First Wave: The Lower Palaeolithic Period – On the Physical Origins of the Goddess: Mother Earth
The ability to think has always been necessary to create, express and apply knowledge gained through good or bad experiences, and the most useful information, the basis for tradition. Theoretical physicist David Bohm and Mark Edwards (1991)1 argue that, as well as experiencing a growing awareness of metaphysical powers existing beyond human control, early humans around 3-2 million years ago had begun to gradually develop ways of thought. For the earliest humans, the part of a context which had value and was relevant to people’s circumstances was selected and given an image and a purpose. Relevant goals and values were achieved by community cooperation, and led to emerging complex social, cultural and religious systems. Just as the natural forces underlying devastating events beyond their control were gradually identified, early humans also began to recognise Mother Nature as the provider, the guide, the protector… Caves came to be regarded, not only as shelter, but also as mysterious places of birth and regeneration relating to the metaphysical world, (a view not shared by those in the more recent historic period).
As time went on people gradually came to understand that the act of engraving or painting a shape as part of cyclic rituals could transfer its power into the cave. These activities involved the telling and retelling of important stories (myths) as part of sacred rites, and the need for sacred objects, and a sacred space which could be part of the landscape. So those early artists began to transform engraved or painted images of the female principle/goddess (such as those at Bhimbetka), or other natural phenomena, into abstract symbols on rock walls. Alexander Marshack considered that these were “not only conscious and intentional acts, but also are proof of the early development of the human brain”2.
Although the goddess has been around since the very beginning of creation, the very first physical signs perhaps indicating her presence were those objects which may have been used in rituals from 3 million years ago in Africa and Asia. These were clear quartz crystals which were collected perhaps for their unusual appearance and mysterious clarity; and pieces of red ochre, which when mixed with water, animal fats or other natural liquids, produced a colour which was an acceptable substitute for human blood, and which could be used for ritual colouring of the human body and for the painting of symbolic images/artefacts or designs on rock walls. Clear quartz crystals and red ochre pieces were often found lying alongside early stone tools.
The Earliest Female Images
1. The Makapansgat hominid head, dated to between 2.5 and 2.9 million years, is a small naturally formed brown jasperite pebble which was found in a South African cave by either H. erectus or archaic H. sapiens, who had carried the pebble about 32 kilometres to their campsite evidently for non-utilitarian use. The pebble is polished smooth and shaped like a human head; it features a naturally formed raised hairline around the head, and has two naturally-formed deeply incised circular ‘eyes’, and below, a deep slash which represents a rectangular ‘mouth’ above a rounded ‘chin’. Such an unusually shaped ‘head’ must have seemed an extraordinary object to those early collectors. The accidentally-formed image of a human head must have prompted the early viewers to begin to attempt to create their own representations. This curious little pebble, with its traces of red pigment (red ochre), may have been used in early rituals by H. erectus and archaic H. sapiens just as red ochre is still used today in the ritual arts by numerous traditional cultures. Could it be the earliest naturally-formed representation of the goddess?
2. The 800,000 – 700,000 years old Bhimbetka cupules and a meander line found in Auditorium Cave in Central India are the earliest engraved symbols representing the female principle yet known. These symbolic images, a circular cup mark, ground into the rock-face, and the nearby meandering grooved line, are carved into a boulder perhaps as part of a ritual. The accompanying meander line is very old symbolism representing water which is also associated with regeneration and new life. There are nine other circular cupules engraved upon Chief’s Rock in the centre of the cave3. Some researchers suggest that the cupules found at Bhimbetka may well have been made by women and be related to aspects of procreation and childbirth. Numerous other later cupule sites feature very old cup-shaped circular engravings which would have held many different meanings usually associated with ritual practices. The circular moon and heavenly bodies in the night sky, for example,would have had great symbolism for those early people, so it is not surprising that their circular forms were among the earliest symbolic shapes to be engraved on rock surfaces for ritual purposes. Engraving symbolic images in caves and on rock faces must also have been considered very important as much time, thought, skills and physical effort would have been required in their making.
3. The 400,000 years old North African Tan Tan figurine4 from Morocco is formed of white quartzite rock, and was found in a river terrace deposit. The head is naturally shaped, and a frontal view reveals intentionally pecked lines delineating her face. A line down the centre of the body suggests breasts, and one arm is held across her ‘body’ at waist level. Her legs, marked by a groove, are held together. A back view of the figurine features an engraved line at shoulder level which suggests her hairline, while short vertical grooves form her arms. There is an engraved horizontal line beneath her buttocks and above her legs, which are separated by a deep groove. Despite the differences between her front and back views, many (male) researchers consider this an anthropomorphic figurine. Although now pale pink in colour, the figurine was originally covered in red ochre and perhaps used for ritual purposes. Do we again glimpse the early goddess here?
4. Dated to 300,000 BP, the Berehkat Ram female figurine from Israel, formed from brown volcanic rock, features an intentionally carved head, with a short neck above wide shoulders. Her carved arms are placed by her sides. Her head and large breasts are greatly emphasised above a short body, without legs, ensuring the focus of the viewer upon the upper body. Robert Bednarik (2003) tells us that she, too, shows signs of having been coated with red ochre indicating she was a ritual object5. Could it be that she was an early version of the later Upper Palaeolithic female figurines, with a similar meaning?
The three female images above, any of which can fit into the palm of a hand, demonstrate the earliest attempts to give the goddess/female principle a form to which the people could relate. Using simple stone tools, those first few tentative groove marks helped to transform a naturally-shaped stone into the basic image of a woman who was known as the Tan Tan figurine from Morocco; while the maker of the Berehkat Ram figurine went a step further: a small volcanic rock was carved into the shape of a woman, emphasising aspects which were important to the story she represented. They were tactile, interesting textured shapes to hold in the hand for periods of time, and small enough to be carried around when travelling. As for the more abstract images engraved in the Bhimbetka cave (the cupule and meander), they represented another way to tell the story.
The Second Wave: The Earliest Upper Palaeolithic Female Figurine?
By 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans) were present in Africa, Europe and East Asia. Their skills had continued to develop as time went on, to the point that the symbolic images could be anatomically correct, or manipulated to express certain ideas or emotions.
The Hohle Fels mammoth ivory female figurine (dated to 40,000 BP) is the earliest of the Upper Palaeolithic figurines known at present. She was found at the lowest level of a cave in Germany in 2008 by Professor Nicholas Conrad of Tübingen University. This little sculpture represents a woman who is about to give birth. Although she might have been worn suspended on a cord passing through a loop which replaces her head, she is apparently portrayed lying down as her back is flat, while her arms are placed protectively over her body to support her upright swollen breasts. Her greatly enlarged genitalia, between insignificant legs, are held widely apart in preparation for imminent birth-giving. She has criss-cross patterns of lines incised down her arms and across her body which could represent ritual tattoo marks or painted ochre designs. Sadly her discoverer, Nicholas Conrad, considers her a “Venus” figurine, saying “Head and legs don’t matter. This is about sex and reproduction.”6 But she is plainly a remarkable image of the goddess/female deity in a form to whom early modern human women could relate, as she represented an important aspect of many women’s lives, both then and now. She was a remarkable forerunner to the famous goddess figurines….
1. Alexander Marshack (1977) in ‘Invisible Women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war (p. 33)
2. Robert Bednarik <http//:sunspot.sli.unimelb.edu/aura/MAKAPANSGAT.htm>
3. David Bohm and Mark Edwards in: Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet (2013), ‘Invisible Women of Prehistory; three million years of peace, six thousand years of war’, (p.27) Spinifex Press
4. Giriraj Kumar, ‘Daraki-Chattan; a Palaeolithic Cupule Site in India’ , Rock Art Research, (1996) Vol 13, No.1
5. Robert Bednarik (2003) ‘A Figurine from the African Acheulian’ Current Anthropology, 44 (3), 405-413 DOI
6. Nicholas Conrad in <http//:www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-cave-art-debate-100617099/?no-ist> The Cave Art Debate: The discovery of a 40,000-year old figurine reignites debate among archaeologists about the origins – and true purpose – of art, Andrew Curry, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2012