Obesity in the Paleolithic: The Odd Case of the Venus Figurines

Introduction: Obesity in Western Societies

Unless you’ve been camping out for the past 20 years, you are probably aware that Americans are the fattest people in the world.  The latest National Institute of Health (NIH) survey indicates that 68.8 % of all American adults are overweight or obese.  

The easiest way to determine body composition and weight classification is to calculate the body mass index (BMI). Simply divide body weight in kilograms (kg) by height in meters squared (Table 1).

Table 1.  Body Mass Index (BMI) categories where BMI = [body weight (kg)/height (m2)].  World Health Organization (WHO), 2004 classification system.

BMI Category Category
<18.5 Underweight
<16 Severe Thinness
16 to 16.9 Moderate Thinness
17 to 18.49 Mild Thinness
18.5 to 24.9 Normal Weight
>25 Overweight
27.5 – 29.9 Pre-obese
>30 Obese
30 to 34.9 Obesity I
35 to 39.9 Obesity II
>40 Obesity III

 

In utter contrast to the U.S. BMI data, studies of non-westernized hunter-gatherers reveal that BMI’s in the overweight and obese categories are rare or non-existent (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Mean body mass indices (BMI) in hunter gatherers and other non-westernized populations. Unpublished data from Cordain L (2016).

Contemporary Paleo Diets Result in Weight Loss

When most modern, overweight or obese people adopt contemporary Paleo Diets, they invariably lose weight and decrease body fat 1-2, 4-8, 10-12, 15, 18 while simultaneously reducing metabolic syndrome disease symptoms. 1-6, 8-18  

Accordingly, it might be expected that cases of obesity and extreme obesity (BMI > 40) simply couldn’t occur in the Paleolithic era when people didn’t have access to modern foods and almost everyone had to work to acquire food.  

Surprisingly, certain tantalizing evidence suggests that at least some female populations living in Eurasia during the Paleolithic period may have actually become extremely obese.19-36  Before we can speculate how and why obesity may have occurred during the Paleolithic, let’s first examine the evidence for its presence.

 

Evidence for Obesity during the Paleolithic

The female form, when present in the right proportions has been a symbol of femininity, sensuality and fertility. 19  

Perhaps the most famous example of the feminine image is found in the Roman sculpture, The Venus de Milo, which is on permanent display at the Louvre in Paris.  Long before Venus de Milo was carved in marble, likely by the Roman, Alexander of Antioch,19 one of the first sculptures of the female form was excavated from a Paleolithic (Aurignacian) deposit near the town of Willendorf in Austria, in the summer of 190820 [Figure 2].

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Figure 2. The Venus of Willendorf, frontal (left) and lateral views (right), carved from soapstone and dated to 25,000 to 23,000 years ago. 36

 

In the more than 100 years since it’s discovery, this sculptured female figure from Austria has come to be known as The Venus of Willendorf,19-22 and is now dated to 25,000 to 23,000 years ago. 36  

Venus figurines have been discovered throughout most of Eurasia from Spain to the Amur River in Russia, and finds of Paleolithic figurines have been made near Lake Baikal Russia, all over greater Russia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Turkey.23  More than 188 female figurines have been uncovered, 29 and in one study of 97 carved statues, more than half of them (53 %) represented overweight or very obese females. 23,24  

One of the most recently discovered figurines was unearthed at Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany in 200835 and clearly represents extreme obesity in the female form (Figure 3).   

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Figure 3. The Venus of Hohle Fels Cave, Germany, dated to at least 35,000 years ago, 35 lateral (left) and frontal views (right).

The Hohle Fels Cave figurine is the oldest Paleolithic carving yet discovered and dates to at least 35,000 ago.35  

Interestingly, obese Venus figurines appear in the archeologic record almost from the very beginnings of our species’ (Homo sapiens) colonization of Europe approximately 40,000 years ago and remain until the end of the upper Paleolithic Era, 10,000 years ago.22, 23, 28, 32, 33, 35

Accordingly, if these sculptured carvings of the female figure were approximately anatomically accurate, then there can be no doubt that overweight, obesity, and extreme obesity in females clearly existed (although likely sporadically) throughout the Upper Paleolithic Era in Europe.

The Purpose and Anatomical Accuracy of Venus Figurines

Obviously, a great shortcoming of all Paleolithic Venus figurines is that contemporary people do not understand their ultimate purpose.  Were they carved as female symbols of beauty, sensuality, femininity, and fertility,19, 28-30, 32, 34, 36 or did they represent witches, goddesses, magic guardians29 or something else?  

A more important question from a dietary and health perspective that we have a better chance of answering is whether the Venus figurine carvings were anatomically accurate?  

Obviously Stone age Venus figurines do not maintain the sculpting precision present in Roman statues such as Venus de Milo (Aphrodite) created 2,100 years ago.  Nevertheless, Stone Age, nude figurines from the Paleolithic era display important anatomical detail suggesting that they were indeed modeled after living, obese women.36How do we infer this information?

The dimensions of Paleolithic miniature statues maintain realistic body proportions24 when scaled to full sized women.  For instance, the hip to shoulder ratio was close to one, in non-obese figurines, whereas the hips were 30 to 67 % broader in obese figurines.24  

Further, an analysis of 188 Venus figurines and contemporary hunter gatherer women “gives empirical support to the hypothesis that Venuses represent not merely pregnant women, but women throughout their entire adult age span. . . The Venuses apparently represent womanhood, not just motherhood”.29

In an extensive examination of the Venus of Willendorf, Trinkaus36 notes, “The observation that the statuette represents an obese woman is evident in a series of anatomical details, ones which go beyond stylistic concerns emphasizing or de-emphasizing personal or sexual characteristics.  The depictions are of sufficient detail to permit identification of superficial anatomical features, ones which are accentuated in the living by the laying down of subcutaneous fat.

Speculations upon the Causes of Obesity in Paleolithic Women

It is difficult to reconcile the causes of obesity in hunter gatherer women who lived 10,000 to 40,000 years ago in Europe and Asia. Clearly, historically studied hunter gatherers (Figure 1) show that overweight and/or obesity are essentially non-existent in these populations. Additionally, scientific trials of contemporary Paleo Diets in modern humans invariably show these diets to elicit weight loss and reductions in body fat.1-2, 4-8, 10-12, 15, 18

Randomized controlled trials (RCT) of diets low in carbohydrate and high in protein and fat show these diets to normalize blood parameters associated with insulin resistance and promote weight loss.37, 38  Similarly, low glycemic load carbohydrates elicit comparable effects.39, 40  Hence the nutritional characteristics of the average Stone Age Diet41, 42 would seem to normalize weight, prevent obesity and diseases of insulin resistance.  

Nevertheless, the Venus figurines indicate otherwise.  To maintain their high BMI’s as estimated by measurement of statue body dimensions24 and via visual inspection,36 additional nutritional factors must have been in play to allow the development of overweight and obesity in the living people the Venus figurines were modeled after.

The available modern data indicates that overweight and obesity rarely develop without the simultaneous development of insulin resistance,43 and that insulin resistance rarely develops without the consumption of refined carbohydrates such as refined sugars, refined cereal grains, potatoes and other high glycemic load, modern foods.44  When these foods are combined with high fat foods, it exacerbates and promotes overweight and obesity.45  

Accordingly, it is likely that the overweight and obese Paleolithic women who were the living models for Venus figurines likely had access to high fat, high glycemic load carbohydrate foods on a regular basis.

Candidate Paleolithic Foods Promoting Insulin Resistance and Obesity

A key factor interacting with diet in the development of overweight and obesity is chronic and long term activity levels. Hunter gatherers maintain long term daily activity levels that are about 62 % higher than contemporary sedentary office workers.46, 47  In foraging humans energy expenditure and energy intake (food) are directly linked.  

Hence, it seems likely that the living women who were models for the Paleolithic Venus figurines did not actively participate in food gathering activities. Rather food was likely given to them by others in a manner similar to food given to the Hawaiian royalty at the time of Captain Cook’s discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.  Hence, these Paleolithic women would likely have had special roles in their society in which they were not obligated to work.

Willendorf, Austria is located at 47 degrees north latitude. Consequently, for hunter gatherers, plant foods, and hence dietary carbohydrate sources, would have been available primarily seasonally, unless they were gathered and stored over winter.  At this latitude and location, high glycemic load carbohydrate foods necessary to produce insulin resistance would have been few.   Table 1 below shows the glycemic index and sugar content of wild plant foods that would have been present during the Paleolithic in Austria.48  Notice that they are all fresh fruits.

Table 1. Nutritional characteristics of selected wild plant foods48 from Austria, 100 gm

Commin Name Scientific Name Glycemic Index kcal Total CHO gm Total FAT gm Total Sugar gm
Fresh Fruits
Blackberry Rubus subgenus Rubus spp. na 43 9.61 0.49 4.88
Wild strawberry Fragaria vesca 40 32 7.68 0.30 4.89
Wild raspberry Rubus idaeus 31 52 11.94 0.65 4.42
Blueberry Vaccinium myrtillus  na  57  14.49 0.33 9.96
Elderberry Sambucus nigra  na  73  18.4 0.50 na
Wild cherry Prunus avium subsp. Avium  22  50  12.18 0.30 8.49
Grapes Vitis vinifera  49 69 18.1 0.16 15.48
Dried Fruits
Raisins Vitis vinifera 66 296 78.47 0.54 64.84
Blueberries Vaccinium myrtillus na 350 82.5 0.00 65.0
Strawberries Fragaria vesca na 350 87.5 0.00 80.0
Raspberries Rubus idaeus  na  325  80.0 1.25 72.5
Refined Sugars
Honey 58 304 882.8 0.00 82.12
Nuts
Walnuts  Juglans regia na 654 13.71 65.21 2.61
Hazelnuts  Corylus avellana na 628 16.7 60.75 4.34

*Note: when wild food data was unavailable, domesticated variety data was used

The samples contain low to moderate amounts of total sugar. Only dried fruits and honey maintain high sugar amounts and also the highest glycemic indices.  If one combines dried fruits with honey and nuts, this combination of foods yields a mixture with a high sugar content, a high fat content and a high glycemic load.  These nutritional characteristics could be produced by only combining dried berries with nuts, and that honey is not necessarily required.  

This food combination could have readily been concocted 23,000 to 25,000 years ago in Willendorf, Austria.  Further, all of these foods could be stored over winter if collected in large enough quantities during summer and fall.  Hence it is quite likely that the Venus of Willendorf was modeled after living fat ladies who regularly overate mixtures of dried berries, nuts and honey.

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About Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor Emeritus

Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor EmeritusDr. Loren Cordain is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. His research emphasis over the past 20 years has focused upon the evolutionary and anthropological basis for diet, health and well being in modern humans. Dr. Cordain’s scientific publications have examined the nutritional characteristics of worldwide hunter-gatherer diets as well as the nutrient composition of wild plant and animal foods consumed by foraging humans. He is the world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets and has lectured extensively on the Paleolithic nutrition worldwide. Dr. Cordain is the author of six popular bestselling books including The Real Paleo Diet Cookbook, The Paleo Diet, The Paleo Answer, and The Paleo Diet Cookbook, summarizing his research findings.

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“9” Comments

  1. Delightful & plausible piece of speculation about something that had always bothered me. Paleolithic obesity never seemed possible before – but now I understand how it might have happened.

    I note in a more general way that in marginal societies now (e.g. Cambodia, where I work), fatness is often prized, notably in children. The rare fat person (or parent of a fat child) seems to be saying, ‘I can afford food excess to requirements and you can’t.’

  2. I just had a vision of tribes competing to see who could produce the largest lady. You couldn’t feed everyone to that extent, but perhaps one was chosen for the royal treatment. Look at the elaborately curled hair and lack of ‘portrait’. As an artist myself I can see there was a real live model for the Venus of Willendorf so why no face? She is looking down too so that there will be even less need of a face. The arms are not to scale either.

    I can envisage local tribes each boasting of their hunting and gathering prowess and deciding to see who is the winner via an annual fat lady contest, like how people see who can grow the biggest pumpkin today. The statuette was the trophy. She was probably fed every morsel of leftover winter stores come springtime. This would be dried fruit and honey.

    That would explain why there are so many fat Venuses when the local environment would have been unlikely to support everyone eating like that.

  3. I have a question (sort of). If the world goes extinct and 1000 years from now, aliens (or new humanlike species) take over this planet. Do you think they will look at the Jesus-statue in Rio and conclude that humans must have been HUGE. Or Pegasus, and thinking our horses could fly. Or Sekhmet, thinking our women had lionheads? Gods are usually portrayed as “different”, maybe to differentiate them from everyone else. Could this be as simple as, if they (“cavemen”) created gods, they would model them on UNcommon figures as opposed to figures they where used to see??

  4. These figurines represented the ideal body type for that era. Food was not a constant and fatness represented wealth and constant access to food. Just like the ideal body type of any era it was mostly unattainable.

  5. Yeah the BMI is too simplistic indeed, however I think it’s been used because of the lack of deeper data about hunter gatherers. It’s all dr.Cordain could have about them and you have to compare the same kind of data.
    Aside from this, I forgot to say that I’m really disappointed about archeologists that post unfair things. I know that journalists have to do their scoop, but from a researcher a title like :”cancer on a paleo diet” it’s unfair, biased and most probably in bad faith. I was not born yesterday and I know how it’s difficult to find funding, that mostly comes from lobbies nowadays and it’s not hard for me to imagine how clientelism works. If someone comes up with these titles that serve to discredit a research proven diet and lifestyle, it’s most probably a conflict of interest. Nobody in the paleo emisphere claimed that in nature diseases don’t exist, but the incidence is very very low.
    As told before, folks look at “contemporary” hunter gatherers instead of trying to find a proof in the past to dispel a “myth” that is revealing everything but a myth and is actually apparently working.
    You can’t deny the EVIDENCE, as dr. Cordain says:”let data speak for themselves.

    • The problem with dr. Cordain is, that he has his facts wrong, the facts that his whole theory is based on. Early humans based their diet on starches since they learned to control fire. There is ample evidence for that now. Starches are the most nutrient dense foods available and easiest to store. Hunting is just too unreliable to be the main source of food, and vegetables are not calorie dense enough.
      As to this article, Cordain is citing studies, that hardly are representative-small control groups with results showing only small changes.

  6. What’s the problem? I just read a post about the oldest cancer just discovered? And so what? Saying that the incidence of X was very low is a farcry from claiming that “it didn’t exist”. If one thing is POSSIBLE it doesn’t mean that it’s the norm.
    It’s been estimated that within the next years one child out of two will be likely to develop cancer in his lifetime. As far as what’s been reported, no culture before ever had such striking havoc. Anyway, as long as we debate about paleo times, it’s gonna be a waste of time since you can claim everything and all the other way around since nobody was there to witness. It just takes antropological studies on Kitavans, Inuit, Ache, etc. to see what we know, and if you bind them with research, you can have a fairly clear picture, no matter fancy claims and speculations over the far past.

  7. I have to say, I am really surprised you chose to use BMI info. I’ve seen enough evidence to suggest that BMI is pretty much BS. My 6’0″, 15 year old (at the time) son was labeled as overweight, despite a 31″ waist and extremely slim, athletic build, because his BMI was in that range because he was somewhere around 180lbs. I have no doubt that this is and was explained by muscle mass (and he is NOT massively built, a bodybuilder or even a high performance athlete, just a regular semi-athletic kid who works out a few times a week to throw discus and shotput.

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