World’s oldest portrait, carved in ivory 26,000 years ago

Near the Czech town of Dolní Věstonice in Moravia is the archaeological site of the same name. A site that, before systematic excavations began in 1924, had already provided researchers with extensive prehistoric materials from the Gravettian period (which ran from 27,000 to 20,000 years ago).

Some 2,300 pieces of pottery have so far been recovered at the site, most of them representing animals such as lions, rhinoceroses or mammoths, and next to them two depictions of women.

Black Venus / image Che – Wikimedia Commons

The first one is known as Black Venus or Dolní Věstonice Venus. It was found on a hillside amongst charred mammoth bones, and has the typical pattern of paleolithic venuses associated with fertility cults, such as the famous one found in Willendorf. In 2004, a CT scan revealed the fingerprint of a child who may have held it before it was cooked.

But the second one is different. Known as Venus XV, it is the face of a woman sculpted with stone tools in the ivory of a mammoth tusk. Its dimensions are 4.7 centimetres high by 2.1 centimetres wide and 1.9 centimetres deep. The figure presents her hair tied up in a kind of ribbon, with an incised line that marks the upper part of the forehead. The eyebrows are carefully drawn over exceptionally carved eyes, and the nose and mouth are perfectly proportioned. A slight deformation can be seen on one side of the face. It was found in 1891. For a long time, therefore, it was considered a forgery.

Venus XV / image Bradshaw Foundation

However, analyses performed by the Space Technology Center of the University of Kansas dated the piece to 26,000 years BP (BP, before present, technically before 1950), clearing all traces of doubt.

Now then, the reason why this piece is believed to be a portrait of a particular woman, and therefore the first known depiction of an individual so far, is that in the 1920s excavations several burials were found.

Location of the Dolní Věstonice site / image Antropark

One of them was the skeleton of a woman buried under two mammoth scapulas, a sign that she must have been someone important in the community. At the time of her death she was about 40 years old, so she was already an old woman. Both the bones and the soil had red ochre, and a flint head had been placed near the skull. In one hand he held the skeleton of a fox and its teeth in the other. All this indicates that she was a shaman. But the most surprising thing was that the left side of her skull was deformed just like the ivory figurine.

That’s why experts consider it possible that the figure is a portrait of this person. As for the deformation, they point out that it was probably due to paralysis. At that time it was not uncommon to believe that people with disabilities, mental or physical, coupled with their advanced age, possessed supernatural abilities.

The figure is currently on display at the Pavilon Anthropos Museum in the Czech town of Brno, which is a section of the Moravian Museum.

Sources: The Guardian / Bradshaw Foundation / Prehistoric art in Europe (Nancy K. Sandars) / Origin of Man (Pietro Gaietto) / Wikipedia.