New Theory On Stone Age "Venus" Figurines Proves Controversial

Natural History Museum Vienna, Austria: the 'Venus of Willendorf' is estimated to have been made 30,000 BCE. frantic00/Shutterstock.com

The so-called ”Venus" figurines, some of the earliest known depictions of humans in prehistoric art, have intrigued anthropologists for decades and inspired more than their fair share of debate. Now, a team of medical experts has proposed a new theory of the meaning behind these mysterious relics involving obesity and climate change. However, the theory is proving to be controversial and has already fired up some criticism from anthropologists.

Officially known as Upper Paleolithic figurines, the collection of three-dimensional carvings were crafted out of soft stone, ivory, or bone some 11,000 to 35,000 years ago by Ice Age hunter-gatherers. They appear to depict curvaceous female figures with a small head, wider hips, big breasts, and tiny feet. Dozens have been discovered in the past couple of centuries, mainly in Europe, with some examples discovered in Asia. But despite being found across huge swaths of Eurasia, they all share some characteristics in their style of depiction. 

Previously theories about their meaning have suggested the shapely bodies are symbols of fertility or beauty, hence the nickname Venus figurines. Others have speculated they might be self-portraits of females, created from the perspective of women looking down at their own body, as highlighted by the large breasts, small feet, and lack of faces.

Writing in the journal Obesity, a small team of obesity experts now propose the idea that the figurines represented an idealized body type for people living in exceptionally harsh conditions. 

Their research suggests that the body size became larger when the glaciers were advancing and conditions were getting tough, while the bodies became thinner when the climate warmed and the environment became more comfortable. So their theory goes, the people were depicted as overweight during times of strife, as this would have been the ideal body shape to deal with the hunger and cold. 

“Some of the earliest art in the world are these mysterious figurines of overweight women from the time of hunter-gatherers in Ice Age Europe where you would not expect to see obesity at all. We show that these figurines correlate to times of extreme nutritional stress,” Richard J Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, specializing in renal disease and hypertension, said in a statement.

However, not everyone is buying this idea. Researchers have commented that the study authors have little expertise in the field of anthropology or archaeology. Among their criticisms, they point out that the researchers only studied a select subset of figurines, many of which appear to be of larger size. The new research has also been criticized for failing to consider the wider debates around them.

“I don’t buy their conclusions,” Julien Riel-Salvatore, PhD, a professor of anthropology at the University of Montréal, told IFLScience. 

“Their sample is really biased and they don’t really seem to have a good grasp of what has been said about ‘Venus figurines’ by archaeologists,” Riel-Salvatore explained. “The sample is biased because they only studied photographs of some figurines which they found on a personal website, not the figurines themselves. This makes it hard to get a good sense of the dimensions they need to accurately derive the measurements they use in their ratios.

“While this doesn’t mean their conclusion is necessarily wrong, they don’t really have enough data to support it, in my view.” 

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