mirror the prevailing theoretical approaches of the day. Classical theories have included those explanations that emerged early in the twentieth century often purporting that Upper Palaeolithic art was totemic in character; was an elaborate prop for rites of passage or hunting magic or was inspired by shamanism (Dickson, 1990:123). Anthropological theories promulgated by Emile Durkheim on totemism and by Arnold Van Gennep on Rites de Passage greatly influenced interpretations of archaeological findings (Dickson, 1990: 125-126). The elucidation of art being related to hunting magic or sympathetic magical principles was largely derived from Sir James Frazers book The Golden Bough and this had a great influence on many theorists. (Dickson, 1990:128; Frazer, 1929; Hicks, 1999:258-260).

In all of the artwork of the Upper Palaeolithic there is a close connection between the animal and human worlds and between the living and spirit realm. According to Fagan, such a close continuum of the social, spiritual and natural worlds is typical of hunter-gatherer societies (1998:137). This earth-based totemic worldview is seen to be reflected in the ethnographic record and it has been stated that the archaeological findings pertaining to the Upper Palaeolithic religious life revolve around the shaman, who vigorously and directly sought to confront the spirit world in ecstatic encounters (Dickson, 1990:215). Such perspectives, which favour an interpretation of early prehistoric art (both cave art and mobiliary art) as an expansion of shamanic religious practice are also central to the views of Andreas Lommel, who further supports such elucidations (1967, cited in Dickson, 1990: 129-136).

Modern archaeological interpretations often dispute earlier classical theories and according to Bailey (1983:166) these modern approaches predominantly fall into two categorical perspectives of either internalistic or environmentalist (Cited in Dickson, 1990:137). Internalistic theories stress the notion of intellectual changes within Homo Sapien Sapiens and propose that advancements in cognitive ability at this time was the foremost cause of artistic depictions and Venus figurines. Steven Mithen epitomises this view by stating that, the sudden appearance of art was connected to the development of human cognitive abilities (1996, cited in Fagan, 1998:137). Environmentalist theoretical modalities however are more concerned with social and economic factors that influence (or are influenced by) religion and art.

Theories of the past are not whole truths but are methodological approaches and interpretations made from the available evidence. Whether Venus figurines were mother Goddess statues of religious or cultic significance, or whether they represented the role of women in society or a flowering of artistic ability due to increased cognitive development is somewhat of a moot point. What can be known for sure is that our distant ancestors had complex social systems and conceptual understandings of their world and this is reflected in the artwork and figurines that were left to posterity, which allows us to gain some understanding of the past.


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Delporte, Henri (1993) Gravettian Female Figurines: A Regional Survey in Knecht et al (eds) (1993) Before Lascaux: The Complex Record of the Early Upper Paleolithic. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Inc.

Dickson, D. Bruce (1990) The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Fagan, Brian M. (1998) People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory (9th ed). New York: Longman.

Frazer, Sir James G. (1929) The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. London: MacMillan and Co Ltd.

Frazer, Sir James G. (1922) Sympathetic Magic in D. Hicks (ed) (1999) Ritual and Belief: Readings in the Anthropology of Religion. New York: McGraw Hill College.

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Vandiver, P., Soffer, O., Klima, B., and Svoboda, J. (1993). The Pyrontechnology of Performance Art: Moravian Venuses and Wolverines in Knecht et al (eds) (1993) Before Lascaux: The Complex Record of the Early Upper Paleolithic. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Inc.

White, Randall. (1993). Technological and Social Dimensions of Aurignacian-Age Body Ornaments across Europe in Knecht et al (eds) (1993) Before Lascaux: The Complex Record of the Early Upper Paleolithic. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Inc.

© Cian MacFhiarais 2001