Obesity is rare in hunter-gatherer cultures. Nevertheless, dozens of handheld ‘Venus’ figurines — the oldest art sculptures of humans known and tend to be of women who have obesity or are pregnant — have been identified that date to Ice Age European hunter-gatherers from 38,000 to 14,000 years ago. In a new paper, published in the journal Obesity, a team of researchers from the University of Colorado and the American University of Sharjah suggests that these figurines show greater obesity during the time of the glacier advance and less during the glacier retreat, and the figurines of women closest to the glaciers show the greatest obesity.
The Venus of Willendorf, an 11.1-cm- (4.4-inch) tall Venus figurine estimated to have been made 30,000 BCE, in Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / CC BY-SA 4.0.
Early modern humans entered Europe during a warming period about 48,000 years ago.
Known as Aurignacians, they hunted reindeer, horses and mammoths with bone-tipped spears. In summer they dined on berries, fish, nuts and plants. But then, as now, the climate did not remain static.
As temperatures dropped, ice sheets advanced and disaster set in. During the coldest months, temperatures plunged to 10-15 degrees Celsius (50-59 degrees Celsius). Some bands of hunter gatherers died out, others moved south, some sought refuge in forests. Big game was overhunted.
It was during these desperate times that the Venus figurines appeared. They range between 6 and 16 cm (2.4-6.3 inches) in length, and were made of stone, ivory, horn or occasionally clay.
They often show realistic features of obesity despite the accepted view that obesity was rare among these peoples.
Most figurines are also naked, or nearly so, which seems ironic for their proximity to the glaciers. They also focus on the torso and sexual features, and the head is typically faceless with small arms and no feet.
Many figurines are in or near childbearing years, with some appearing pregnant and others showing abdominal obesity or expanded fat in the buttocks, suggestive of overnutrition.
A few figures of women are on the verge of puberty, and occasional figurines of middle-aged women are known. However, obesity is restricted to female figurines, as the known male figurines are elongated and slender
That the figurines with obesity are always women, of which some are pregnant, has led to the long-standing interpretation that the figurines represent fertility or beauty — hence the general adoption of the term Venus figurines.
“Some of the earliest art in the world are these mysterious figurines of overweight women from the time of hunter gatherers in Ice Age Europe where you would not expect to see obesity at all,” said study lead author Professor Richard Johnson, a researcher in the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado.
“We show that these figurines correlate to times of extreme nutritional stress.”
Professor Johnson and his colleagues measured the Venus figurines’ waist-to-hip and waist-to-shoulder ratios.
They discovered that those found closest to the glaciers were the most obese compared to those located further away.
They believe the figurines represented an idealized body type for these difficult living conditions.
“We propose they conveyed ideals of body size for young women, and especially those who lived in proximity to glaciers,” Professor Johnson said.
“We found that body size proportions were highest when the glaciers were advancing, whereas obesity decreased when the climate warmed and glaciers retreated.”
According to the team, obesity became a desired condition.
An obese female in times of scarcity could carry a child through pregnancy better than one suffering malnutrition.
So the figurines may have been imbued with a spiritual meaning — a fetish or magical charm of sorts that could protect a woman through pregnancy, birth and nursing.
Many of the figurines are well-worn, indicating that they were heirlooms passed down from mother to daughter through generations.
Women entering puberty or in the early stages of pregnancy may have been given them in the hopes of imparting the desired body mass to ensure a successful birth.
“Increased fat would provide a source of energy during gestation through the weaning of the baby and as well as much needed insulation,” the authors said.
“Promoting obesity ensured that the band would carry on for another generation in these most precarious of climatic conditions.”
Richard J. Johnson et al. Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity may Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change. Obesity, published online December 1, 2020; doi: 10.1002/oby.23028