The Venus of Willendorf, a figurine of a voluptuous woman that dates back roughly 30,000 years, is one of the most enchanting and unique artifacts ever unearthed. Standing about four inches tall and carved from distinctive oolite limestone, this ancient object was discovered more than a century ago near the shores of the Danube river in Willendorf, Austria, though her true birthplace has remained a mystery—until now.
Researchers led by Gerhard Weber, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Vienna, believe they have matched the figurine’s limestone with a location near Lake Garda in northern Italy, revealing the likely origin of “one of the most famous signs of early modern human symbolic behavior,” according to a study published on Monday in Scientific Reports.
The new research suggests that the crafters of this iconic object, a hunter-gatherer culture known as the Gravettian people, traveled hundreds of miles across the treacherous landscape of Europe before the last ice age, though the team noted that it’s unclear what might have prompted such a journey.
“The exact time when the Venus was created or its material collected and transported is unknown,” Weber and his colleagues said in the study. “However, independent of the location of origin, we can state with certainty that its individual owners kept and protected it en route.”
“A rapid transport from northern Italy to Lower Austria within months would probably have been technically possible, but would rather require a purposeful motivation behind the journey, which seems questionable,” the researchers added. “The travel of the Venus or its material from northern Italy to the Danube is more likely the outcome of a series of undirected incidents which may have required years or even generations” and that “could have started as early as 31,000 years ago.”
Similar buxom figurines, which are reminiscent of fertility goddesses and are normally made of ivory and bone, are plentiful in the prehistoric archaeological record across Europe. The Venus of Willendorf, however, stands out as the only such figurine to be made of oolite, which is a sedimentary limestone made up of spherical grains of different sizes. Because the oolite doesn’t seem to match rock deposits near Willendorf, the origin of the Venus has remained an open question, in part because its exceptional nature has prevented invasive techniques that might answer this riddle but would leave the object damaged.
In order to track down the figurine’s home while preserving its integrity, Weber and his colleagues scanned the Venus with advanced tomography that enabled them to pinpoint details at resolutions of just 11 microns, which is about the size of a red blood cell. The team then compared the rock in the Venus to oolite deposits across a huge swath of Europe, from France in the west to Ukraine in the east, and from Germany in the north to Sicily in the south.
The northern Italian location, called Sega di Ala, “intermingled perfectly with the Venus samples,” the researchers noted in the study. What’s more, the team identified a tiny fragment of a mollusk shell inside the figurine that dated back to the Jurassic period, which also matched the age of the deposit at Sega di Ala and eliminated many other sites that were much younger.
While the researchers are almost certain the Venus came from the Lake Garda location, they also found compelling evidence for an origin in eastern Ukraine. Though the Ukrainian oolite match is not as strong, the Venus of Willendorf is extremely similar in form to younger Venus figures found in Ukraine and Russia, suggesting a possible connection.
“Even if we cannot claim with absolute certainty that the raw material of the Venus originates from a particular locality, the match between the Venus and Sega di Ala samples is almost perfect and suggests a very high probability for the raw material to come from south of the Alps,” the team noted.
“While this is the most likely result from our analysis, it cannot be ruled out, although based on a lower statistical likelihood, that the material or the crafted figurine could originate from the area of the eastern Ukraine, which would indicate a long-term and long-distance diffusion of cultural artifacts over generations from the East to the West,” the researchers concluded. “In any event, our results suggest considerable mobility of Gravettian people in the time around 30,000 years ago.”