About 35,000 years ago, prehistoric artists across Europe suddenly discovered the female form—and the art world has never been the same. The explosion of voluptuous female figurines sculpted out of limestone, ivory, and clay directly inspired Picasso and Matisse.
Researchers have debated the figurines' meaning for decades. Now, two scientists think they have the answer. Presenting their work here last week at the European Palaeolithic Conference, they claimed that the objects started off as celebrations of the female form, then later became symbols that tied together a growing human society.
The talk, part of a special exhibition on Ice Age art at London's British Museum, surveyed the more than 20,000 year-history of female figurines, which are found at dozens of archaeological sites from Russia to France. The earliest such objects, which include the famous Venus of Willendorf from Austria (see photo) and a statuette recently found in Germany that some have called the "earliest pornography," date from as early as 35,000 years ago and are generally called the "Willendorf style" of prehistoric art.