3 Paleolithic Cave Art and Venus Figurines

Paleolithic Cave Art

Archeological discoveries across a broad swath of Europe (especially southern France and northern Spain) include over two hundred caves with spectacular paintings, drawings, and sculpture that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational image-making. Paintings and engravings along the caves’ walls and ceilings fall under the category of parietal art.

The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer. Tracings of human hands and hand stencils were also very popular, as well as abstract patterns called finger flutings. The species found most often were suitable for hunting by humans, but were not necessarily the typical prey found in associated bone deposits. For example, the painters of Lascaux, France left mainly reindeer bones, but this species does not appear at all in the cave paintings; equine species are the most common. Drawings of humans were rare and were usually schematic as opposed to the detailed and naturalistic images of animals.

The pigments used appear to be red and yellow ochre, manganese or carbon for black, and china clay for white. Some of the color may have been mixed with fat. The paint was applied by finger, chewed sticks, or fur for brushes. Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first, and in some caves, many of the images were only engraved in this fashion, taking them out of a strict definition of “cave painting.” (3)



Venus Figurines

“Venus figurines” is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women that have been found mostly in Europe, but also in Asia and Siberia, dating from the Upper Paleolithic. These figures are all quite small, between 4 and 25 cm tall, and carved mainly in steatite, limestone, bone, or ivory. These sculptures are collectively described as “Venus” figurines in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty, as early historians assumed they represented an ideal of beauty from the time.

The Venus figurines have sometimes been interpreted as representing a mother goddess; the abundance of such female imagery has led some to believe that Upper Paleolithic (and later Neolithic) societies had a female-centered religion and a female-dominated society. Various other explanations for the purpose of the figurines have been proposed, such as the hypothesis that the figurines were created as self-portraits of actual women.

Venus figures are characterized by shared stylistic features, such as an oval shape, large belly, wide-set thighs, large breasts, and the typical absence of arms and feet. Hundreds of these sculptures have been found both in open-air settlements and caves.


The Venus of Hohle Fels, a 6 cm figure of a woman carved from a mammoth’s tusk, was discovered in Germany’s Hohle Fels cave in 2008 and represents one of the earliest found sculptures of this type.

Image of the Venus of Hohle Fels. What remains of the hewn statuette are etchings across her pronounced torso as well as an accentuated bust to emphasize her child-bearing capabilities.
Venus of Hohle Fels by Catatine, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The Venus of Willendorf is a particularly famous example of the Venus figure. While initially thought to be symbols of fertility, or of a fertility goddess, the true significance of the Venus figure remains obscure, as does much of prehistoric art. (5)
Image of the Venus of Willendorf. The ochre stained statuette included an accentuated bust and pronounced belly to emphasize her heightened fertility. While she is faceless, the carver of the Venus has etched woven hair into the statue.
Venus of Willendorf by Matthias Kabel is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0




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