Venus of Willendorf’s Sister

Apparently I am behind-the-times in regards to recent prehistoric discoveries. I heard that the world’s oldest instrument was recently discovered in Hohle Fels, Germany – it’s a flute (carved from the bone of a griffon vulture) that is at least 35,000 years old. (You can read more about this flute here and can listen to a replica of the flute played here). I didn’t know, though, that this flute was discovered in sediment next to a female statuette (the discovery of which was announced last May).

This nude, buxom female figurine, the Venus of Hohle Fels, is at least 35,000 years old (shown above). It is one of the oldest known examples of figurative art. The exaggerated emphasis on the female genitalia and breasts are a common feature in prehistoric art, as can be observed in statuettes like the Venus of Willendorf (ca. 28,000-25,000 BC, shown below). It is thought that statuettes like these were used for some type of fertility ritual.

However, there is one major difference between these two statuettes. The Venus of Willendorf has a head full of tight, stylized curls, whereas the Venus of Hohle Fels is headless. Intentionally headless. Instead of a head, there is a carved ring at the top of the figurine, supposedly so that the statuette could be dangled from some type of string. I think it’s especially interesting that the head is missing – this reinforces the fact that these statuettes were not intended to represent specific individuals (which is also the reasoning for why the Venus of Willendorf does not have any facial characteristics).

If you’re interested, you can read more about the Venus of Hohle Fels here.

What do you think of these new discoveries?

  • heidenkind says:

    Well, my first thought is that I'm surprised the oldest instrument in the world isn't a drum! My second thought was that if the Hohle Venus is Willendorf's sister, it's the ugly sister. LOL 😉

    But the fact that it was found near musical instruments is interesting. That definitely adds credence to the theory that they were used in prehistoric ritual.

  • E says:

    I've noticed via your blog (and because you said it) that a lot of the prehistoric art has exaggerated genitalia. I'm wondering why. Was it just for females?

  • M says:

    E, there are a lot of things we don't know about prehistoric peoples. It's thought that the exaggerated reproductive organs and breasts emphasize the fertility of the statuette. These statuettes were probably used in some sort of fertility rite or ritual, but we really don't know much beyond that. It can be assumed that reproduction and the nourishing of children were extremely important to prehistoric peoples.

    And yes, most of the figurines are female. There are some male figurines, but they are very rare. I like to think that this is because prehistoric people were in awe of the female body: its reproductive powers, its ability to create milk and sustain life, etc. In terms of reproduction, female bodies are a lot more "mystical" than male bodies.

    And heidenkind, I really like your point about the statue being discovered near a musical instrument! I didn't even think about that connection to prehistoric ritual. Good call!

  • rachsticle says:

    Sometimes I think that these female figures are headless to devalue the individual nature of the woman as an individual being thus generalizing females. Blah feminist rant 🙂

  • M says:

    Rach, I love your feminist rants. And hey, your feminist reading of these statues is totally acceptable in a postmodern world! 🙂

    In contrast to these statuettes, it is interesting to note that individualized features can be found in representations of prehistoric men. (Although I'm sure that there are generic representations of male figures as well.) Anyhow, it's an interesting contrast.

  • ixoj says:

    I'm with Rachsticle on this one- women with no head/no facial features and exaggerated genitalia and breasts = objects. Objects usually "belonging" to the men.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.