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What are Some of the Oldest Known Statuettes?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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The oldest known statuettes that are not controversial date to about 31,000 years ago, the Upper Paleolithic, as represented by the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, found near Brno in the modern-day Czech Republic. This figure is also the earliest known use of ceramic, made of clay fired at a relatively low temperature. Like other Venus figurines, the Venus of Dolni Vestonice depicts a nude woman with large, hanging breasts, a thin torso, wide hips, and a featureless face. Its color is black. The statuette is about 4 inches tall and 1.7 inches at its widest point.

The Venus of Dolni Vestonice is one of several dozen "Venus figurines," statuettes that depict nude female figures with large hips and breasts. Some archaeologists have associated them with religious tributes to fertility, but the truth is, we don't know what they were carved for. They could have been carved merely as curiosities or for entertainment. Most Venus statuettes were small enough to hold in one's hand, and date to between 20,000 and 30,000 years old. Numerous cave paintings have been found from the same period, and the oldest European cave paintings are of similar age to the oldest Venus statuettes.

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Of all the Venus figurines, the one with the best likeness of a human face is the Venus of Brassempouy, which depicts a female head with a tranquil look and long, patterned hair. Found in France, this is considered the earliest known depiction of a human face, and is dated to about 25,000 years ago, when continental glaciers still covered northern Europe. This is one of the only statuettes from the period to be carved from mammoth ivory. Most others are in stone.

More recently, two possible statuettes of even greater age have been discovered in the Golan Heights and Morocco. These are the so-called Venus of Berekhat Ram, and the Venus of Tan-Tan, but their form is so vague and poor that some scientists have argued that they are just bits of stone that look like human figures due to accidental natural processes. This argument especially applies to the second, because microscopic examination of the Venus of Berekhat Ram has revealed tool markings that are unequivocally artificial. These figures are dated to about 250,000 BC and between 300,000 and 500,000 BC respectively. If they are actually figures, the earliest known statuettes could date to between a quarter and half a million years before the present. Modern humans did not even evolve until approximately 200,000 years ago.

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