The Pont-d’Arc Venus: Aurignacian, Gravettian or Magdalenian?
Additional observations on
the age of Chauvet
© Christian Züchner
In the last edition of INORA Le Guillou (2001)
described a recently documented female figure of the Chauvet Cave called
“The Pont-d’Arc Venus” (La Vénus du Pont-d’Arc):
marked pubic triangle … seems to be the heart of the representation. A
clearly curved line limits the upper contour. Two lines not joint at the
base show the two folds of the groin. The upper junction of these lines,
on the left of the design, probably was not present on the right, as if
the finish was not a concern. A second curved horizontal line, parallel
to the first and just under it, divides the interior of the pubic
triangle. After the making of the lines a black filling-in was added by
shading and spreading pigment. This colouring is preferentially centred
on the lower part of the triangle, outlining a darker zone and thus
perhaps giving an impression of volume. The vulva slit, done later, is
clearly indicated by a vertical line incised strongly enough to cut
through both the black pigment and the yellow surface film on the rock,
and thus appearing in white. … The legs, with plump thighs, finish in
an point with the feet not shown. … All the upper part of the body is
missing, but perhaps this was not always so. The buttocks could have
been at least started, then effaced.”
He continues: “This venus is absolutely classic. Her
proportions, the stylistic elements, the selection of anatomical
elements shown are all characteristic of Aurignacian or Gravettian
venuses, as known from the small statues of Central and Eastern Europe.
In Paleolithic parietal art the Venus of Laussel seems the nearest to
that of Pont-d’Arc.”
The main elements of the venus are: the extremely emphasized pubic triangle and the vulva slit encompassed by the thighs and the abdomen, the legs without feet, missing belly, trunk, breasts or other female attributes. The main interest of the artist is concentrated on the sexual and not the maternal aspect of women. The sexuality is shown in an almost vulgar clearness. The venus of Pont-d’Arc would raise severe problems, if we accept that the Chauvet Cave is an Aurignacian monument.
The typical vulvas of Aurignacian and to some extent of
Gravettian are circular, not triangular. They look much more like the
hoof prints of horses than like pubic triangles.
· Despite the traditional term “vénus aurignaco-périgordiennes” no female figures from the Aurignacian period have been found up to now. All statuettes or relieves are of Gravettian age. As Naber (1974) pointed out, some of the relieves of Laussel may even belong to the Solutrean. If we accept Le Guillou’s comparison with the “Venus of Laussel”, we must accept too that some of the black paintings in Chauvet cave are younger than Aurignacian.
· The venus figures of Gravettian never stress the sexuality but always the maternity of women. Even if the pudenda are clearly indicated (e.g. Willendorf) it is done in a very discrete way, as natural part of women, not in such a vulgar clearness as in Chauvet cave. That means the venus of Pont-d’Arc does not show all the characteristics of Aurignacian and Gravettian figures as Le Guillou points out.
If we accept that the black paintings of Chauvet Cave
are of Magdalenian origin as we have maintained since 1995, all problems
are solved without any difficulties: there exist some representations of
women presenting their sexuality which are nearly identical and
well-dated to the Magdalenian:
the famous three women are confined to the trunk, the pointed feetless
legs and a very emphasized pubis (Iakovleva, Pinçon 1997, fig.
Magdeleine: two young women present themselves in a very erotic way on
the two walls of a small cave. The pubis is worked out very clearly
(Atlas 1984, 540-543).
Basse: the so-called “Vénus impudique”, a small statuette confined
to trunk, legs and pubis, could be the model of the relieves and the
black drawing of Chauvet (e.g. Leroi-Gourhan 1971, fig. 53).
Le Guillou’s photo supplies further arguments
confirming our reasoning: the bison-man to the right and the lion to the
Representations of bison-men, i.e. of beings with human and
animal elements, are a typical element of Magdalenian art: cf. Le
Gabillou (e.g. Leroi-Gourhan 1971, fig. 58), Trois Frères (Bégouen,
Breuil 1958, fig. 63. Züchner 1972).
The lion to the left could also be a copy of a lion relief of
Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Iakovleva, Pinçon 1997, fig. 148). Lions
are not very frequent, but nevertheless common in Magdalenian art.
Pont-d'Arc venus and the bison-man are drawn on a triangular hanging
rock formation. The photograph in Le Guillou's publication conveyes the
impression that both figures belong to a composition, that there is a
close relation between both. That reminds the so-called "femme au
renne" (woman with reindeer) of Laugerie Basse (Dordogne) (e.g.
Graziosi 1956, pl. 85 c). The engraving on a shoulder blade shows a
woman and a reindeer, which could also be a bovid, obviously in close
personal relation with another. The woman is pregnat. Her pubic triangle
is clearly emphasized though one can not see it in this position. It
seems to be a clear hint to the Magdalenian age of the composition in
the Chauvet Cave.
If we do not trust blindly in the results of
radiocarbon and AMS dates and do not close our eyes to obvious parallels
between the art of Magdalenian and the black series of Chauvet Cave we
are forced to insist that the venus of Pont-d’Arc is a Magdalenian
It is difficult to decide why the AMS dates of Chauvet are so aberrant. Divided by two the dates would be congruent with the archaeological dates.
Even if Chauvet Cave is not as old as assumed it remains one of the outstanding highlights of cave art!