The figurine has been described as a discovery of considerable significance by one researcher (Source: H Jensen/University of Tubingen)
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An ivory figurine with prominent breasts and buttocks and other exaggerated sexual characteristics is the world's oldest known depiction of a woman, according German researchers.
The finding has been published in this week's issue of the journal Nature.
Named the Venus of Hohle Fels, after the cave in southwestern Germany where it was recently excavated, the object dates to at least 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, based on more than 30 radiocarbon measurements conducted at the site.
Although tiny - just over 5 centimetres long - the intentionally headless figurine is remarkably detailed, with pronounced genitalia visible between open legs.
"As one male colleague remarked, nothing has changed in 40,000 years," says Nicholas Conard, who reported the find and led the project.
"It is the oldest example of figurative art in any class, making it all the more surprising that the figurine presents such a powerful, sexually aggressive image," says Conard, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tubingen.
Conard and his team recovered the artifact in six pieces at the cave site, where the scientists had previously found miniature statues of a horse, diving waterfowl and a human-like lion with male sexual features.
The bones of various animals, including cave bears, deer, rhinos and horses, were also excavated.
The scientists attribute all of these finds, including the ancient Venus, to one of the earliest human populations in Europe, the Aurignacian culture, suggesting that figurative art is a European phenomenon that arose before Neanderthals went extinct, when modern humans may have been evolving more complex linguistic, representational skills.
Conard says there are striking similarities between the Hohle Fels figurine and other 'Venuses' that appeared 5000 years later in the Gravettian period, so there may have been a shared cultural tradition.
"All place an emphasis on sexual attributes and lack emphasis on the legs, arms, face and head, made all the more noticeable in this case because a carefully carved, polished ring, suggesting that the figurine was once suspended as a pendant, exists in place of a head," he says.
The carver, who painstaking shaped the object out of a mammoth tusk, included fingers on the hands and even a navel. Deeply incised horizontal lines, which Conard thinks might have represented clothing or straps, were cut over the bulging abdomen.
Paul Mellars, a University of Cambridge archaeologist who is currently at Stony Brook University's Turkana Basin Institute, wrote a commentary about the Venus that appears in the same issue of Nature.
Mellars says he fully agrees with Conard's analysis of the object, which he described as "remarkable" and "an archaeological discovery of considerable significance."
"It's at least as old as the world's oldest cave art," Mellars says, adding that viewers "can't avoid being struck by its very sexually explicit depiction of a woman. The breasts really jump out at you."
"I assume it was a guy who carved it, perhaps representing his girlfriend," he says. "Paleolithic Playboy? We just don't know how it was used at this point, but the object's size meant it fit well in someone's hand."