Stone Age Venus figurines were totems of survival, not sex, study suggests

Published 22nd December 2020
Credit: Natural History Museum Vienna
Stone Age Venus figurines were totems of survival, not sex, study suggests
Written by Megan Marples, CNN
A new theory about the iconic Venus figurines has suggested that the sculptures represent how climate change affected humans over 30,000 years ago.
The Venus figurines are statuettes depicting obese women that, up until now, were thought to have been associated with fertility and beauty. A recent study published in "Obesity" has suggested instead that the figurines are totems of survival in extreme conditions.
Unlike the challenges of global warming people face today, humans 38,000 to 14,000 years ago struggled with colder temperatures due to advancing glaciers. This made it harder for people to meet their nutritional needs, and population sizes began to dwindle, according to the study.
Fat is a form of stored energy, said study author Dr. Richard Johnson, Tomas Berl professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and that fat can be lifesaving when food is not available, especially to pregnant women.
"Our studies suggest these figurines did not represent sexual totems, or a representation of male desire, but rather as a means for providing strength to motherhood even in the most adverse situations," Johnson said.

Surviving harsh conditions

The researchers took waist-hip and waist-shoulder measurements of all known Venus figurines, which were found over hundreds of years across Europe and western Russia. After comparing the measurements to the geographical locations of where each sculpture was found, the team discovered that the more obese figurines were found further north near the glaciers.
The further the figurines were from the glaciers, Johnson said, the less pronounced their body proportions were. Through this data, the researchers concluded that the Venus figurines could represent more than fertility art.
"Our studies emphasize how climate change likely had profound effects on human culture and art, and that culture, through art, encoded desired behaviors for survival," Johnson said.
This theory is a new one, said William Haviland, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Vermont, who was not involved in the study. Although he hadn't heard of the idea before, he believes that this new concept should be pursued.
"At least they are based on real data, rather than pure speculation," Haviland said.
The figurines could also have spiritual purposes, Johnson said, similar to a good luck amulet. This specific concept was known as "sympathetic magic," in which someone can be supernaturally affected by an object that represents them.
In the case of the Venus figurines, Johnson proposed that they were passed on from mothers to daughters for survival during the winter.
In the future, Johnson hopes to do further research into how climatic stress affected human culture. One idea he is interested in researching is whether climate change affected Ice Age Europeans migrating to North Africa.
Top image: The study researchers took waist-hip and waist-shoulder measurements of the figurines including Venus of Willendorf.