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First Lady Of Art Found

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Archeologists have discovered a figurine of a woman carved from mammoth ivory, dating back 35,000 years. They believe it may be the oldest representation of a female figure ever found and say it's evidence of early symbolic expression among humans.

NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It stands a little less than three inches high, a remarkable find given that it was buried among debris in a German cave for 35,000 years. The figure is blatantly a woman with exaggerated sexual characteristics - large breasts and buttocks and explicit female genitals carved into the ivory. It is strongly reminiscent of well-known Venus figurines that date back about 29,000 years, thought to be symbols of fertility.

Paul Mellars is an archaeologist at Cambridge University in England who studies early art forms. He says there's no way to tell whether it was carved by a man or a woman, but it's part of a tradition of rendering human forms in a sexual way that is as old as, well, apparently, 35,000 years.

Professor PAUL MELLARS (Archaeologist, Cambridge University): But at the end of the day, of course, sexual reproduction is the way that society keeps itself going. If there hadn't been this massive interest, if not obsession with sex, the human race would've become extinct.

JOYCE: The figurine was found in a cave along with tools and other signs that humans had spent time there. There are works of human craftsmanship that are older and are arguably art. One in South Africa dates back over 70,000 years, but it's not what archaeologists call representational. It's essentially geometric designs drawn on rock in ochre.

But then prehistoric art started to get more sophisticated. Cave painting in Europe started to appear about 30,000 years ago. These showed animals, as well as geometric designs. Mellars suspects the figurine predates them, but is part of an explosion of symbolic craftsmanship in Europe that's gone on ever since.

Prof. MELLARS: We've got such a clear pattern now in Europe, that a whole range of these things explode onto the scene by at least 35,000 years ago. Perhaps that's associated with the dispersal of the first modern human, Homo sapiens.

JOYCE: From that same period, archaeologists have found beads, and pendants, and the first flutes and a lot of sexual representations of female and male anatomy. Neanderthals, the closest relatives of modern humans, were still living in Europe at the time. But Mellars says he thinks the female figurine is too sophisticated to be anything but the work of Homo sapiens.

And there's evidence the figurine may have been worn on the body. It doesn't have a head, but instead, a carved ring, so that it could've been worn on a cord. The discovery was first reported by archaeologist Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen in Germany in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.