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SPIEGEL ONLINE

05/14/2009 03:05 PM

Explicit Art

Oldest Known Human Sculpture Found in Germany

A dig in the caves of southern Germany has unearthed what might be the oldest human depiction ever found. The tiny, mammoth ivory carving, presented for the first time this week, is certainly one of the most explicit.

The birthplace of human art. If indeed there is such a place, researchers are increasingly inclined to believe that it is to be found in the hills -- and caves -- of southern Germany. Already, archaeologists have unearthed a number of miniature mammoth ivory carvings -- and on Wednesday, Nicholas Conard, a professor of prehistory at the University of Tübingen, presented his most recent sensational discovery: a tiny figure of a shockingly anatomically correct woman carved out of mammoth ivory that is at least 35,000 years old and perhaps as old as 40,000.

The carving, called the "Venus of the Fels Cave," is thought to be the oldest human depiction ever found and one of the most ancient pieces of representational art in the world.

"I was speechless," Conard told reporters, describing the first time he laid eyes on the figurine.

The find was made in September of last year in one of the numerous caves in the southern German region of Swabia, not far from the Danube River valley. The caves in the region have poured forth a number of valuable ivory carvings in recent years, all stemming from the Aurignacian period, an age which saw the earliest modern humans settle Europe concurrently with the demise of the Neanderthals which preceded them.

Archaeologists have found some 25 small ivory carvings in the region, including depictions of mammals, horses, bison and birds. Researchers have also found the world's oldest music instruments -- a kind of flute made out of the bones of birds.

The most recent discovery is notable for its explicit depiction of the female form -- one which "by 21st century standards could be seen as bordering on the pornographic," according to an article in the journal Nature. Huge, protruding breasts are the dominant feature with an oversized vulva and bulging belly also difficult to ignore. The legs look more like an afterthought and the head is but a small ring, perhaps indicating that the figure was meant as a pendant.

Beyond that, though, Conrad and his team are hesitant to guess what the figure, which is just six centimeters from head to toe, might have symbolized. "I wasn't around 40,000 years ago and at the end of the day I have no idea," he said on Wednesday, though he posited that it could have been a symbol of fertility. "There is a huge spectrum of possible interpretations."

The figure will be shown to the public for the first time at an Ice Age exhibit in Stuttgart which is scheduled to run from Sept. 18 to Jan. 10, 2010.

cgh -- with wire reports

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