How Everything started: Prehistoric sculpture

Prehistoric sculpture!

Hi everyone!

In this second episode of “How everything started” I talk about the first sculptures created by our ancestors.

Let’s start!

How Everything started: Prehistoric sculpture

Once again, even if just first steps in the Art evolution, there are interesting elements that clarify how the hominids used to think!

Hi everyone! Today we are going to continue our Art knowledge approach when everything started: the prehistoric era. Here in particular, after our first step analyzing prehistoric paintings, I want to go over the first sculptures created by our ancestors.

First of all we need to specify that art sculptures’ examples have been discovered all around the Globe, but in this post we are going to look just some of the most representative because I want to focus on the first steps we made in the sculpture approach. That means the Paleolithic era.

The Paleolithic populations were nomadic and they had to carry all their goods without any animals or machines’ help. As a consequence, they needed small objects and not big statues.

These small objects can be grouped in 4 categories:

1 – Primitive Humanoid Objects (around 230,000 BC)

2 – Venus Figurines (from 40,000 BC)

3 – Anthropomorphic Figurines (from 30,000 BC)

4 – Animal Figurines (from 33,000 BC)

1 - Primitive Humanoid Objects

In this category there are some very primitive figures that some archeologists refused to recognize as a work of art, believing instead that theirs shapes had been caused by natural erosion.

One of the most well-known examples (there are not too many to be honest) is the Venus of Berekhat Ram (around 230,000 BC).

As you can see from the pic, we need “a bit” of imagination  to see a human figure, but in the small pebble (35mm – 1.4in long) some experts see “at least three grooves, possibly incised on it by a sharp-edged stone. One is a deep groove that encircles the narrower, more rounded top of the pebble. And then two shallower, curved grooves run down the sides. These grooves can be interpreted as marking the neck and arms of a figure.”

The debate is still open, but, if the artifact was intended to replicate a female figure, it would be the earliest example of representational art in the archaeological record. Even made before Homo Sapiens by Neanderthals or perhaps by Homo Erectus.

2 - Venus Figurines

Home Sapiens got more explicit in his representations. Just kidding, but at least my job now is easier because we can better identify the figures’ shapes. Over 100 Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines have been excavated; all of them between 5 and 25 cm (2-10 inches) tall.

But what probably it is more interesting is other features they have in common. The first one is that all of them depict female figures and this is pretty clear because there is an exaggerated focus on the breasts, abdomen, vulva, hips and thighs. This contrasts with a correspondingly scant interest in other features of the body: like the head.

Again, contextualizing the artifacts, we need to consider how difficult was life back then and how lifespan was short. Certainly these Venus sculptures deliberately highlight the gender and physical characteristics of women to symbolize fertility, perhaps a mother goddess.

We can find this traits in the famous Venus of Willendorf.

It is an 11.1-centimetre-tall (4.4 in) Venus figurine estimated to have been made around 30,000 BC. It was found in 1908 in a small village in Austria.

It has been carved from an oolitic limestone that is not local to the area, and tinted with red ochre. We shouldn’t be surprised about the origins since the populations were nomadic.

3 - Anthropomorphic Figurines

Anthropomorphism is an innate psychological tendencies to relate human forms and characteristics to abstract concepts/ideas.

In art and mythology (we will see during our journey they are strictly related) we find many examples and sometimes human forms are “mixed” with animal traits. In that case we talk about zoomorphism.

The first probable example is “Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel“. An ivory sculpture discovered in Germany in 1939.

The lion-headed on human-body figurine is the oldest-known zoomorphic sculpture in the world and the oldest-known uncontested example of figurative art. It has been determined by carbon dating to be between 30,000 and 40,000 years old and it has been carved out of mammoth ivory using a stone knife.

Scholars are still debating about the statuette’s gender, but it is interesting that a similar, even if smaller, lion-headed human sculpture was found along with other animal figurines and several flutes in a nearby location. That suggests the possibility that the figurines were important in the mythology of that time.

4 - Animal Figurines

Probably the most common subject in Stone Age sculpture. Animals were depicted in a variety of styles, reflecting their importance in a hunter-gatherer society.

And one of the best examples is the “Swimming Reindeer“: a 207 mm (8.1 in) long sculpture carved around 13,000 years ago from the tip of a mammoth tusk.


This is one of the most beautiful examples of prehistoric art and it’s clear the “improvement” compared to other works of art we have just seen.

The sculpture shows a female reindeer closely followed by a larger male reindeer. The reindeer are thought to be swimming in illustration of the migration of deer that would have taken place each autumn. In fact it is known that it would be autumn as both reindeer are shown with antlers.

These, in addition to other details analyzed in my video, give us the opportunity to see our ancestors’ attempt to create a piece of every-day life, but with a confidence that is growing day by day.

I hope you enjoyed this post on “How Everything started: Prehistoric sculpture”. In the next one another step in the prehistoric evolution!

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