Laussel, Venus Figurines, Scientific Racism and Prehistoric Research

 laussel denticulation

This is a denticulated point (“Tayac Point”) from the Mousterian of the Laussel rock shelter, situated 7, 5 km east and slightly north of Les Eyzies, on the right side of the Beune River. The site was completely excavated during large scale exploitations which were executed during 1908-1914 by the workmen of Dr. Jean-Gaston Lalanne. After the death Dr. Lalanne, the site was published by J Bouyssonie.

Laussel is famous for several bas-relief in limestone  of human figures from a Gravettian context, found in 1911, among them the  “Venus of Laussel”, or “Femme a la corne”. The 1.5 foot high image is of a woman with large breasts, belly and thighs, explicit genitals and an undefined or eroded head with what appears to be long hair. Her left hand rests on her belly, and her right hand holds what looks to be a large horn core of a bison. The early interpretations of this engraving are good examples of a racism in the scientific discourse during the early 20th century.

In 1775 the influential naturalist Blumenbach, who worked in the University of Göttingen (Lower Saxony, N-Germany) proposed a fourfold classification of human “races” following his acknowledged master Linnaeus in recognizing four unranked divisions of men based on geography.

The 19th century saw attempts to change race from a taxonomic to a biological concept. Races were thought to be distinguished by skin color, facial type, cranial profile and size, texture and color of hair. Scientists made three claims about “race”: first, that “races” are objective, naturally occurring divisions of humanity; second, that there is a strong relationship between “races” and other human phenomena (moral character and intelligence); third, that “race” is therefore a valid scientific category that can be used to explain and predict individual and group behavior.

Crude evolutionary (“Savages as living fossils of man’s antiquity”), imperialistic (“Africa as the white men’s burden”) and racial categories were the subtext in the anthropological discourse of the late 19th century. The influential John Lubbock, whose 1865 Prehistoric Times was the first work explicitly to theorize so-called savage culture as direct evidence of man’s prehistoric state, portrayed native people as dirty, ignorant, and immoral savages, and considered them to be biologically incapable of adapting to modern ways and hence predestined to extinction or permanent subordination to European civilization.

The first Paleolithic female figurine was found by the Marquis de Vibraye at the Laugerie rockshelter (Vezere; Dordogne, France) and called La Vénus impudique or the immodest Venus. The Marquis, of course, was playfully reversing the appellation of ‘Venus Pudica’ or ‘Modest Venus’ that is used to describe the Classical Venus, which shows, as in the Capitoline Venus for example, the goddess attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area from view. The inference the Marquis makes is that this prehistoric Venus makes no attempt to hide her sexuality. While the Laugerie statuette had affinities to the 19th century imaginations of the young female body, later findings of such statuettes called for new interpretations.

In the late nineteenth century, studying the early figurines uncovered at Brassempouy, Eduard Piette (1870) noticed the larger buttocks which were also a feature of “Hottentot” (the then-current name for the Khoi people) women suffering from a condition known as Steatopygia. Piette referring to one of these figurines (called ‘la Poire’) as Venus, now used the word as an ironical and derogative reference to the famous so-called Hottentot Venus, Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman (1790-1815). Baartman was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions during the early 19th century Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus”. Taking the statuettes he found at Brassempouy as realistic depictions, Piette characterized two Paleolithic “races”: a higher “non-adipose” race and an inferior “adipose race” coming from Africa. The term “Venus” for the more robust female Paleolithic statuettes became popular only after Piettes dead and after the commemorations surrounding the 100th anniversary of Baartman’s death.

venus

A “scientific Reconstruction“ of the  “Femme a la corne” from Laussel, made by the sculptor Louis Mascré  who was supervised  by the Prehistorian Aimé Rutot  should underpin the theory, that Middle Aurignacian (Gravettian) people were Blacks. A part of the frieze sculpted by Constant Roux on the façade of the Institute de Paleontologie Humaine in Paris, erected in 1923 under the supervision of Breuil showed an African San man sculpting the “Laussel Venus” (White 2006).

Most authors think that racism lost ground after the 1930ies in France. I am not so sure-remember Vichy and the Algerian War-.  Here I show another case of scientific racism from the Lalanne and Bouyssonie publication (1941-46). The Authors considered a bas relief from Laussel depicting coitus. Of course such an “animal behavior” could only be performed by “Negros” and in a “perverse” position as demonstrated by “modern ethnographic techniques” by a carving of uncertain provenience shown in the publication.

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laussel aggsbach race

coitusSuggested Reading:

 http://www.artsetsocietes.org/a/a-hurel.html 

http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/anthro/programs/csho/Content/Facultycvandinfo/White/Women%20of%20Brassempouy%20Final%20red.pdf

 

 

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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