The first modern discovery of a Paleolithic statuette took place in 1864, thanks to a nobleman and amateur archeologist by the name of Paul Hurault, the 8th Marquis de Vibraye. While rooting around in the dig site of Laugerie-Basse in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, Hurault unearthed a 3-inch-tall ivory object. Though headless and armless, the figure retained a pronounced chest and clearly articulated vulva, boldly confirming it as female. Hurault, with satirical flair, named her Venus Impudique
, or “immodest Venus,” a playful inversion of the
statue typology Venus pudica
, in which a female figure modestly covers her genitals with a hand or cloth. By contrast, the Paleolithic figure seemed to take no pains to hide her sexuality.
Hurault didn’t know it then, but over 200 similar figurines from the Upper Paleolithic era would be unearthed across Europe and Asia, from France to Siberia, over the next century and a half. He not only launched this rash of discoveries, but also the tradition of calling the statuettes “Venuses.” It was a somewhat misleading name, given that the term originated in ancient Greece, tens of thousands of years after the Paleolithic figurines were made, to describe the goddess of love, sex, and fertility.
Carved in an era before written language, there is no clear proof about what these figurines represent. The most accurate clues scholars have about what the statuettes portrayed and why lie in the formal qualities of the figures themselves. Nearly all of them are petite—several inches long and diminutive enough to hold in a hand or string onto a cord (some even contain carved loops, seemingly for this purpose). The people who forged them led a nomadic life and some scholars conjecture that they intentionally made the figures small and light for easy transport. This hypothesis points to the personal value of the figurines and their possible devotional use. In this reading, the statuettes weren’t objects to be discarded, but ferried with their makers—held or strung close to bodies as they roamed from place to place.