30,000-year-old Austrian statue traced to stone from Italy

Saturday, March 5, 2022

In findings published on Monday in Scientific Reports, scientists from the University of Vienna and Vienna Natural History Museum, Austria found the stone used to carve the Venus of Willendorf came from northern Italy, hundreds of miles from its origin, on the other side of the Alps.

The Venus of Willendorf, all sides.
Image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.

The 30 thousand-year-old sculpture is one of the oldest examples of human art. It stands about 4.3 inches (11 cm) tall. Like many prehistoric statuettes, it shows a female figure with a large stomach and breasts. However, while most of these other examples were carved from ivory or bone, the Venus is made of a stone called oolite, a type of limestone. Scientists believe it was carved by people of the Gravettian culture, probably with flint tools. Scientists named it after Venus, the Roman goddess of love.

Scientists compared rock samples from as west as France and as east as Ukraine to microscopic views of the Venus. Because oolite is a sedimentary rock formed by layers of silt and other materials building up over time, it is possible to discern individual grains and bits of shell that make up the stone. One of the tiny shell fragments in the statue came from a creature that lived during the Jurassic period, though the stone itself would have been harvested and carved much later.

Unlike previous examinations of the Venus, which evaluated only the exterior of the work, scientists used computed tomography to look inside the statue without damaging it. The scan showed the Venus had little resemblance with oolites near Willendorf, but that it was almost identical to those from Lake Garda in Italy, on the other side of the Alps and the Danube river, over 350 miles (563 km) away. A less possible site of origin is in Ukraine, over 1,600 kilometers (994 mi) east of where the statue was found in 1908, in Wachau, Austria.

Lead author Gerhard Weber speculated the stone may have moved during a migration: "When the climate or the prey situation changed, [people] moved on, preferably along rivers," he said.

The scientists say these findings have implications for the way prehistoric humans in and around the Alps traveled from place to place.

The study was funded by the state of Lower Austria.