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

By Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Founder of The Paleo Diet
August 2, 2016

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

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

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 Unpublished data from Cordain L (2016).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, 18while 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].

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

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).

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

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 NameScientific NameGlycemic IndexkcalTotal CHO gmTotal FAT gmTotal Sugar gm
Fresh Fruits
BlackberryRubus subgenus Rubus spp.na439.610.494.88
Wild strawberryFragaria vesca40327.680.304.89
Wild raspberryRubus idaeus315211.940.654.42
BlueberryVaccinium myrtillusna5714.490.339.96
ElderberrySambucus nigrana7318.40.50na
Wild cherryPrunus avium subsp. Avium225012.180.308.49
GrapesVitis vinifera496918.10.1615.48
Dried Fruits
RaisinsVitis vinifera6629678.470.5464.84
BlueberriesVaccinium myrtillusna35082.50.0065.0
StrawberriesFragaria vescana35087.50.0080.0
RaspberriesRubus idaeusna32580.01.2572.5
Refined Sugars
Honey58304882.80.0082.12
Nuts
WalnutsJuglans regiana65413.7165.212.61
HazelnutsCorylus avellanana62816.760.754.34


*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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