Thursday, May 14, 2009

German 'Venus' may be oldest yet


A grotesque carving in mammoth ivory is arguably the world's oldest depiction of a human figure, scientists say.

The distorted sculpture, 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".

Moreover, the range and sophistication of similar materials found across the Schwabian region of southern Germany has led some researchers to believe cave complexes such as Hohle Fels could have been early artists' workshops.

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 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 Nicholas Conard, from the department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, at Tübingen University, is the author of the scientific paper reported in Nature magazine. He has described many of the extraordinary finds at Hohle Fels.

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

"The most noteworthy figurative representations of roughly comparable age outside Swabia are limited to the schematic, monochrome, red paintings on rock fragments from Fumane Cave in northern Italy; the standing figurine from Stratzing in the Wachau of Lower Austria; and the impressive paintings from Grotte Chauvet in the Ardeche in southern France," he writes.

source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8047319.stm

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