The enigmatic "Venus" figurines of Upper Palaeolithic Europe

Female carvings are known throughout the European Upper Palaeolithic and are collectively known as Venus figurines, though they predate the Roman goddess by tens of millennia. They are chiefly associated with the Gravettian period, though they are also known from the preceding Aurignacian. The earliest currently known is the 35,000 year old Hohle Fels Venus, a mammoth-ivory figurine recovered in 2008 at Fohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of south-western Germany (Conard, 2009).

Typically lozenge-shaped, these figurines are characterised by exaggerated sexual characteristics, with very large breasts, accentuated hips, thighs and buttocks, and large, explicit vulvas. Other anatomical details tend to be neglected; especially arms and feet, and the heads generally lack facial detail. The contrast with the classical portrayal of Venus could not be greater. The figurines are carved from materials including mammoth ivory, serpentine, steatite or limestone and are often coloured with ochre. Others are made from fired clay, making them among the earliest known ceramics (Vandiver, Soffer, Klima, & Svoboda, 1989). Many have engraved or incised patterns, which may represent hair and clothing.

Left. The Willendorf Venus (left) is carved from limestone and tinted with red ochre. It was discovered in 1908 near Willendorf, Austria and now resides in the Museum of Natural History, Vienna.

Centre. The ivory Lespugue Venus (centre) was discovered in 1922 at the Rideaux cave of Lespugue (Haute-Garonne) in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and is now displayed in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

Right. The ceramic Dolní Věstonice Venus (right) was discovered in 1925 in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). It is not currently on permanent display to the public.

The figurines are between 22,000 to 29,000 years old.

Since the first examples were discovered in the 19th Century, many have attained iconic status. These include the Venus of Willendorf, which is 11.1cm (4 3/8 in) high and carved from oolitic limestone. The statue was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy near the village of Willendorf in Austria, which is associated with the Gravettian period and now resides in the Natural History Museum Vienna.

The figurines are often interpreted as fertility figures, mother goddesses etc, but their real function is unknown. One novel suggestion, by anthropologists Leroy McDermott and Catherine Hodge McCoid, is that they may be self-portrayals of pregnant women. They note likenesses between a photograph of a “Venus” figurine viewed from above and one of a pregnant woman standing with her feet together, viewed from her own perspective looking down on her breasts and abdomen The theory has met with a certain amount of scepticism, but McDermott and McCoid argue that it provides a parsimonious explanation for the features found in representations of the female form from the Upper Palaeolithic (McDermott, 1996; McCoid & McDermott, 1996).

Blombos Cave

Blombos Cave (BBC) is located near Still Bay on the southern Cape coast in South Africa. It is 100m (330ft) from the coast and 35m (115ft) above sea-level. The site was discovered by Christopher Henshilwood in 1991 and has been excavated regularly since.

The site is notable for the discovery of two pieces of ochre, 73,000 years old, engraved with abstract designs; 75,000 year old tick shell (Nassarius kraussianus) beads; 70,000 year old bone tools; and evidence of shellfish collection and possibly fishing 140,000 years ago. All of these are considered to be markers of modern human behaviour, emerging millennia before the so-called “human revolution” 50,000 years ago.

Three MSA phases have been excavated; these are separated from overlaying the LSA by wind-blown sediments. The phases, from top to bottom, are known as M1, M2 and M3. Dating by Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) and Thermoluminescence (TL) methods has yielded dates of c. 73,000 years for the M1 Still Bay phase (oxygen isotope stage OIS-5a/4); c. 77,000 years for the M2 Still Bay phase (OIS-5a); c. 80,000 years for the M2 low density (hiatus) phase (layers CGAA, CGAB, CGAC); and c. 125-140,000 years for the M3 phase (OIS-5e/6). The M1 layer is separated from the more recent LSA deposits by a hiatus layer of sterile aeolian (wind-blown) sand; M2 and M3 are also separated by a hiatus layer. M1 comprises layers CA, CB, CC, CD and CE; M2 comprises CFA, CFB/CFC and CGA; M3 comprises CGB/CH, CI, CJ, CK, CL, CM, CN, CO and CP. These occupation layers are generally less than 10cm thick, suggesting sporadic, brief periods of occupation punctuated by long periods when the cave was not in use (Henshilwood, 2007; Henshilwood et al, 2001; Jacobs et al, 2006; Tribolo et al, 2006).

All three phases of occupation have evidence of extensive exploitation of aquatic resources including large fish, shellfish, seals and dolphins. Land mammals were extensively hunted, with mole-rats making a frequent appearance on the menu (Henshilwood et al, 2001; Henshilwood, 1997).

All three phases have wood-ash scattered indicating regular use of fire for cooking purposes.

Still Bay technology:
Bifacial foliate points associated with the Still Bay tradition were recovered from the M1 and upper M2 phases of Blombos. Earlier phases contain lithic artefacts that do not fit into existing MSA 1 typographic traditions. They represent an earlier phase of the MSA (Henshilwood, 2007, citing Soressi & Henshilwood, 2004, unpublished paper).

Still Bay points are soft hammer worked points, predominantly made on
silcrete. They are typically bifacially retouched, narrowly elliptic to lanceolate shaped tools, with two sharply pointed apices. There is a distinct preference for silcrete as a raw material. Increased use of finer-grained stone, relative to earlier MSA phases, is a characteristic of the Still Bay (Henshilwood et al, 2001). The small, highly-standardised bifacial Still Bay stone points are a marker of behavioural change (Klein, 1999).

Bone tools:
Bone tools are known from the M1 and upper M2 phases, corresponding to the Still Bay complex. The tools include points and awls. The majority are shaped on bone fragments or splinters removed from long bone shafts although in some cases the whole bone is shaped. Bovid bone is most widely used but marine mammal bone and a single bird bone were also employed.

Morphology and use-wear patterns suggest most MSA bone tools (85%) were used to perforate fairly soft material such as well-worked hides, possibly during the manufacture of clothing and other items, probably being used as awls. However three artefacts have been interpreted as projectile points, being visually similar to bone projectile points from various LSA and ethnographic collections. These are symmetrical both at the tip and in overall shape, are worked on the entire surface and tend strongly toward a circular cross-section. In contrast, awls are often asymmetrical in shape, may be incompletely worked and mostly have an elliptical cross-section. Blombos cave bone tools interpreted as awls conform to their LSA counterparts. One of the putative projectile points shows signs of hafting; probably all three were.

MSA bone tools at Blombos Cave were extensively used after manufacture, in many cases re-used even after tip breakage, suggesting that tools were maintained at the site. Tools were probably discarded when the breakage occurred nearer the midpoint, rather than the tip, making the tool too small to hold for further use. Projectile points were probably discarded when they broke in the haft.

One question is that if the people of the African MSA possessed the cognitive ability to make bone tools, why have so few been found in the archaeological record in comparison to Upper Palaeolithic Europe? One possibility is that MSA people only worked bone infrequently. African hardwoods are also suitable for the manufacture of tools such as awls and points, are easier to work than bone and may thus have been used in preference. Wood is rarely preserved in MSA sites, so such tools would be absent from the archaeological record. Another possibility is that bone tools in the MSA may have served specific, time limited functions within small populations that were relatively isolated, in contrast to the demographic picture the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe.

Bone tool use in Africa may have been the exception rather than the rule and purely practical considerations may also be a factor. Though generally bone fares better than wood, taphonomic factors do still dictate against its preservation at many MSA sites. In addition, many MSA sites were excavated before modern recovery techniques became available and much evidence may have been lost.

There is currently a lack of consensus on the evolutionary significance of bone tool technology. It is not known why humans began to produce bone tools or the incidence and consequence of their manufacture in and use in prehistoric societies. Consequently we do not know whether bone tool technology represents one attribute of cultural modernity or that it results from punctuated cultural adaptations that have little evolutionary significance. The association of formal or elaborate bone artefacts and the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe has been used to argue that bone technology is allied with cultural modernity, anatomically modern humans and a package of other euro-centrically derived modern cultural behaviours, but what is observed in one region does not necessarily constitute a general paradigm

Bone tools from Blombos cave may also reflect symbolic behaviour. The techniques used to manufacture objects in many societies are more often a reflection of their symbolic rather than utilitarian function. The careful deliberate polishing of the Blombos MSA bone artefacts interpreted as projectile points has no apparent function and seems to be a technique used to give a distinctive appearance and/or an ‘‘added value’’ to this category of artefacts.

In contemporary hunter-gatherer societies a consequence of the symbolic value of hunting weapons is that they are produced and handled solely by men. The differences in the manufacturing techniques between the projectile points used for hunting and awls used domestically may well reflect the different symbolic functions of these activities; differences that must have been linguistically transmitted (Henshilwood, 2007; Henshilwood et al, 2001).

More than 2000 pieces of ochre have been recovered from the M1 and M2 phases. Two pieces (AA 8937 and AA 8938) from the M1 phase have been unequivocally engraved. Both pieces have a cross-hatched pattern. On AA 8938 this is bounded top and bottom by parallel lines, with a third parallel line running through the middle. The choice of raw material, the situation and preparation of the engraved surface, engraving techniques and final design for both pieces are similar, indicating a deliberate sequence of choices and intent. They are not isolated occurrences or the result of idiosyncratic behaviour (Henshilwood, 2007). Fully syntactical language is arguably an essential requisite to share and transmit the symbolic meaning of beadworks and abstract engravings such as those from Blombos Cave (Henshilwood et al, 2004).

More than 65 “tick” shell (Nassarius kraussianus) beads have been recovered from the MSA levels at Blombos Cave. These shells occur only in estuaries and were probably brought to the site from the Duiwenhoks and Goukou rivers, located around 20km from the cave. This distance rules out the shell having been deposited at the cave by non-human predators. While it is possible that the tick shells were collected as food, the time taken to extract the modest quantities of nutrient available per shell makes this unlikely given the availability of larger shellfish and fish.

All the shells are adult, indicating deliberate selection for size, and arguing again against their presence being the result of non-human agency. All are perforated dorsally with 88 percent having a medium sized perforation near the lip, confirming the perforations to be man-made and deliberate rather than the result of some natural process. A sharp tool, elliptical in section, was most likely used to make the perforations.

The beads show signs of wear from threading with cord or gut and contact with human skin, suggesting they were worn as bracelets or necklaces for a considerable period of time. Traces of ochre suggest possible colouring of beads, though it could also have come from body-paint. Beads were found in groups displaying similar size, colour, perforation type and use-wear pattern, suggesting such groups represented single beadwork items. Wearing of personal ornaments implies a comprehension of self-awareness or self-recognition. As with the engraved ochre, the existence of syntactic language is arguably implied (Henshilwood et al, 2004; d’Errico et al, 2005; Henshilwood, 2007).


Francesco d’Errico, Christopher Henshilwood, Graeme Lawson,Marian Vanhaeren, Anne-Marie Tillier, Marie Soressi, Frederique Bresson, Bruno Maureille, April Nowell, Joseba Lakarra, Lucinda Backwell, and Michele Julien (2003): Archaeological Evidence for the Emergence of Language, Symbolism, and Music – An Alternative Multidisciplinary Perspective, Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2003.

Francesco d’Errico, Christopher Henshilwood, Marian Vanhaerend, Karen van Niekerke (2005): Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave: evidence for symbolic behaviour in the Middle Stone Age, Journal of Human Evolution 48 (2005) 3-24.

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C. S. Henshilwood, J. C. Sealy, R. Yates, K. Cruz-Uribe, P. Goldberg, F. E. Grine, R. G. Klein, C. Poggenpoel, K. van Niekerk, I. Watts (2001): Blombos Cave, Southern Cape, South Africa: Preliminary Report on the 1992–1999 Excavations of the Middle Stone Age Levels, Journal of Archaeological Science (2001) 28, 421–448.

Christopher S. Henshilwood, Francesco d’Errico, Curtis W. Marean, Richard G. Milo, Royden Yates (2001): An early bone tool industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, symbolism and language, Journal of Human Evolution (2001) 41, 631–678.

Christopher S. Henshilwood, Francesco d’Errico, Royden Yates, Zenobia Jacobs, Chantal Tribolo, Geoff A. T. Duller, Norbert Mercier, Judith C. Sealy, Helene Valladas, Ian Watts, Ann G. Wintle (2002): Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa, Science 295, 1278 (2002).

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Henshilwood C (2007): Fully Symbolic Sapiens behaviour: Innovation in the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa, Rethinking the human Revolution, Macdonald Institute.

Zenobia Jacobs, Geoffrey A.T. Duller, Ann G. Wintle, Christopher S. Henshilwood (2006): Extending the chronology of deposits at Blombos Cave, South Africa, back to 140 ka using optical dating of single and multiple grains of quartz, Journal of Human Evolution 51 (2006) 255-273.

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© Christopher Seddon 2009

Radiometric dating techniques

A major problem for archaeologists and palaeontologists is the reliable determination of the ages of artefacts and fossils.

As far back as the 17th Century the Danish geologist Nicolas Steno proposed the Law of Superimposition for sedimentary rocks, noting that sedimentary layers are deposited in a time sequence, with the oldest at the bottom. Over a hundred years later, the British geologist William Smith noticed that sedimentary rock strata contain fossilised flora and fauna, and that these fossils succeed each other from top to bottom in a consistent order that can be identified over long distances. Thus strata can be identified and dated by their fossil content. This is known as the Principle of Faunal succession. Archaeologists apply a similar principal, artefacts and remains that are buried deeper are usually older.

Such techniques can provide reliably relative dating along the lines of “x is older than y”, but to provide reliable absolute values for the ages of x and y is harder. Before the introduction of radiometric dating in the 1950s dating was a rather haphazard affair involving assumptions about the diffusion of ideas and artefacts from centres of civilization where written records were kept and reasonably accurate dates were known. For example, it was assumed – quite incorrectly as it later turned out – that Stonehenge was more recent than the great civilization of Mycenaean Greece.

The idea behind radiometric dating is fairly straightforward. The atoms of which ordinary matter is composed each comprise a positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The nucleus itself is made up of a mixture of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons. The atomic weight is total number of protons plus neutrons in the nucleus and the atomic number is the number of protons only. The atom as a whole has the same number of electrons as it does protons, and is thus electrically neutral. It is the number of electrons (and hence the atomic number) that dictate the chemical properties of an atom and all atoms of a particular chemical element have the same atomic number, thus for example all carbon atom have an atomic number of six. However the atomic weight is not fixed for atoms of a particular element, i.e. the number of neutrons they have can vary. For example carbon can have 6, 7 or 8 neutrons and carbon atoms with atomic weights of 12, 13 and 14 can exist. Such “varieties” are known as isotopes.

The physical and chemical properties of various isotopes of a given element vary only very slightly but the nuclear properties can vary dramatically. For example naturally-occurring uranium is comprised largely of U-238 with only a very small proportion of U-235. It is only the latter type that can be used as a nuclear fuel – or to make bombs. Many elements have some unstable or radioactive isotopes. Atoms of an unstable isotope will over time decay into “daughter products” by internal nuclear change, usually involving the emission of charged particles. For a given radioisotope, this decay takes place at a consistent rate which means that the time taken for half the atoms in a sample to decay – the so called half-life – is fixed for that radioisotope. If an initial sample is 100 grams, then after one half-life there will only be 50 grams left, after two half-lives have elapsed only 25 grams will remain, and so on.

It is upon this principle that radiometric dating is based. Suppose a particular mineral contains an element x which has a number of isotopes, one of which is radioactive and decays to element y with a half-life of t. The mineral when formed does not contain any element y, but as time goes by more and more y will be formed by decay of the radioisotope of x. Analysis of a sample of the mineral for the amount of y contained will enable its age to be determined provided the half-life t and isotopic abundance of the radioisotope is known.

The best-known form of radiometric dating is that involving radiocarbon, or C-14. Carbon – as noted above – has three isotopes. C-12 (the most common form) and C-13 are stable, but C-14 is radioactive, with a half-life of 5730 years, decaying to N-14 (an isotope of nitrogen) and releasing an electron in the process (a process known as beta decay). This is an infinitesimal length of time in comparison to the age of the Earth and one might have expected all the C-14 to have long since decayed. In fact the terrestrial supply is constantly being replenished from the action of interstellar cosmic rays upon the upper atmosphere where moderately energetic neutrons interact with atmospheric nitrogen to produce C-14 and hydrogen. Consequently all atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) contains a very small but measurable percentage of C-14 atoms.

The significance of this is that all living organisms absorb this carbon either directly (as plants photosynthesising) or indirectly (as animals feeding on the plants). The percentage of C-14 out of all the carbon atoms in a living organism will be the same as that in the Earth’s atmosphere. The C-14 atoms it contains are decaying all the time, but these are replenished for as long as the organism lives and continues to absorb carbon. But when it dies it stops absorbing carbon, the replenishment ceases and the percentage of C-14 it contains begins to fall. By determining the percentage of C-14 in human or animal remains or indeed anything containing once-living material, such as wood, and comparing this to the atmospheric percentage, the time since death occurred can be established.

This technique was developed by Willard Libby in 1949 and revolutionised archaeology, earning Libby the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1960. The technique does however have its limitations. Firstly it can only be used for human, animal or plant remains – the ages of tools and other artefacts can only be inferred from datable remains, if any, in the same context. The second is that it only has a limited “range”. Beyond 60,000 years (10 half-lives) the percentage of C-14 remaining is too small to be measured, so the technique cannot be used much further back than the late Middle Palaeolithic. Another problem is the cosmic ray flux that produces C-14 in the upper atmosphere is not constant as was once believed. Variations have to be compensated for by calibration curves, based on samples that have an age that can be attested by independent means such as dendochronology (counting tree-rings). Finally great care must be taken to avoid any contamination of the sample in question with later material as this will introduce errors.

The conventions for quoting dates obtained by radiocarbon dating are a source of considerable confusion. They are generally quoted as Before Present (BP) but “present” in this case is taken to be 1950. Calibrated dates can be quoted, but quite often a quoted date will be left uncalibrated. Uncalibrated dates are given in “radiocarbon years” BP. Calibrated dates are usually suffixed (cal), but “present” is still taken to be 1950. To add to the confusion, Libby’s original value for the half-life of C-14 was later found to be out by 162 years. Libby’s value of 5568 years, now known as the “Libby half-life”, is rather lower than the currently-accepted value of 5730 years, which is known as the Cambridge half-life. Laboratories, however, continue to use the Libby half-life! In fact this does make sense because by quoting all raw uncalibrated data to a consistent standard means any uncalibrated radiocarbon date in the literature can be converted to a calibrated date by applying the same set of calculations. Furthermore the quoted dates are “futureproofed” against any further revision of the C-14 half-life or refinement of the calibration curves.

If one needs to go back further than 60,000 years other techniques must be used. One is Potassium-Argon dating, which relies on the decay of radioactive potassium (K-40) to Ar-40. Due to the long half-life of K-40, the technique is only useful for dating minerals and rocks that are over than 100,000 years old. It has been used to bracket the age of archaeological deposits at Olduvai Gorge and other east African sites with a history of volcanic activity by dating lava flows above and below the deposits.

© Christopher Seddon 2008