Venus Figurines
© Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, via Wikimedia Commons
Four views of the Venus of Willendorf figurine in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The enigmatic Venus figurines, one of world's earliest known examples of art, are the subject of much conjecture.

Were they fertility symbols, religious objects, simple dolls or portraits, guides to beauty or even early pornography?

Now two US doctors and an anthropologist have thrown their thoughts into the mix, suggesting the pragmatic theory that the figurines are something of an advertisement for the best look to have in tough times.

Carved 30,000 years ago in Ice Age Europe, they depict women who are obese by modern standards (the new paper, in fact, is published in the journal Obesity) at a time and place "where you would not expect to see obesity at all", says lead author Richard Johnson from the University of Colorado.

"We show that these figurines correlate to times of extreme nutritional stress," he says. As such, they "emerged as an ideological tool to help improve fertility and survival of the mother and newborns".

"The aesthetics of art thus had a significant function in emphasising health and survival to accommodate increasingly austere climatic conditions."

To develop their theory, Johnson, medical colleague Miguel Lanaspa-Garcia and anthropologist John Fox measured the waist-to-hip and waist-to-shoulder ratios of a number of figurines.

They discovered that those found closest to glaciers were more obese and believe they thus represented an idealised body type for times of scarcity. Obesity became a desired condition because an obese female could better carry a child through pregnancy.

Many of the figurines are well-worn, the researchers say, indicating they were probably heirlooms passed from mother to daughter through generations. Women entering puberty or in the early stages of pregnancy may have been given them in the hopes of imparting the desired body mass to ensure a successful birth.

More than 200 of the figurines have been found, mainly in Europe but also in parts of Asia.

They generally are between six and 16 centimetres and are made of stone, ivory, horn and occasionally clay. Some are threaded as if worn as amulets.