Page last updated at 10:52 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 11:52 UK

German 'Venus' may be oldest yet

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Venus of Hohle Fels (H.Jensen; University of Tubingen)
The sculpture is made from mammoth ivory

A remarkable ivory carving is arguably the oldest sculpture of a human figure yet found, scientists say.

The distorted object, which portrays a woman with huge breasts, big buttocks and exaggerated genitals, is thought to be at least 35,000 years old.

The 6cm-tall figurine, reported in the journal Nature, is the latest find to come from Hohle Fels Cave in Germany.

Previous discoveries have included exquisite carvings of animals, and an object that could be a stone "sex toy".

Professor Nicholas Conard, from the department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, at Tübingen University, said is was understandable that many would also view the new discovery in a pornographic light, but he cautioned against jumping too quickly to a particular interpretation.

"We project our ideas of today on to this image from 40,000 years ago," he told the BBC.

"I think there are good reasons to emphasise sexual interpretations, but we really don't know whether it is coming from a more male or a more female perspective. We don't know very much about how the artefact was used."

Finger detail

The Venus of Hohle Fels was found in six fragments in September 2008. It is still missing its left arm and shoulder, but researchers are hopeful these will emerge in future excavations of the cave's sediments.

The figurine does not have a head. Rather, it has a carefully carved ring located off-centre above its broad shoulders.

The polished nature of the ring suggests the Venus was probably suspended as a pendant.

The hands have precisely carved fingers, with five digits clearly visible on the left hand and four on the right hand.

The pronounced breasts, buttocks and genitals familiar in later Venuses are usually interpreted to be expressions of fertility.

The Venus shows no signs of having been covered with pigments. It is, though, marked by a series of cut lines.

The artefact is presumed to have been made by modern humans (Homo sapiens) even though Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were still present in Europe at this time.

"We find all kinds of things in our caves - musical instruments, all kinds of ornaments, mythical representations of lion-men, not to mention all the different stone tools, bone tools, ivory tools, [and] antler tools. But we have no human bones that really tell us one way or the other who made these artefacts. I assume they were made by modern humans," said Professor Conard.

Venus of Hohle Fels (H.Jensen; University of Tubingen)
The figurine is presumed to have been made by modern humans

The Hohle Fels object is of an age where radiocarbon dating techniques become somewhat uncertain. Scientists say, however, that it is unquestionably older than previous finds associated with, for example, European Gravettian culture.

These typically date from between 22,000 and 27,000 years ago, with the most famous item probably being the Venus of Willendorf which was discovered in 1908.

Professor Conard has described many of the extraordinary finds at Hohle Fels.

He says the Venus is perhaps the earliest example of figurative art worldwide.

"There's one site in northern Italy - Fumane - that has some very schematic, monochrome red depictions that are certainly figurative art, although it's often difficult to work out what's being depicted," he said.

"They're of comparable age; we don't have enough resolution to say which is older. It is entirely plausible that the female figurine from Hohle Fels is the oldest figurative art anywhere."

Claims have been made for figurines that are much older - even hundreds of thousands of years old. The Berekhat Ram figure from Israel and the Tan-Tan figure from Morocco, for example, have been presented as the work of Homo erectus.

But many sceptical researchers believe these items, although they may have been used by more ancient species, are really accidents of nature; they are objects that have been moulded into human form through chance geological processes.

Listen to Science in Action this week on the BBC World Service to hear more from Nicholas Conard. This edition will be broadcast on Friday 15 May, and available on-line from 0930 GMT

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