Mal'ta Venuses (c.20,000 BCE)
The Mal'ta Venuses are yet another treasure of prehistoric sculpture from the continent of Russia. Discovered near Usolsky (Usol'ye), some 60 miles northwest of Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, they are the oldest prehistoric art ever found in Siberia. Stylistically they are linked to Russian venus figurines - which include the Venus of Kostenky (22,000 BCE) from just south of Voronezh, the Venus of Gagarino (20,000 BCE) from near Lipetsk, the Avdeevo Venuses (20,000 BCE) from Kursk and the Zaraysk Venuses (c.20,000 BCE) from the Moscow region - though they are definitely more primitive. The Mal'ta Venuses comprise some 30 female figurines of varying shapes, carved out of mammoth ivory or reindeer antler. Although one or two might be said to resemble the typical 'obese venus' produced in Europe, as exemplified by the Austrian Venus of Willendorf (c.25,000 BCE), the vast majority exhibit the differences that are characteristic of the Russian school: namely, they are more mature, far less obese, and possess genitalia that are less exaggerated than typical European models. Some also wear clothes and have facial features. Indirectly dated to about 20,000 BCE, the Mal'ta figures are now part of the Paleolithic art collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
For the chronology of Stone Age art in Russia and the Ukraine, as well as North-central Eurasia, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
The Mal'ta archeological site is located on the left bank of the Belaya, a tributary of the upper Angara river, in the area northwest of Lake Baikal in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, Russia. It was first discovered in 1928, and later excavated by archeologists Sergei Zamiatnine, G.P.Sosnovskii, and Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov (1907-70).
The occupants, cultures and Stone Age art of eastern Siberia remain something of a mystery to Paleolithic scholars, despite the numerous excavations that have been carried out there over the past century. Scientists believe that the earliest 'modern humans' began arriving in the area around 40,000 BCE - that is, before they arrived in European Russia. If true, this indicates that these early hunter-gatherers migrated into Siberia from territory to the south, which is consistent with the primitive, and relatively 'non-European' style of the Mal'ta figurines. After all, if hunter-gatherer carvers had migrated from Europe to Siberia, they would surely have brought a more mature style of carving with them.
Irrespective of exactly when modern man first entered Siberia, by 20,000 BCE the two main cultures in the region were the Afontova Gora-Oshurkovo culture (20,000-12,000 BCE), centred on present-day Krasnoyarsk; and the Mal'ta-Buret culture (22,000-13,000 BCE), named after the type sites in the village districts of Mal'ta, Usolsky and Buret' Bokhansky, all in the Irkutsk region, some 500 miles to the southeast. The Mal'ta site as a whole is reckoned to be the oldest archeological site in Siberia, and shows signs of occupation from the early stages of the Upper Paleolithic, perhaps around 40,000-35,000 BCE. Consisting of a series of semi-underground shelters made out of animal skins and turf, its importance should not be underestimated, since until its excavation in the late-1920s, and the resulting discovery of its cache of beautiful ivory carvings, anthropologists did not believe that Upper Paleolithic cultures of Northern and Central Asia were as advanced as those in Europe.
There were two forms of art during the Upper Paleolithic: (1) parietal art, mostly cave painting, which was concentrated in Western Europe; and (2) mobiliary art, mostly small portable sculptures known as venus figurines, which have been found in locations across the northern hemisphere from the Atlantic coast to Central Asia. It is this type of portable sculpture for which Mal'ta has become famous.
There are 23 statuettes in the Mal'ta series of venuses which are more or less whole, as well as a number of fragments, including two heads. Two are carved out of reindeer antler, the remainder are made from mammoth ivory. The tallest is 13.5 centimetres (5 inches), the shortest 4 centimetres (less than 1.5 inches). Stylistically speaking, the Mal'ta Venus figurines can be divided into two basic types: thin and thick. However, even the thick figures do not have the excessive obesity - in the form of massive breasts, steatopygia, fatty hips and swollen belly - that is the leitmotif of European venuses. Indeed, the Mal'ta statuettes are shaped more like Russian dolls - upright, arms by the side, undefined neck, no variation in width between chest and pelvis, and so on - than female statues. Equally significant, the Mal'ta sculptors - unlike their European cousins - gave little emphasis to the gentialia. The figure's pubic triangle is always depicted, usually in the form of a small 'V', but there is no vulva.
Another difference is that the nudity of most Mal'ta venuses is not convincing. Many, for instance, are etched with markings that suggest clothing or furs. In addition, legs and feet are barely represented, with many figures being tapered at the bottom, leading some scientists to suggest that they might have been stuck upright in the ground.
One final difference concerns their facial characteristics. Despite the lack of bodily features, like neck, breasts, buttocks and the like, Mal'ta statuettes do have much more distinct facial features. Of the 18 defined heads, 11 have clear facial features (including eyes, nose and mouth), and three others have features outlined. Hair, occasionally shoulder-length, is also a common feature.
For photos and details of famous venus statuettes from western and central Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, please see the following articles.
of Hohle Fels (ivory) (35,500 BCE) Swabia, Germany.
For more about portable carvings, see: History of Sculpture.
For more art from Siberia, see: Russian Art (22,000 BCE - present).
For more about prehistoric sculpture from north-central Asia, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE