Reconsidering: The Venus figurines

Before we get started: Warning for nudity below the cut, may be NSFW.

What’s the Mona Lisa of the archaeological world? Tough question, but many would argue that a strong contender would be the Venus figurines.

The Venus of Willemdorf, possibly the most famous Venus figurine (Image credit: The Bradshaw Foundation).

These little sculptures are large enough to fit in the palm of your hand and older than the Ice Age – in fact, most were probably made around 27,000 – 21,000 BCE (AKA: Before the Common Era). Impressive vintage, certainly, but I think something else about this sculpture catches your attention.

Like, I don’t know… the insane proportions.

Think about the diet of the Upper Paeleolithic. These were hunter-gatherers living off of the land, nomadic tribes or clans, not farmers who were able to grow a surplus of food for the whole year. These were people who would run their prey to exhaustion (a technique known as pursuit predation) and walked miles to travel because they didn’t have horses or carts. These people would’ve been trim, possibly lean. Obesity didn’t begin to manifest until the development of agriculture in the Neolithic, around 9,000-7,000 BCE.

And then there are the more extreme forms of Venus Figurine…

The Venus de Lespugue, the lines on the back of the legs has been described as a skirt, although it appears to be below the buttocks (Image credit:

Seriously, if you saw someone shaped like that, your first reaction would probably be reaching for the phone to call an ambulance. Her breasts don’t so much rest on her stomach as take the place of her stomach; her torso appears reasonably proportioned from the back, but wrong in the front; it’s unclear (to me, at least) whether the widest part represents her hips or her buttocks; and her legs, while dainty, don’t have any feet.

So why the peculiar dimensions?

Well, when they were first found, archaeologists claimed they represented the Ideal Woman. Except that (as many pointed out) women really don’t look like that. So, they decided these must be figures of a Mother Goddess or were fertility totems. It seemed reasonable. Breasts do grow larger when a woman is pregnant or beast-feeding, weight is gained during these times as well, and what better way to demonstrate how fertile a woman is than by depicting her as with child or shortly after childbirth? It seems a reasonable argument.

Except no pregnant woman looks like the Venus de Lespugue. Hmm. Maybe they had a bad carver, or it was a fluke?

Left: One of the Kostienki Venus figures and Right: the Venus vom Hohle Fels (Image Credit: Don’s Maps;

Ummm…. maybe not.

These bizarre carvings confused archaeologists, scholars, journalists, and public alike, with many equally strange and bewildering explanations popping up for these little creations.

Then, in 1996, Professor Leroy McDermott stepped forward with a new theory: what if these aren’t what people saw when they looked at or thought about women? What if these were how women were seen by themselves?

Think about it: there are no mirrors, no reflective surfaces (aside from still water and even that’s not great). You can get a description of yourself from others (your eyes are green, like you dad’s. You have your grandma’s nose, etc.) but no real knowledge of what you really look like. So you look down at yourself and take that persepective as your reference. McDermott took pictures of heavily pregnant caucasian women in their mid-20s and compared them to images of the Venus figurines taken at the same perspective and what was the result?

Image credit: McDermott 1996, page 240-241, fig. 5-6.

Perhaps not a perfect match, but pretty damn close. It explains the strange perspectives, the tapering legs and feet, why there’s little to no details on the heads… on those points alone, it’s quite persuasive.

Also, this may seem a simple thing to say but at the time? This was pretty huge. Because there was still a huge bias in archaeology (and other disciplines) to see everything as being made by men and for men, no matter what. It was automatic – everywhere you look, even the language was biased towards male creators – “craftsmen“, for example. Feminists were only just gaining a foothold to argua their ideas and perspectives. For something as simple as a shift in perspective, there was a lot of political and social weight wrapped up in it.

Needless to say, there was a fair amount of backlash and skepticism towards this theory, some undoubtably just from the traditional viewpoint. However, there are some other (more sensible) arguments against this theory. Firstly – the subjects McDermott chose for the comparisons. Why only women? There are many male or prepubescent figurines too, how does this account for them? Why only pregnant women? Couldn’t other body shapes also produce the same effect? Is McDermott suggesting that pregnancy was an important thing for these women to document? That would be a stretch beyond what the evidence would support. And finally, why only young women? Why not elderly women, who may want their families to remember them after they passed away? Or women who had reached the menopause, documenting their bodies after their fertility had gone but with all the signs of a woman who had raised children?

Secondly – this doesn’t explain the few figurines in poses, like the “dancing Venus of Galgenburg“. This would be difficult to deal with anyway – outliers are always more difficult to account for, no matter what the theory. But perhaps the ladies felt that a specific action or duty was part of who they were and needed to be part of this carving? Or perhaps, if the bodies of these figurines didn’t correspond to the perspective theory, perhaps they were for completely different purposes?

Finally – no other paeleolithic art uses complicated perspectives at all. This is probably the biggest issue, art is a complex thing with strict rules, even in this period. And yet, no rock art, animals sculptures, or animal figurines show any hint of perspective shifts. But should that surprise us? If these carvings are a representation of what they see when they look at an animal or ourselves – why would they carve the animal, that they are looking at from a distance, from the animal’s prespective? If these are recordings of what they saw around them, it makes no sense to change up the perspective.

Personally, I think this is a compelling theory. The perspectives are very close and any woman (pregnant or not) could create a very similar figurine by looking down at themselves and trying to capture that in a carving. It’s got issues that could be addressed, sure. But it also presents an important message that I think we often overlook in archaeology – that things can be made by the individual, for the curiosity and/or amusement of the individual. We should never overlook the individual’s agency and fall straight into that ol’ “ritual object” trap. And I like how it addresses the issue of seeing people as objects, of the (still kinda creepy) way people looked at these female figures and saw their… sexuality as the only reason for making them. The perspective theory’s able to accept the exaggerated female body parts and give the power and the control back to the women they may (or may not) represent – something that our society still struggles with.

But what do you think? Could there be other explanations? Does McDermott’s theory make sense? Let me know!

Until then, Bone Digger out.


McDermott, LeRoy. “Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines.” Current Anthropology 37, no. 2 (1996): 227-75.


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