Obesity in the Paleolithic: The Odd Case of the… | The Paleo Diet®
noun_Search_345985 Created with Sketch.

Try The Paleo Diet®!

Learn more. Get recipes & meal plans. See the science.

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
<16Severe Thinness
16 to 16.9Moderate Thinness
17 to 18.49Mild Thinness
18.5 to 24.9Normal Weight
27.5 - 29.9Pre-obese
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 Unpublished data from Cordain L (2016).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
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.


[1] Lindeberg S, Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Borgstrand E, Soffman J, Sjöström K, Ahrén B. A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia 2007, 50(9):1795-1807.

[2] Osterdahl M, Kocturk T, Koochek A, Wandell PE: Effects of a short-term intervention with a Paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers. Eur J Clin Nutr 2008, 62(5):682-685.

[3] Frassetto LA, Schloetter M, Mietus-Synder M, Morris RC Jr, Sebastian A. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr 2009. Aug;63(8):947-55

[4] Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Ahrén B, Branell UC, Pålsson G, Hansson A, Söderström M, Lindeberg S. Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2009;8:35 doi: 10.1186/1475-2840-8-35

[5] Jonsson T, Granfeldt Y, Erlanson-Albertsson C, Ahrén B, Lindeberg S. A Paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010 Nov 30;7(1):85 doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-7-85.

[6] Ryberg M, Sandberg S, Mellberg C, Stegle O, Lindahl B, Larsson C, Hauksson J, Olsson T. A Palaeolithic-type diet causes strong tissue-specific effects on ectopic fat deposition in obese postmenopausal women. J Intern Med. 2013 Jul;274(1):67-76

[7] Stomby A, Simonyte K, Mellberg C, Ryberg M, Stimson RH, Larsson C, Lindahl B, Andrew R, Walker BR, Olsson T. Diet-induced weight loss has chronic tissue-specific effects on glucocorticoid metabolism in overweight postmenopausal women. Int J Obes (Lond). 2014 May;39(5):814-9

[8] Boers I, Muskiet FA, Berkelaar E, Schut E, Penders R, Hoenderdos K, Wichers HJ, Jong MC. Favourable effects of consuming a Palaeolithic-type diet on characteristics of the metabolic syndrom. A randomized controlled pilot-study. Lipids Health Dis. 2014 Oct 11;13:160. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-13-160.

[9] Talreja D, Buchanan H, Talreja R, Heiby L, Thomas B, Wetmore J, Pourfarzib R, Winegar D. Impact of a Paleolithic diet on modifiable CV risk factors. J Clin Lipid. 2014 May; 8(3): 341.

[10] Mellberg C, Sandberg S, Ryberg M, Eriksson M, Brage S, Larsson C, Olsson T, Lindahl B. Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Mar;68(3):350-7.

[11] Manheimer EW, van Zuuren EJ, Fedorowicz Z, Pijl H. Paleolithic nutrition for metabolic syndrome: systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Oct;102(4):922-32.

[12] Pastore RL, Brooks JT, Carbone JW. et al. Paleolithic nutrition improves plasma lipid concentrations of hypercholesterolemic adults to a greater extent than traditional heart-healthy dietary recommendations. Nutr Res. 2015; 35:474-479.

[13] Masharani U, Sherchan P, Schloetter M, Stratford S, Xiao A, Sebastian A, Nolte Kennedy M, Frassetto L. Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015 Aug;69(8):944-8.

[14] Bligh HF, Godsland IF, Frost G, Hunter KJ, Murray P, MacAulay K, Hyliands D, Talbot DC, Casey J, Mulder TP, Berry MJ. Plant-rich mixed meals based on Palaeolithic diet principles have a dramatic impact on incretin, peptide YY and satiety response, but show little effect on glucose and insulin homeostasis: an acute-effects randomised study.Br J Nutr. 2015 Feb 28;113(4):574-84.

[15] Talreja D, Talreja A, Talreja S, Choi H, Talreja R An Investigation of Plant-based, Mediterranean, Paleolithic, and Dash Diets. J Am Coll Cardiol Intv. 2016;9(4_S):S61-S61. doi:10.1016/j.jcin.2015.12.195

[16] Whalen KA, McCullough ML, Flanders WD, Hartman TJ, Judd S, Bostick RM. Paleolithic and Mediterranean diet pattern scores are inversely associated with biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative balance in adults. J Nutr. 2016 Apr 20. pii: jn224048. [Epub ahead of print]

[17] Fontes-Villalba M, Lindeberg S, Granfeldt Y, Knop FK, Memon AA, Carrera-Bastos P, Picazo Ó, Chanrai M, Sunquist J, Sundquist K, Jönsson T. Palaeolithic diet decreases fasting plasma leptin concentrations more than a diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes: a randomised cross-over trial. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2016 May 23;15(1):80. doi: 10.1186/s12933-016-0398-1.

[18] Otten J, Stomby A, Waling M, Isaksson A, Tellström A, Lundin-Olsson L, Brage S, Ryberg M, Svensson M, Olsson T. Effects of a Paleolithic diet with and without supervised exercise on fat mass, insulin sensitivity, and glycemic control: a randomized controlled trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Metab Res Rev. 2016 May 27. doi: 10.1002/dmrr.2828. [Epub ahead of print]

[19] Seshadri KG. Obesity: A Venusian story of Paleolithic proportions. Indian J Endocrinol Metabol 2012, 16(1):134-135.

[20] Antl-Weiser W. The anthropomorphic figurines from Willendorf. Wiss Mitt Niederosterr Landesmuseum, St. Polten, 2008;19: 19-30.

[21] Colman E. Obesity in the Paleolithic era? The Venus of Willendorf. Endocr Pract 1998;4(1): 58-59.

[22] Rigby N, Haslam D. A further look at obesity. Lancet 2010;376:1144-45.

[23] Jozsa LG. Obesity in the Paleolithic era. Hormones 2011;10(3): 241-244.

[24] Jozsa LG. Obesity of Womens (sic) in Paleolithicum. J Obes Wt Loss Ther 2012;2(5), 136, doi10.4172/2165-7904.1000136.

[25] Józsa L. Obesity in sculptures of the paleolithic era. Orv Hetil. 2008 Dec 7;149(49):2309-14. doi: 10.1556/OH.2008.28415.

[26] Józsa L, Kiss Z. The nutrition in the Paleolithic era, and the "paleodiet" today. Orv Hetil. 2013 Feb 24;154(8):315-8. doi: 10.1556/OH.2013.HO2431.

[27] Pontius AA. Stone-age art “Venuses” as heuristic clues for types of obesity: contribution to “Iconodiagnosis”. Percept Motor Skills 1986;63: 544-46.

[28] Harding JR. Certain upper Paleolithic “Venus” statuettes considered in relation to the pathological condition known as massive hypertrophy of the breasts. Man 1976; 11(2): 271-272.

[29] Rice PC. Prehistoric Venuses: symbols of motherhood or womanhood? J Anthropol Res 1981; 37(4): 402414.

[30] Shewan L. The Venus figurines. Int J Cardiol. 2006 Nov 18;113(3):439.

[31] Cheng TO. Obesity, Hippocrates and Venus of Willendorf. Int J Cardiol. 2006 Nov 10;113(2):257

[32] Haslam D. Obesity: a medical history. Obesity Rev 2007; 8 (suppl 1), 31-36.

[33] Leal AS. The world history of obesity. J Humanistic Psychiatrity. 2013; 1(1): 14-16.

[34] Fiedorczuk J, Bratlund B, Kolstrup E, Schild R. Late Magdalenian feminine flint plaquettes from Poland. Antiquity 2007;81: 97-105.

[35] Conard NJ. A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. Nature 2009; 459: 248-252.

[36] Trinkaus E. The adiposity paradox in the middle Danubian Gravettian. Anthropologie 2005;43:263-271.

[37] Sackner-Bernstein J1, Kanter D2, Kaul S3. Dietary Intervention for Overweight and Obese Adults: Comparison of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets. A Meta-Analysis. PLoS One. 2015 Oct 20;10(10):e0139817. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0139817. eCollection 2015.

[38] Mansoor N, Vinknes KJ, Veierød MB, Retterstøl K. Effects of low-carbohydrate diets v. low-fat diets on body weight and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br J Nutr. 2016 Feb 14;115(3):466-79. doi: 10.1017/S0007114515004699.

[39] Thomas DE1, Elliott EJ, Baur L. Low glycaemic index or low glycaemic load diets for overweight and obesity. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18;(3):CD005105.

[40] Goff LM, Cowland DE, Hooper L, Frost GS. Low glycaemic index diets and blood lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013 Jan;23(1):1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.numecd.2012.06.002. Epub 2012 Jul 25.

[41] Cordain L, Miller JB, Eaton SB, Mann N, Holt SH, Speth JD. Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Mar;71(3):682-92.

[42] Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O'Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Feb;81(2):341-54.

[43] Zhang M, Hu T, Zhang S, Zhou L. Associations of Different Adipose Tissue Depots with Insulin Resistance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Observational Studies. Sci Rep. 2015 Dec 21;5:18495. doi: 10.1038/srep18495.

[44] Maki KC, Phillips AK. Dietary substitutions for refined carbohydrate that show promise for reducing risk of type 2 diabetes in men and women. J Nutr. 2015 Jan;145(1):159S-163S. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.195149. Epub 2014 Dec 3.

[45] Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS One. 2015 Feb 18;10(2):e0117959. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117959. eCollection 2015.

[46] Cordain L, Gotshall RW, Eaton SB, Eaton SB 3rd. Physical activity, energy expenditure and fitness: an evolutionary perspective. Int J Sports Med. 1998 Jul;19(5):328-35

[47] Cordain L, Gotshall RW, Eaton SB. Evolutionary aspects of exercise. World Rev Nutr Diet. 1997;81:49-60.[48]Schunko C, Vogl C. Organic farmers use of wild food plants and fungi in a hilly area in Styria (Austria). J Ethnobotany Ethnomedicine 2010;6: 17-31.

Even More Articles For You

Getting Real About Paleo: Quantifying Hunter Gatherer Food Choices
Dr. Loren Cordain compiles the Paleo Diets of 229 hunter-gatherer societies and assembles the 13 known quantitative nutritional studies of hunter gatherers.
By Loren Cordain, Ph.D.
The Wheat Series Part 1: Wheat and the Immune System
A healthy gut exposed to wheat isn't fine in anyone. Find out how the relationship between wheat and the immune system causes inflammation in our guts.
By Trevor Connor, M.S.
Recipe: Mixed Berries with Whipped Coconut Cream
This healthy dessert is made dairy-free using coconut cream. Topped with crunchy toasted almonds and shredded coconut, it’s a decadent take on a classic.
By The Paleo Diet® Team
Paleo Leadership
Trevor Connor
Trevor Connor

Dr. Loren Cordain’s final graduate student, Trevor Connor, M.S., brings more than a decade of nutrition and physiology expertise to spearhead the new Paleo Diet team.

Mark J Smith
Dr. Mark Smith

One of the original members of the Paleo movement, Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the benefits of Paleo nutrition.

Nell Stephenson
Nell Stephenson

Ironman athlete, mom, author, and nutrition blogger Nell Stephenson has been an influential member of the Paleo movement for over a decade.

Loren Cordain
Dr. Loren Cordain

As a professor at Colorado State University, Dr. Loren Cordain developed The Paleo Diet® through decades of research and collaboration with fellow scientists around the world.