April Nowell has studied some of the oldest carved figurines in the history of humanity, but possibly more interesting than what she discovered was the controversy that followed.
As a Paleolithic Archaeologist with the University of Victoria, April Nowell’s research focuses on the origins of art, symbol use, and language and on the emergence of modern cognition and modern human behavior.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at
As far as the cuts on many ice age art and objects are concerned, David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes have made some interesting suggestions, linking the activity of cutting into the cave wall to attempts to release the spirit energy contained on the other side of this spirit membrane as it is perceived during deep trance. The human activity of cutting and piercing the body is known from animist cultures around the world, where it usually represents the creating of a link with a spirit energy. The ritual activity of carving and piercing may primarily have been motivated by this attempt to release or harness an energy that was already perceived in an object. By cutting a stone or ivory tusk the latter still associated with spiritual power in many cultures today and enhancing the shape seen within, the psychological sense is created that this spirit is helped to emerge, encouraging a bond with the object. Thus we see a lot of ice age carvings that first of all are carved into objects that probably had very strong symbolic and spiritual value, and which were then cut to ensure that their spirit energy was released from inside of the object into the earthly realm of the living. African fetishes are a prime example of this ancient practice.
Philipp C Grote
In most female figurines in Ice Age art, certain conventions are kept. These include an abstraction of the head and arms. The wide spread and consistent recurrence of these conventions suggests a ritual context. What is shown is not a naturalistic representation. In most if not all paganshamanic cultures, particularly those that are animist hunter and gatherers, the cosmos was conceptionalised as the interplay of male and female forces. The minimisation of arms and heads seems to serve the emphasis of the nurturing and reproductive aspects contained within the female body. It is a fair guess that caves were associated with underwold wombs. Finding such female figurines buried in the ground or deep inside caves may indicate that the distortion contained in their depiction related to some ritual function associated with the underworld, where life was thought to be recreated or reborn.
- Philipp C Grote