On the path of Venus von Willendorf

Ice Age icon in the spotlight: Researchers report clues about the origin of Venus of Willendorf about 30,000 years old. The results of the analysis indicate that the rocky material of the statuette found in Lower Austria came from outside the Alps. Scientists say this sheds new light on the mobility of the first modern humans in Europe.

A female figure with sensual bodily forms and artistic hairstyle: Venus von Willendorf discovered in 1908 in Wachow is considered one of the most important testimonies of early art in Europe. The statue, which is only eleven centimeters high, has an aura that still affects many people to this day. Accordingly, there has been much speculation about its meaning and previous use: did it represent a goddess, was it a symbol of fertility or merely an expression of a Stone Age sense of beauty? The origin of the flower’s material has been quite baffling until now: it is made of olite, a special type of limestone that formed millions of years ago in the shallow waters of tropical seas and often also contains the remains of mussel shells.
However, there is no olite near Willendorf. Until now it is not clear where the statuette came from or its raw materials.

Venus lets you look deep

In order to literally gain insight into this question, scientists working with Gerhard Weber of the University of Vienna examined the statue for the first time using high-resolution computer tomography. Using this method it was possible to explore the internal structure of the non-destructive rock material down to 11.5 μm. At first it turned out that the flower has very complex structures inside: the rock contains layers of different density and sizes. In between, there are remains of mussels and the researchers also found six grains of iron oxide – the so-called limonite. These blocks now also explain the previously mysterious hemispherical indentations on the surface of Venus: “It is possible that the solid blocks erupted as the creator of Venus carved out,” explains Weber.

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Importantly, the rock’s structural features allowed the team to search for the origin of the raw material. To do this, scientists purchased comparative samples of olite from different regions of Europe and recorded their structural properties: the material was spread out and analyzed under a microscope. Comparisons that followed revealed that the statuette or its material had apparently traveled about 30,000 years ago. Because the signature of the olite didn’t even come close to matching any of the samples 200 km from Willendorf. However, the researchers then came to terms with the material that came from deposits near Lake Garda in northern Italy. The team says it was statistically indistinguishable from Venus.

travel far

The results suggest that Venus—or at least its matter—began a journey from the south of the Alps to the Danube River north of the Alps. “People in the Gravettian—the tool culture of the time—were looking for and inhabiting convenient places. When the climate changed or the prey situation changed, they moved, preferably along rivers,” says Weber. The scientist says such a journey could have taken generations. Either people or materials wandered around the Alps or mountains were crossed. Scientists conclude that this sheds new light on the fascinating movement of the first modern humans south and north of the Alps. Scientists assert that only a few studies have so far examined the population and movement of the Alps 30,000 years ago. And the famous “Otzi” plays his part much later – 5,300 years ago, they point out.

The results clearly point to northern Italy as the origin of Venus Olite. However, the team also mentions another possible origin for the rock: In addition to Italy, an event in the Donets Basin in Ukraine seems at least conceivable. The composition of Ukrainian oleates does not coincide with the composition of Venus as the Italian samples. However, in Ukraine there are finds of female characters similar to Venus of Willendorf. But even if this somewhat improbable origin is true, the basic message remains: there were apparently complex networks in early modern humans shortly before the peak of the last Ice Age.

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Finally, the team emphasized another special aspect of their findings: They found the discovery of tiny Venus-shaped mussel shells particularly intriguing. Comparison with samples from fossil collections made it possible to identify these shells and thus narrow down the age of the olites. So the stone of Venus was formed about 150 million years ago – in the age of the dinosaurs. “It was surprising that the Ice Age icon was associated with the tropical seas of the Mesozoic,” says co-author Matthias Harzhauser of the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

Source: University of Vienna, Museum of Natural History in Vienna, specialized article: Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-06799-z

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