April Nowell is a Paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. The idea that curvaceous figurines are prehistoric pornography is an excuse to legitimize modern behavior as having ancient roots, she says. Her paper, "Pornography is in the eye of the beholder: Sex, sexuality and sexism in the study of Upper Paleolithic figurines," co-authored with Melanie Chang, will appear next year.
Jude Isabella: Which Paleolithic images and artifacts have been described as pornography?
April Nowell: The Venus figurines of women, some with exaggerated anatomical features, and ancient rock art, like the image from the Abri Castanet site in France that is supposedly of female genitalia.
JI: You take issue with this interpretation. Who is responsible for spreading it, journalists or scientists?
AN: People are fascinated by prehistory, and the media wants to write stories that attract readers—to use a cliché, sex sells. But when a New York Times headline reads "A Precursor to Playboy: Graphic Images in Rock," and Discover magazine asserts that man's obsession with pornography dates back to "Cro-Magnon days" based on "the famous 26,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf statuette ... [with] GG-cup breasts and a hippopotamal butt," I think a line is crossed. To be fair, archaeologists are partially responsible—we need to choose our words carefully.
JI: Having studied Upper Paleolithic figurines closely, what did you find?
AN: They are incredibly varied beyond the few figurines seen over and over again: the Venus of Hohle Fels, the Venus of Willendorf, and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. Some are male, some are female; some are human, some are animals or fantastical creatures; some wear items of clothing, others do not. A recent study by my doctoral student Allison Tripp and her colleague Naomi Schmidt demonstrated that the body shapes of female figurines from around 25,000 years ago correspond to women at many different stages of life; they're a variety of shapes and sizes. All of this suggests that there are multiple interpretations.
JI: Aren't other interpretations of paleo art just as speculative as calling them pornographic?
AN: Yes, but when we interpret Paleolithic art more broadly, we talk about "hunting magic" or "religion" or "fertility magic." I don't think these interpretations have the same social ramifications as pornography. When respected journals—Nature for example—use terms such as "Prehistoric pin-up" and "35,000-year-old sex object," and a German museum proclaims that a figurine is either an "earth mother or pin-up girl" (as if no other roles for women could have existed in prehistory), they carry weight and authority. This allows journalists and researchers, evolutionary psychologists in particular, to legitimize and naturalize contemporary western values and behaviors by tracing them back to the "mist of prehistory."
JI: Will we ever understand what ancient art really means?
AN: The French, in particular, are doing incredible work analyzing paint recipes and tracing the movement of the ancient artists as they painted. We may never have the knowledge to say, "This painting of a bison meant this," but I am confident that a detailed study of the corpus of Ice Age imagery, including the figurines, will give us a window on to the "lived life" in the Paleolithic.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.