Oldest human figure: the swabian venus

In a Swabian cave, archaeologists make a sensational find. Their Venus made of ivory is the world’s oldest figure depicting a human being.

The "Venus from the Hohlen Fels" is 35,000 to 40,000 years old. Image: h. jensen/University of Tubingen.

Tubingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard has once again managed to shake up our knowledge of human prehistory. His research group has found the oldest figurative representation of a human being – in the "Hohler Fels" cave near Schelklingen in the Alb-Donau district. On Wednesday, the archaeology professor presented the find to the public. The six-centimeter Venus figure, carved from mammoth ivory, is at least 35,000 years old – perhaps even 40,000 years. The figure is a sensation, said the archaeologist. It sheds a completely new light on the emergence of art in Europe and probably around the world.

In the past 150 years, archaeologists have found the oldest works of art known worldwide in the Swabian Alb. An overview:

1939: In the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in the Lone Valley, researchers find ivory fragments. 30 years later, they succeed in assembling the famous Lion Man from them.

1999: In the "Hohlen Fels" experts find a horse’s head carved from ivory.

2002: The replica of a water bird in the Hohlen Fels provides evidence of ornithological knowledge more than 30,000 years ago.

2004: In the Geibenklosterle cave near Blaubeuren, experts find the world’s oldest known flute to date.

2006: The famous 3.7-centimeter ivory mammoth is found in the Vogelherd Cave in the Lone Valley.

2008: In six fragments, experts find the 40,000-year-old "Venus vom Hohlen Fels". (dpa)

The Venus figurine was found by a Swiss student from Conard’s research group back in September 2008. It was very quickly clear that the find was something very special. "We were all speechless," Nicholas Conard describes the situation. Until this week, everyone involved was condemned to silence. Then, this Thursday, an extensive report by the Tubingen archaeologist on the "sensational find" appeared in the internationally renowned science magazine Nature.

From September 2009, the figure will be on display together with other prehistoric finds in the Stuttgart Art Building.

The figure, which consists of six individual fragments, has been excellently preserved, Conard reported. Only the left arm and the left shoulder are now missing.

The figure is carved in great detail, the archaeologist described the find. The extreme emphasis on the breasts and vulva is particularly striking. The face and legs, on the other hand, are greatly reduced or shortened. Above, at the barely visible head is a small eyelet. It shows that Venus was worn as a pendant on the neck.

What purpose the figure once had, no one can say so far, Conard said. Almost certainly, however, it is an expression of fertility, he said.

"By 21st-century standards, this figurine would be classified as bordering on pornography," writes archaeologist Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, in an accompanying article in the current issue of Nature. Mellars also points out that numerous other man-made figurines have been found before in this Swabian region. They all date to a time when Homo sapiens migrated to Europe (about 40,000 years ago) and prevailed over Neanderthals.

The experts therefore assume that the Swabian region belongs to the cradle from where the figurative representation spread. Conard may even not exclude that the first cultural people in the world lived on the Swabian Alb. In any case, according to Conard, essential impulses for the development of music and figurative representation came from the Alb.

However, the experts cannot completely rule out the possibility that the carvings were made by Neanderthals. After all, Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis lived close to each other for a while.

It is also striking that the Venus from the Hohlen Fels is very similar to a figure almost 10,000 years younger, the "Venus from Willendorf", in Austria. This one is also very wrinkled and must be described as fat. Likewise, the sexual characteristics are extremely overemphasized. This representation of women must have been a tradition for a long time.

The working group of Nicholas Conard has been searching for remains of our ancestors in the Hohlen Fels for twelve years now. He has already made numerous finds, the body of a water bird, for example, and a year later he found its head. Soon new excavations will begin. Of course, Conard would like to find the missing piece of his Venus. He is sure: "If it is still there, we will find it."

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