Archaeological discoveries

The oldest portrait in the world, 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 place that, since before systematic excavations began in 1924, had already provided researchers with abundant prehistoric materials from the Gravettian period (which took place between 27,000 and 20,000 years ago).

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

The first is known as the Black Venus or Venus of Dolní Věstonice. It was found on a hillside among charred mammoth bones, and follows the typical pattern of Paleolithic Venuses associated with fertility cults, such as the famous one found in Willendorf. In 2004 a tomography revealed in it the imprint of a child who could have held it before it was cooked.

But the second is different. Known as Venus XV, it is the face of a woman sculpted with stone tools from the ivory of a mammoth tusk. It has dimensions of 4.7 centimeters high by 2.1 wide and 1.9 deep. The figure has her hair gathered in a kind of bun, with an incised line that marks the upper part of her forehead.

Her eyebrows are carefully drawn over exceptionally shaped eyes, and a perfectly proportioned nose and mouth. A slight deformation can be seen on one side of her face. It was found in 1891. For this reason, it was considered a fake for a long time.

However, analyzes conducted by the University of Kansas Space Technology Center dated the piece to 26,000 years BP (AP, before present , technically before 1950 ), removing all traces of doubt.

Now, the reason why this piece is believed to be the portrait of a specific woman, and therefore the first representation of an individual known to date, is that several burials were found in the excavations of the 1920s.

One of them corresponded to the skeleton of a woman buried under two mammoth scapulae, 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 practically an old woman, having lived much longer than the average of the time.

Both the bones and the earth had red ochre, and a flint point had been placed near her skull. In one of her hands she held the skeleton of a fox and her teeth in the other.

All this points to the fact that it was a shaman. But the most surprising thing is that the left side of the skull was deformed exactly like the ivory figurine.

That is 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.

Currently the figure is kept in the Pavilon Anthropos museum in the Czech town of Brno, which is part of the Moravian Museum.