As we know, modern man (i.e. Homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. From there, they spread into Europe and Asia, living by hunting and gathering in much the same way as various earlier species of hominids had. However, sometime around 50,000 BCE they began to fabricate implements of a clearly more sophisticated nature, such as tools for drilling and cutting, spear points, etc. This marks the beginning of what we call the Upper Paleolithic era.
Archeologists believe that these advancements were made possible by the development of a spoken language, which enabled Homo sapiens to exchange ideas and pass on acquired knowledge. In addition to the practical tools which they made, they also left behind some amazing works of art, in the form of cave paintings and the so-called Venus figurines.
The first Venus figurine was discovered in southern France in 1864, by the Marquis de Vibraye. At that time archeology was not a true science... it was simply an amusement for wealthy men, akin to hunting for buried treasure. As might be expected, the meaning of the figurine and it's age were a complete mystery to the Marquis... he did however coin the term "Venus figurine" to refer to it.
The next discovery was made in 1892 by Edouard Piette. In a cave in southern France he found a number of female figurine fragments, carved from mammoth ivory. One of these fragments was a very detailed head which has been named the Venus of Brassempouy , after a nearby local village. That carving has been dated to 23,000 BCE.
About the same time as the Venus of Brassempouy was discovered, another excavation was under way at Balzi Rossi in northern Italy, near the French border. The area has a large number of natural caves, and while exploring them Louis Jullien discovered a total of 15 female figurines. Of special interest were the materials used for the figurines, which consisted of green steatite (soapstone) and mammoth ivory.
There were no mammoths in that area, and green steatite is very rare... indicating that the materials must have been relatively valuable, and that the local people must have traveled or traded to obtain them. In addition, many of the figurines were small and had holes cut in the top of them, indicating that they had been worn as pendants. They have been dated to between 20-25,000 BCE.
The next figurine, known as the Venus of Willendorf , was found in Austria in 1908. It had been carved from limestone and decorated with a natural red ochre paint. Interestingly, the limestone used for it does not occur naturally in that area. It has been dated to about 23,000 BCE.
Another discovery occurred in 1925, when the Venus of Dolni Vestonice was found in the Czech republic. This figurine is the oldest known ceramic object in the world, being composed of a fired clay material, and dating to around 27,000 BCE.
Soon archeology began to capture the public imagination and receive much greater funding and support. This resulted in a veritable explosion in the number of Venus figurines being discovered. Between 1925 and the present over 100 more were found. As the excavations became more thorough, digging deeper and more carefully, even older figurines began to turn up.
Perhaps the most interesting figurine discovered so far comes from the Hohle Fels cave , which is located in southern Germany. There, in 2008, a female figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels was found. Carved from mammoth ivory, it dates to an amazing 35,000 BCE. In addition, just two feet from the figurine, a flute carved from vulture bone was found, which also dated to the same period.
Archeologists have debated the significance of the Venus figurines for decades. In general they usually discuss only one particular example at a time, and concentrate on an analysis of the site at which it was found, searching for some furthur evidence which may shed light on it's meaning. Unfortunately most Paleolithic objects were bio-degradable, and therefore have not survived. Things such as wood and other plant materials, animal skins, crude fabrics and rope, and even many bone tools, have long since decomposed... and thus, whatever information might have been gained from them is no longer available.
In the absence of any conclusive evidence some rather amusing theories have been put forth. One idea is that the figurines may have been a primitive form of pornography. Another speculation is that they may have been toys for children. Yet another possibility is that they were some sort of fertility charms. Let's briefly consider those ideas.
In recent years archeologists have begun to suspect that most of the Venus figurines, as well as the cave paintings, may have been made by women. The size of hand-prints which often accompany cave paintings corresponds to female remains of the time period, found in the area. Moreover, the details of the clothing which some of the Venus figurines are wearing indicates that the person who did the carving was very familiar with female attire. Since the typical division of labor was that men hunted while women made clothing, it seems more likely that women would have had that particular knowledge... and if women did indeed carve most of the figurines, it seems unlikely that they were created as a form of pornography.
The theory that the figurines were created as toys for children is equally problematic. Some small animal figurines have been found, which may indeed have been children's toys... but the Venus figurines were often carved from solid rock, and would have been much too heavy to be suitable for use as toys. In addition, if they were toys, why were there no other kind of figurines of that general size and composition ? Are we to believe that nearly every child's toy in Europe for over 20,000 years was a female figurine ?
Speculation that the figurines may have been some sort of fertility charm is somewhat more believable, yet it still leaves us with some unanswered questions. Although some of the figurines are corpulent, with exaggerated hips and breasts, they do not appear to be pregnant... indeed, many are quite slender. And if the people who created the figurines believed in using charms to encourage pregnancy, why didn't they create any similar charms for other purposes ?
Although archeologists have been reluctant to compare artifacts from different cultures and time periods, we may now have a sufficient body of evidence to draw a few simple conclusions. The sheer quantity of the figurines implies that there must have been some basic universal purpose for them... and the effort it took to create them, as well as the rare materials frequently used, clearly indicates that they were of some special significance and value.
Although the meaning of this early evidence still remains uncertain, it does hint at the possibility of a religious belief, involving a primordial Goddess of some sort... yet only by studying the artifacts of subsequent millennium can we truly begin to feel confident in such a conclusion.