Objects not to scale. From left to right:
Limestone carving dyed with red ochre, dated to 28,000-24,000 BCE. 11.1 cm high. Found near Willendorf, Austria.
Mammoth ivory carving, dated to ~23,000 BCE. 6.8 cm high. Found in a cave near Brassempouy, France.
Mammoth ivory carving, dated to 33,000-38,000 BCE. 6 cm high. Found near Schelklingen, Germany.
Paleolithic carvings of female figures have been the center of much heated discussion. These figures in particular have been the focus of a great deal of speculation and scrutiny. Fantasies and interpretations about them run the full gamut from empowering to humiliating. The central figure was the subject of a decades-long debate about its intended sex: whether it was male, female, or intentionally ambiguous. The figure is currently classified as female with an exaggerated labia majora. The figures on either side have been interpreted by some as cartoonishly exaggerated female forms, used either for fertility worship or simply as pornography. Others have interpreted the figures realistically, as anything from self-portraits to subjugating depictions of another race.
Regardless of their original intent, it is not difficult to see that the features that make these figures controversial are features held by real bodies today, which are similarly scrutinized for acceptability and asked to justify themselves: fat bodies, female bodies, and bodies whose sex or gender is seen as ambiguous. What is seen as questionable and what is immediately accepted by our current society shape our interpretations of the past.