This article does not claim to be a comprehensive survey of depictions of women, and it is orientated to Eurasia because of its focus upon figurines. My knowledge does not extend to female representation outside that region, but I may expand upon this article in the future.
By far the most common representations of women in the Old and New Stone Ages were small statuettes carved mostly from stone or ivory, of which the ‘Woman of Willendorf’ is one of the best known. These were created over a span of 20,000 years, the first of them appearing during the Aurignacian and Gravettian periods. In the Paleolithic, they appear across a huge area from France to Siberia; by the Neolithic this area shifts towards the Mediterranean and Near East. The abundance of female images suggests that women held a prominent role in prehistoric society — as we have discussed, this role is likely to have been different to men’s, but equal in importance.
The Woman of Willendorf, discovered at a Paleolithic site in Austria. It was carved from limestone ca. 24,000–22,000 years ago, and was once painted with red ochre. At 11cm long, it fits snugly into the palm of the hand. Photo: MatthiasKabel.
These figurines tend to emphasise female attributes — the breasts, buttocks, crotch, belly and thighs — while showing little interest in the face and extremities. The Woman of Willendorf is a good example: her breasts and genitals are carefully carved, but her arms, hands and feet are very understated and she has no face at all. Other well-known figurines include ‘the Lady in the Hood’ from Brassempouy, and ones made of baked clay from Dolní Věstonice. You can find more images of female figurines here. They are usually naked and sometimes plump, and some appear to be wearing jewellery or garments. Many have holes so that they may be worn as pendants.
It is unlikely that hunter-gatherer women could have achieved the plumpness of some of statuettes, and they are all stylised. So they cannot be understood simplistically as works of naturalism. The artists have chosen particular forms to convey social meanings; the problem is trying to reconstruct those meanings thousands of years later, often without knowing the stratigraphic context. There is, however, no shortage of theories.
Interpreting the figurines
One view could be that Paleolithic female figurines simply celebrate sex, which would not be extraordinary in itself. But that only begs two questions: why are they not more realistic, and why is sexual male imagery so rare (exceptions include for example the phallus found at the Hohle Fels cave in Germany). Early interpretations (by exclusively male archaeologists) saw the figurines, with their clearly marked sex organs, in erotic terms as a kind of pornography for Stone Age men. This interpretation of female images as serving male pleasure owes more to sexism than archaeology.
The most popular theory is that the figurines represent an interest in fertility. Men and/or women might have carved them as charms to encourage success in childbirth, perhaps to be worn by the woman. In this interpretation they become an affirmation of the idea of birth and rebirth, with the female as the ‘origin’ of life. The irony of this was not lost on Eleanor Leacock:
Women’s power of childbearing has been a focus for awe and even fear as long ago as the Upper Paleolithic, judging from the fertility figurines that date from that period. This point is easy to overlook, for the ability to bear children has led in our society not to respect but to women’s oppression.
There has also been speculation about the figurines playing a role in fertility ‘cults’, but a cult implies rituals and practices for which, in the Paleolithic, little convincing archaeological evidence has been found. The site of Kostienki I in the Don Valley in Russia does provide an example: the great majority of the female statuettes found by archaeologists were buried in pits next to dwelling places together with tools and other items. The pits were covered with mammoth bones — almost like a dwelling constructed for the figurine — and were then filled in with silt and red ochre. This is evidence of ritual activity, but its purpose is unclear.
The ‘fertility’ theory has an obvious connection with the ‘magic’ theory of Paleolithic art, according to which images of pregnant women would be created to encourage pregnancy in real women. But the idea of sympathetic magic is not as convincing now as it seemed in the early twentieth century. Also, fertility is a greater concern for agricultural communities, which depend upon an adequate supply of human labour and the success of crops, than for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers whose population has practical limits. If the ‘fertility figurine’ idea may be correct in some cases, it cannot be taken as a blanket explanation. The figurines from Mal’ta in Siberia, for example, are slim and flat-bellied, which makes associations with fertility difficult to substantiate.
Figurine of a woman carved from mammoth ivory, ca. 23,000 years ago, found at Mal’ta in Siberia.
In 1981 the anthropologist Patricia Rice  found, after studying 188 figurines, that they depict women in a variety of types, conditions and ages: only a small proportion appear to be pregnant. There are also no images of children. Ethnography — though as ever we must be cautious about what it can tell us — has revealed no especial interest in fertility, or in the creation of female figurines devoted to it, among surviving hunter-gatherer peoples.
The ascribing of sexual meanings to images of nude women may owe more to the socialisation of (male) archaeologists than the images themselves. But we should equally not assume that an interest in female fertility or sexuality is unique to men. The figurines may be self-images by women, uninhibited by the mores of a less egalitarian society. LeRoy McDermott claimed that the stylisation of the figures means that they were self-images made by women, but there’s no evidence either way. By the same token, despite the existence of a male-defined culture of sexism, there is no single ‘male’ viewpoint, in prehistory any more than there is today.
Another interpretation proposes that prehistoric society was matriarchal, and in this context the figurines become images of a ‘mother goddess’. The existence of a prehistoric matriarchy was proposed as early as 1861 by Johann Bachofen, whose Mutterrecht und Urreligion (Mother Right and the Origins of Religion) is referred to by Engels in Origin. The theory that prehistory had been dominated by women and a mother-centred religion was taken up from the 1960s by sections of the feminist movement, keen to find positive alternatives to a history of oppression. Its less fortunate outcome was a quasi-mystical literature of minimal scientific value. Theories of a prehistoric matriarchy are not backed by anthropological evidence, nor is there evidence that Paleolithic images represented goddesses — deities probably don’t appear before the development of institutionalised religion during the late Neolithic. The Paleolithic images could be read as precursors of those religions, but again there can be no certainty.
The figurines were created over several millennia in an area spanning two continents, and the only thing they definitely have in common is their female subject matter. The temptation to look for a universal meaning is foiled at every turn. The figurines do not all have the same characteristics. Among the figurines from France alone, for example, the ‘Lady in the Hood’ from Brassempouy is unusual in having a carefully carved face and is also unusually naturalistic. So a single interpretation is unlikely to emerge. In reality, the figurines probably had different meanings for different communities: items for fertility ritual, charms, toys for children, teaching aids, or even simply ‘art for art’s sake’. Such interpretation is an ongoing challenge for archaeologists and anthropologists. However, in my view one conclusion can be made, which I explain at the end.
Women or Venuses?
I have illustrated above the ‘Woman of Willendorf’. Its more commonly used name is the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf, and the term ‘Venus’ has been applied to many Stone Age images of women. The term has an undistinguished history, coined by male archaeologists and predicated upon prejudice. It was first used in 1864 by the French archaeologist, the Marquis de Vibraye, when he found a Magdalenian figurine of a woman. This was perhaps a nod to classical art: based upon the Greek goddess Aphrodite, Venus was the Roman goddess of sex and beauty. But another archaeologist, Edouard Piette, later used the term for several sculptures found at Brassempouy in 1892, for reasons described by Randall White:
He identified two kinds of statuettes, obese and slim... He interpreted the slim figures from Brassempouy as Egyptian-like, and the other statuettes, representing much more ample women, were interpreted as South African (Bushman) types.
Because the obese figurines did not accord with the prevailing European ideal of female beauty (one which is still with us in even more extreme form), Piette made a link with the steatopygous physique of some African women and used the term ‘Venus’ out of a sense of irony. The term continued to be used through the twentieth century as more images were found and given names. We may agree with White’s conclusion:
The application of the term ‘Venus’ resulted not from some extension to the Paleolithic of the reverence for classical art, nor does it involve a preoccupation with fertility. Rather, it stems directly from Western European racial/racist attitudes of the early twentieth century... In the light of this history, I would recommend abandoning ‘Venus’ terminology as inherently tainted and interpretively vacuous.
The ‘Venus’ label brings with it associations which do not help us to interpret the meaning of the figurine. The lesson is that our attitude to the art of the past is always coloured by our own cultural assumptions. When male archaeologists saw images of nude and well-endowed women, often with an unabashed delineation of the pudenda, they immediately evoked the goddess of sex and beauty. This tells us more about the society those archaeologists lived in than it does about Paleolithic art. Images of Aphrodite or Venus that have survived from ancient Greece and Rome often show the goddess naked, modestly trying to conceal her sexual organs with a gesture that does the exact opposite — draw attention to them (a good example is the Aphrodite of Cnidos by Praxiteles). Produced well after men had become dominant, these are principally works of sexual voyeurism.
The creators of Paleolithic art were humans like us, but they were living in a different kind of society. The Woman of Willendorf is a very frank object — the emphasis on sexual characteristics is uninhibited by the shame or repression that were to become expected female behaviours in male-dominated class society. As Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe put it, she is female, but she has not yet learned to be feminine.
Other female imagery of the Paleolithic
Not all Paleolithic imagery of women exists as statuettes. Examples have been found in painting, such as the drawing of the lower half of a woman on the ceiling of the cave at Chauvet (which strongly emphasises her crotch), and the three women engraved at Angles-sur-l’Anglin. An example of bas-relief is the image known as the ‘Woman with a Horn’. This is rare for being fixed art: it was engraved from limestone in a cave found at Laussel, near Lascaux in France.
The ‘Woman with a Horn’ from Laussel, ca. 25,000–20,000 years ago.
In her right hand the woman is holding a crescent-shaped object etched with thirteen incisions, towards which her head is turned. Commentators have seen the object as a bison horn; as a cornucopia, or ‘horn of plenty’; or as a moon, the incisions referring to the thirteen lunar months in the year. The woman’s left hand is placed upon her belly in what may be an indication of pregnancy, or a correspondence of the held object with her own cycle or the rhythms of nature. This is one of the few images where a theme of ‘fertility’ can claim some support from the artwork itself.
Another aspect of female imagery are engravings of what seem to be vulvae, carved into cave walls. Examples include those found near Les Eyzies in France. These are among the very earliest use of symbols, and the female pubic triangle survived as a symbol into the literate age as the basis for the Sumerian character for ‘woman’.
R. Dale Guthrie wrote that these images bore the “stamp of male youthful humour and ardour” and were “suggestive of unsophisticated, probably adolescent or juvenile, artists.” But this may be little more than the old sexist reading in a new form. In a society that traced lineage through the mother, these images may have served as statements of stability, heritage or ultimate origin, or as celebrations of the reproductive power of women.
Interpretatively, we face the same difficulties as with the statuettes. These images would have had a great range of meanings specific to the cultures that produced them, but we do not know what they were: to see them as ‘sacred’ is a modern assumption. We can probably say that the predominance of images of female sexuality provide evidence that women were held in high regard during the Paleolithic. Yet even this is uncertain. If quantity alone were a measure of status, the magazine shelves of modern supermarkets would be evidence of outright gynocracy.
Our questions about the meaning of Paleolithic art in general, and of its depictions of women in particular, can currently be answered only by educated speculation. Archaeologists still have no idea whether Paleolithic art was made by men, women or both: if we knew the sex of the artists, it would cast new light upon those questions, although it would not by itself answer them. We don’t know why the figurines only appear in Eurasia, when humans had spread across most of the world. Our only option is a materialist analysis of the evidence, and self-awareness of our own cultural and gender assumptions.
We see nothing in Paleolithic art to contradict the belief that the sexes were of roughly equal status under primitive communism. The predominance of female images must however be explained. It probably reflects the central role of women in a matrilineal society that depended upon women for its own reproduction and for the majority of its calorie intake . That ‘central role’ should not be mistaken for disproportionate political or economic power — matrilinearity does not mean matriarchy. Nor should the equality and peacefulness of prehistoric society be credited to women and their ‘nurturing’ nature, itself a gendered construct based upon subsequent prejudices; egalitarianism was in reality based upon the material limitations of production. Women are prominent in Paleolithic art for the same reason that animals are so prominent — they are central parts of the world view of those societies, and therefore of their artists.
In another article we will look at how the representation of women changed with their loss of status after the Neolithic Revolution.
 Leacock, Introduction (1972) to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
 Patricia C. Rice, ‘Prehistoric Venuses: Symbols of motherhood or womanhood?’, Journal of Anthropological Research 37 (1981).
 Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Mankind (2003).
 R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2006).
 See Piero P. Giorgi, ‘A new interpretation of female symbols and figures produced in prehistoric Europe — The hypothesis of the centrality of women’ (2007). Available in PDF format here.