24,000 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age, and contains not only the world’s oldest-known architecture but also the oldestknown ceramics. Its people made thousands of clay artefacts, many shaped like the local animals, including lions, mammoths, rhinos, and owls. They also depicted big-breasted, wide-hipped women (there is no doubt these are women). But were they really fertility figurines? Generations of researchers assumed they were — and that the Ice Age people were valuing, even worshipping, the figurines for their fertility. Certainly, as intimated above, in settled societies, a woman’s primary value lies in her reproductive powers: to provide the labour force to work the fields and receive the family’s accumulated wealth. This is why, in early farming towns, such as Çatalhöyük in Turkey, we find fat-bottomed statuettes, such as the 8,000 year-old obese figurine of a seated woman, in a granary store. The link between her fertility (she seems to be giving birth) and the fertility of the harvest is compelling. However, were we to wind the clock back to the Ice Age, then runaway fertility may NOT have been something to revere. Too many children would have been a threat to the group, since this would mean more mouths to feed, and a pregnant woman often finds it harder to contribute physically, especially towards the end of pregnancy. This is borne out among living hunter gatherers, who tend to space out their children. If the idea of fertility existed at all, then, it would probably have included notions of protecting pregnant women, avoiding stillbirth, overcoming child mortality, and rearing children to adolescence, or focussed on food supplies (tubers, fruit, nuts, animals), rather than on a woman’s reproductive powers. 'It would have been an ambitious sculptor who attempted to crystallise all that into a four-inch statuette', argues Reay Tannahill, historian and author of a classic book on sex through the ages. Moreover, careful analysis of the Dolní Věstonice figurines has revealed that they carry textile impressions. Though the material has long since perished, the impressions show the people were skilled tailors. Were these figurines, wonder some researchers, self-portraits of the textile makers? Were they originally dressed, mannikins made to celebrate the women’s skill? After all, warm well-made clothes in the bitter cold of the last Ice Age may have been of more use to the group than a woman’s fecundity. Add to which, their droopy breasts suggest age (and thus experience), not youth and fecundity. And their fatness? In a cold and hungry world, this may well have been the ultimate revered state.
“In the Ice Age, runaway fertility may NOT have been something to revere.”
The Past | April/May 2021