Who were these ‘Queens of the Stone Age’?

Were they goddesses—or toys? The true purpose of ancient figurines known as the “Stone Age Venuses” has stumped scholars for more than a century.

Pint-size icon

More than 200 Paleolithic female figurines have been found all across Europe and western Asia. This 24,000-year-old icon is one of 13 Grimaldi Venuses found at the Balzi Rossi caves in northern Italy; pint-sized, it stands just 2.4 inches tall.
Scala, Florence

For about as long as people have been making art, female forms have been artists’ favorite subjects—from the iconic Venus de Milo, sculpted in second-century B.C. Greece, to John Singer Sargent’s 1884 elegant “Madame X.” The anonymous artists of the Stone Age were no different; small statues of women were among their most popular works of art.

Found across Europe and Asia, these female figurines created during the Paleolithic period may seem crude by comparison when gazing at the brushstrokes of Madame X’s flawless skin or Venus’s beautifully sculpted face. Roughly rendered, the Stone Age figures’ feminine traits—breasts, bellies, and hips—are large and exaggerated. Their lines are not streamlined and smooth, but rounded and swelling. Rather than sparkling eyes and smiling lips, their faces often lack distinctive features.

Collectively referred to as the Venus figurines, these statues are at the beginning of a long tradition of depicting the female form in art. They help connect modern viewers to the very distant past and the worlds of their creators some 35,000 to 14,000 years ago.

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