Are the Paleolithic Venus Figurines telling us about the puberty rites?

In this post, I am not trying to argue at length to answer the above question. However, I like to point out a few facts.

In a previous post, I attempted to bring together some logical arguments about the connection between the Paleolithic Venus Figurines from the area in and around the Old Europe and the seclusion of girls at puberty. What we can see from the arguments is that the puberty rites of girls bear a far ancient history than it appears. This lends support to the diffutionist view expressed in ‘the lure of noma‘ as we can trace the ideas at least to the Aurignacian period.

It is not surprising to see that many established scholars would not like to accept these arguments.     One reason for their reluctance should be the doubts about the continuity of the ancient traditions to recent past as discussed in the article. But so-called Paleolithic Continuity Theory is not a present writer’s invention.     In many societies these puberty rites existed until a century ago, a pervasive intrusion of Western ideas could not have happened.     The work the author of the article ‘The Palaeolithic Venuses and the puberty rites’ extensively quoted belongs to the turn of the 19th century.     As one of the iconic figures in the field of archaeology wrote, the prehistory of Australia ended in April 1770 with the arrival of Capt. James Cook (Renfrew, Colin 2007. Prehistory; the making of the human mind, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, p 205). Even after this date at least a part of the culture of Aboriginal people survived the test of times or recorded by the various ethnographers at some crucial periods for the posterity. Then, why the argument that surmising what might have happened in the past based on what was happening in a less culturally unadulterated environment should be so unscientific? Why cannot we, with a little background work, make some reasonable deductions about the ancient cultures with the material that were described in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough? There are articles published in in the very highly regarded journals, assuming such links. For an example, McDermott argued that the Venuses were the self-representations of pregnant women (McDermott, LeRoy 1996. Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic female figurines. Current Anthropology 37(2): 227-275). This argument implies the cultural connection that the prehistoric women like today’s female who are inclined to see themselves in the mirror used to look at themselves in order to represent their own body forms even in the absence of such mirrors.     Even though there is no biological argument so far for such a tendency in women, no one reckons this to be a little farfetched.

Oftentimes, a simple model which can explain the data better is better than a model which explains some data tenuously.     Can someone who happens to read this blog inform me about an interpretation (not including the puberty rites one) which can easily explain the lack of facial features, not having feet depicted or     obesity of the Venuses?

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The website aims to show the possible origin of religion through a ‘uniquely’ human process which has links to the seclusion of girls at puberty. It also advocates the view that the Paleolithic Venus figurines are related to these puberty rites and hence, the prehistoric Venus figurines may carry a much larger meaning. Thus, Religion is something more than a throwback from our animal past.

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3 Responses to Are the Paleolithic Venus Figurines telling us about the puberty rites?

  1. LeRoy McDermott says:

    I am biased toward my concept of self-viewing but nothing else explains the attributes of these pieces more parsimoniously. The facelessness, apparent obesity etc. are the physical properties of the visual information women have when they look down at themselves. Consider my 1996 CA article again.

    • admin says:

      I feel very privileged to have you taking time to read my post about the Paleolithic Venus figurines. It was a very pleasant surprise to see someone of your academic and intellectual stature browsing what I have written.

      I hope you wouldn’t mind if I reply to your comment about reading your CA article. Appearing of your interpretation of the Venus Figurines in ‘The Human Past’ edited by Chris Scarre itself bears witness to your article’s intellectual weight. I should admit that when encountered I thought it to be an ingenious interpretation moving away from all the hackneyed paths. However, as I always believe prehistory by nature would hardly allow us to arrive at the finality of an idea. For the following reasons I couldn’t agree with your arguments about ‘the self-representation among pregnant women… communicating through the figurines’ the autogenous visual information of their bodies. In a reply to your critics you presented a strong case. However, the doubts I had in mind had not been fully answered when I wrote my post and you would forgive me for my comments in the blog about the ‘seclusion of girls’ idea being more explanatory.

      As you have observed in your paper, your study challenged ‘the assumption that images of the human figure were first created from the point of view of other human beings’. Your interpretation moved away from this paradigm (to, perhaps, misuse Thomas Khun’s word) as well as the common thread of other arguments. The question that arose in my mind was ‘Are there any other ways to explain a phenomenon within the pre-existing paradigams?’ If there is, does that explanation provide answers to all the key features of the phenomenon? I couldn’t appreciate the advantage of your interpretation which moved to the second degree of complexity without eliminating the first degree explanations by breaking away from both the possibility of ‘other people’s point of view and more common arguments around fertility rites etc.
      Another concern was the confounding nature of the hypothesis and the evidence supporting it or in other words, the ‘circularity’ of main hypothesis and the explanation. The prehistoric woman created an image as self-representation. We try to show this by using a modern female and the way she sees herself. If the images we see in the Venus figurines are similar to the breasts and bellies we see in Fig 5 & 6 in the self-representation article, then we have a case at hand. However, what we see in those Venus figurines are ‘almost complete’ female bodies. If we ignore the ‘abstract nature of the figurines’, a woman herself and a figurine representing the ‘more or less complete’ body of the same woman surely should show similar ‘bodily landscape’ when viewed from similar angles. Thus I was concerned that the self-representation article didn’t provide external evidence, in addition to the above viewpoint, to support the hypothesis.

      My third concern was about the internal inconsistencies that, I thought, were apparent in your interpretation. According to the self-representation argument, a woman had to bend down for the lower frontal view. The woman who thus viewed herself could represent her ‘somewhat hidden’ pubic area so well in the figurine while failing to show more of the more visible lower legs and feet. Why could the woman show her head, even the back of the head in such fine detail and her posterior so well in comparison to her own face which is much more personal to an individual and could easily be seen in a ‘water mirror’? Why did some women show their facial features while others didn’t? The argument about the more breakable upper and lower body elements proposed as a counter argument to Marshack , in my mind, is not consistent with your argument about ‘the attributes of the figurines receiving the priority over logic’. The lack of facial features and feet are the major features that I thought of explaining.
      Hope you wouldn’t see me as a complete idiot who didn’t consider your explanations carefully enough. On the other hand, my arguments may have many holes that I don’t see. In any case, mine is only an alternative idea which would be tested over time. Even though it is very convincing to me, it may not be so to many others.

      I sincerely thank you for taking time to have a look at the post on the Venuses. I started writing this since yesterday and couldn’t finish it until today (Christmas Eve) due to my personal commitments. To end this reply, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2011!!

      • LeRoy McDermott says:

        Thank you for your thoughts and my apologies for the tardiness of my response. I seldom venture into cyber space and have only this date encountered your writings. I will address then when time and circumstances permit. Thank you for sharing with me.

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