History Files


Prehistoric Europe

Hohle Fels Phallus

by Jonathan Amos, BBC News, 25 July 2005

In 2005 researchers announced that a sculpted and polished phallus which had been found in a German cave was among the earliest representations of male sexuality ever uncovered.

The twenty centimetre-long, three centimetre-wide stone object, which is dated to around 28,000 years old, was buried in the famous Hohle Fels Cave near Ulm in Germany's Swabian Jura region.

The prehistoric "tool" was reassembled from fourteen fragments of siltstone.

Its life size suggests it may well have been used as a sex aid by its Ice Age makers, scientists report.

"In addition to being a symbolic representation of male genitalia, it was also at times used for knapping flints," explained Professor Nicholas Conard, from the department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, at Tübingen University in Germany.

"There are some areas where it has some very typical scars from that," he said.

Researchers believe the object's distinctive form and etched rings around one end mean there can be little doubt as to its symbolic nature.

"It's highly polished; it's clearly recognisable," said Professor Conard.

The Tübingen team working Hohle Fels already had thirteen fractured parts of the phallus in storage, but it was only with the discovery of a fourteenth fragment last year that the team was able finally to put the "jigsaw" together.

The different stone sections were all recovered from a well-dated ash layer in the cave complex associated with the activities of modern humans (not their pre-historic "cousins", the Neanderthals).

The dig site is one of the most remarkable in central Europe. Hohle Fels stands more than 500m above sea level in the Ach River Valley and has produced thousands of Upper Palaeolithic items.

Hohle Fels flint

It may also have been used to knap, or split, flints

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Some have been truly exquisite in their sophistication and detail, such as a 30,000-year-old avian figurine crafted from mammoth ivory.

This is believed to be one of the earliest representations of a bird in the archaeological record.

There are other stone objects known to science that are obviously phallic symbols and are slightly older - from France and Morocco, of particular note.

But to have any representation of male genitalia from this time period is highly unusual.

"Female representations with highly accentuated sexual attributes are very well documented at many sites, but male representations are very, very rare," explained Professor Conard.

Hohle Fels bird

The Hohle Fels bird

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Current evidence indicates that the Swabian Jura of south-western Germany was one of the central regions of cultural innovation after the arrival of modern humans in Europe some 40,000 years ago.

The Swabian Jura is made up of strata from the Lower, Middle and Upper Jurassic periods, created between 190 and 130 million years ago at the bed of the Jurassic Sea and later elevated.

It was home to the Aurignacian culture - an Upper Palaeolithic human culture which was located in Europe and south-west Asia.

It dates to between 32,000 and 26,000 BC and its name originates from the type site of Aurignac in the Haute Garonne area of France.

New radiocarbon dates from the site of Vogelherd in the Swabian Jura indicate that the earliest Aurignacian occupation of the region by modern humans spans the period from around 40,000 and 30,000 years ago.

If the situation at Vogelherd, in which skeletal remains from modern humans underlie an entire Aurignacian sequence, is viewed as representative for the region, the dates from the Swabian Jura support the hypothesis that populations of modern humans entered the region by way of the Danube Corridor, around 40,000 years ago.



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