Pornography in Clay
Sex in the Stone Age
Pornography in Clay
By Matthias Schulz
New pornographic figurines from the Stone Age have been discovered in Germany. But researchers can't agree on what the 7,000-year-old sculptures mean. Were our ancestors uninhibited sex fiends, or was reproduction strictly controlled to improve mobility? An increasing number of finds seem to indicate the Stone Age was an orgy of sexual imagination.
The project itself was far from extraordinary. Workers near the Eastern German city of Leipzig were digging a ditch for a new gas line. Hum drum. But what they discovered was far from routine. A backhoe unearthed a 7,200-year-old, Stone Age garbage pit -- and it was filled with refuse from some of the first farmers on the European continent. Moreover, upon rushing to the site, archeologists discovered an 8.2 centimeter (3.2 inches) clay torso buried underground. The legs, abdomen and head were missing, but, according to the lucky archeologists, the figure still had its most important features intact: a "well-shaped behind" and a "short, but impressive" penis.
Since its discovery on August 19, 2003, the partially intact "Adonis from Chernitz" -- as it has been dubbed -- has been creating quite a stir at the state office of archeology in Dresden. Sculptors have carefully recreated the curve of the figure's buttocks and other anatomical minutiae are also clearly visible. Archeologist Harald Staeuble is amazed at the detail.
He's not the only one. The find is clearly a remarkable one -- and is the oldest clay figure ever found anywhere in the world.
And the project is becoming ever more fascinating as archeologists continue uncovering additional fragments while sifting through the Stone Age garbage pit. One fragment, which extends from the left calf to the pelvis, appears to be part of a female statue; Adonis, apparently, had a girlfriend. In fact, in an article soon to be published in the journal Germania, Staeuble speculates on how the pieces could fit together. He writes that "there is strong evidence that this is a copulation scene."
According to Staeuble, the fragments show that the man was standing with his pelvis at a slight angle. The woman in front of him was bent forward, almost at a 90-degree angle. Another indication that the two figures belong together is the fact that they are both made to the same scale -- both figures were originally just under 30 centimeters (11.7 inches) tall.
The only depictions of sexual activity known until now were Greek paintings, but they were created more than 4,000 years later. Given this enormous difference in time, the Saxony find has created some confusion. Some believe it was a toy. Archäo, a professional journal, speculates that it may have been "chic" to display these types of sculptures in the "houses of the first farmers between the Saale and Elbe rivers." Researchers speculate that the figure could also be evidence of a "fertility cult" -- a theory that sounds as straightforward as it is vague.
When did humans become modest?
This seemingly wild speculation is typical. When it comes to the love lives of our diluvial ancestors, scientists quickly start running out of ideas. The social behavior of early human beings was neglected for far too long, complains historian Angelika Dierichs. And there are a number of questions that have yet to be answered. When did man first become embarrassed by sexual activity? Who invented the incest taboo and the concept of monogamy in marriage? Did all the members of an extended family sleep in the same grass hut among the Neanderthals? Anyone able to answer these questions could unlock many of the sexual secrets of primeval times. But instead of finding answers, researchers are discovering more and more gaps, and the bed of Adam and Eve remains shrouded in mystery.
But there has been some progress in the study of sexuality among early mankind. An archeological dig on the banks of Lake Constance has produced something just as spectacular as the erotic clay figures from Saxony. Researchers discovered a temple whose walls were once adorned with protruding clay breasts. The "cult temple," uncovered by archeologists from the southern German city of Ludwigshafen, is almost 6,000 years old.
The traveling exhibition titled "100,000 Years of Sex," which is currently making its way through Germany, also attempts to shed new light on our more distant ancestors. Some of the items on display include sexy underwear from the Bronze Age, ribald frescoes from Athens and cloth condoms that were dipped in milk.
But how should researchers interpret these recent finds? The discoveries have reopened an old rift in the academic world, in which two camps are at odds over a fundamental issue. The question they're quarreling over is this: Did our ancestors live relaxed and uninhibited lives, or was asceticism the order of the day in the primeval age?
The two sides of the debate are clearly defined: Socio-biologists believe that the early hominids were basically promiscuous, and that they spent their lives running around the fields and woods of their day, constantly in pursuit of sex, following the genetic dictates of their rampant hormones. The other side of the equation are those -- sometimes referred to as "tabooists" -- who assume that even early man lived under a strict system of sexual abstinence, and that the sex lives of Neanderthal man were everything but orgiastic.
Some believe Stone Age humans were prudes
It's a dispute in which sharply contrasting worlds collide. The one camp paints scenarios of non-stop mating and cavorting. American anthropologist Helen Fisher believes that Stone Age women "were constantly disappearing into the bushes with different partners." The scenario portrayed by the other camp is quite the opposite.
The miniature sex god from Saxony and the clay breasts from Lake Constance can likewise be interpreted in completely different ways, mirroring the differences between the two camps. According to the tabooists, these artworks were part of strictly regulated fertility rituals. Socio-biologists, on the other hand, see them as evidence that the early farmers had only one thing on their minds -- and that they were having sex with one another whenever they felt the urge.
The debate surrounding large, stone, 32,000-year-old, phallic objects from the Stone Age is especially heated. The one side believes they were dildos, to be inserted into the vagina for pleasure. The other interprets them as ritualistic tools that were used in the Ice Age to deflower virgins.
The tabooists can turn to some important historical figures to find support for their theories. Charles Darwin, for example, believed that people once lived in "small hordes" led by chiefs who guarded all the women. "Given all that we known about jealousy," he writes, "a general mixing of the sexes in the natural state seems highly unlikely."
Only the weak masturbated, Darwin believes
Darwin theorizes that instead of lust and eroticism, the Early Stone Age was dominated by constant strife. The strongest men took harems, while the weaker males were homosexual or began (like the chimpanzees) to masturbate. Weaker males, according to the Darwin, could also have taken their revenge and murdered the leaders. Sigmund Freud believes that in order to put an end to permanent unrest and make living within a social community possible, upright man came up with the world's oldest moral law: totemism, a sort of early religion that associated a group with a specific symbol or set of symbols. Although this system helped bring about peace and orderliness, it also tended to impose a restrictive code of sexual abstinence on the individual.
Even by as late as the 19th century, many primitive peoples in Africa and Australia still lived in totemistic communities and their interactions with one another were characterized by shyness and shame. In some tribes, a brother was not even permitted to call his sister by her name, and touching her was taboo. Marriage between two individuals in the same village was virtually impossible.
The tabooists are convinced that man would never have risen to the top of the food chain if his lust and sexual appetite had not been curbed. They believe that orgiastic sexual behavior was only permitted as part of a ritual, and only on a few special days of the year. The tribes of the day would release the sexual energy and pressure they had accumulated in passionate orgies and feasts.
How promiscuous were prehistoric humans?
Exactly how we went from being animals to modest humans is still a subject of debate. Homo Erectus was already building small grass huts big enough to house between four and eight people 370,000 years ago. Clearly, there was no room for intimacy.
So what did Homo Erectus do when he became aroused? Did he ask his wife for a quickie while the others were out gathering berries in the forest? Or did the shameless couple simply keep their hut-mates awake at night with their moans?
According to Svend Hansen, a Berlin historian specializing in prehistory and early history, "strict sexual rules were already in place 40,000 years ago. In a society of hunters and gatherers, high birth rates were unwelcome." The reason? The fur-clad hunters of the Stone Ages spent their days traveling through the countryside in groups of 15 to 30 people -- for mothers, each baby represented an extra load to carry on their backs. Thus, it was necessary for nomadic groups to restrict fertility.
In addition to "plant-based birth control agents and the use of taboos to control sexual activity," says Hansen, nomadic early man also resorted to bloodier means, like "abortion and infanticide."
The result was that population levels remained stabile for tens of thousands of years. The only exceptions to tightly controlled sexual behavior happened during territorial disputes with neighboring clans.
The "Venus" cult
Nevertheless, even the tabooists do not deny that eroticism played a very important role among primitive man. They believe, however, that instead of constantly mating, Stone Age man tamed and "sublimated" his sexual desires, transforming them into art. And there is new evidence to support this theory: the famously buxom "Venus statuettes" from the Paleolithic. This cult was started 35,000 years ago among the first modern humans who advanced into a then cold Europe.
They had hardly arrived on the European continent before they invented sculpture. Soon, love-stricken stonemasons began carving and hammering out nude and anatomically-correct figurines. More than 200 Venus statuettes are known today -- all of them plump beauties with ample hips and what would now qualify as double D cups. Some wear armbands or belts, further emphasizing their nakedness.
The statues were long considered the equivalent of pin-up girls. Rudolf Feustel, a historian specializing in the prehistoric age, concluded that the artists' goal was to stimulate "raw animal lust." One of the figures -- a woman wearing armbands that look like shackles -- was even thought to represent an S&M slave.
This kind of evidence is practically tailor-made for the socio-biologists, who say that these sculptures prove just how uninhibited life around the campfire used to be. But were these Rubenesque dolls really made for pornographic purposes? New studies suggest that the women depicted in the figurines were not merely plump, but pregnant. The Venus of Monpazier, France, has an opened vulva. In another figure, the stomach is arched downward and a small object appears to be emerging from the womb -- the moment of birth.
In other words, instead of intending to elicit arousal, the statuettes were apparently objects of worship, earth mothers, symbols of fertility and creators of life.
The sculptures are highly detailed. Some even have pubic hair, curly coiffeurs and large navels -- Ice Age masterpieces.
Nevertheless, the fact that the men of the Gravettien culture (30,000 to 24,000 years ago) worshipped pregnancy was probably based on a lack of knowledge. The men simply "did not comprehend the biological function of sex," believes Jill Cook of the British Museum in London. To the men of that period, the fact that the female body would periodically swell up until a screaming baby would emerge from the woman's lap was nothing less than astonishing. What a miracle!
Aside from the act of procreation itself, the men appeared to be uninvolved in the process, which only enhanced their reverence for mothers. The whole thing, says Cook, had nothing to do with lust.
An explosion of sexuality
But soon the men did become involved. The Venus cult came to an end about 20,000 years ago, to be replaced by a new motif, that of "mixed images," a term that refers to the mixed portrayal of male and female genitalia.
The walls of the La Marche cave in western France are literally blanketed with erotic images, 14,000-year-old drawings reminiscent of the Kamasutra. One image of a head plunging between a woman's thighs seems to portray oral sex. Another shows a standing couple, their bodies entwined, while the man's penis penetrates his partner. But these graffiti-like images can hardly be seen as proof of unbridled love in the Paleolithic Age. They are scribbled onto the walls of the cave with little skill and are reminiscent of bathroom graffiti, almost as if a lonely Fred Flintstone had etched out his erotic fantasies with a primitive chisel.
But these cave drawings are still tremendously important. Many researchers see them as the beginning of a new age -- an age in which man, surrounded by slowly melting glaciers and on the verge of become settled, had recognized the connection between conception and birth. This, they believe, explains the emerging focus on the sexual act.
The Adonis of Chernitz has only reinforced these theories. The penis of the clay figure, fired at more than 600°C (315°F), is oversized, and triangles are etched into the buttocks -- possibly meant to portray tattoos.
The sculptor must have been familiar with the concept of procreation. He lived in an earthy settlement of thatched-roof cottages and the village's animal pens were filled with cows and pigs, which were already being deliberately bred by selection.
Wild, drunken orgies
Though all that remains of the female figure are the thighs, the fracture line shows that above the legs the figure arched upward into balloon-like buttocks. Harald Staeuble conjectures that the 30-centimeter-tall figures were displayed in an elevated, sacred location. After all, they were deliberately broken and thrown into the trash to destroy their "magical power."
But what fertility festival was being celebrated when the statues were broken? Ethnic groups in Africa were known to have copulated in corn fields to encourage the crops to grow. And among the groups that developed band ceramics 7,000 years ago, everything revolved around sowing, growing and harvesting.
But perhaps the idols were also the focal point of a sort of carnival, a drunken orgy in which Europe's first farmers would let off steam. The mysterious ancient temple on the banks of Lake Constance proves that special erotic rituals already existed at this early juncture, long before Egypt's pyramids were built. "The cult building stood on pylons directly on the shore," explains archeologist Helmut Schlichtherle. The interior was painted with white dots. But the site's truly unique feature is that eight large clay breasts seemed to grow out of the walls, evoking images of a place devoted to the erotic.
There is more evidence that the temple was once a place filled with billowing smoke and ecstasy. Bits of fabric, perhaps parts of priestly robes, were found. Also among the rubble was an imposing ceremonial vessel filled with birch resin, a substance that produces a bewitching scent when heated. Perhaps birch resin was the incense of the Stone Age.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan