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Prehistoric Europe

Hohle Fels Phallus

by Jonathan Amos, 25 July 2005. Updated 13 December 2017

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

The twenty centimetre-long, three centimetre-wide stone object, which was 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 suggested that it may well have been used as a sex aid by its makers, people of the Gravettian culture.

Leading the research was Professor Nicholas Conard, from the department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at Tübingen University in Germany.

'In addition to being a symbolic representation of male genitalia,' he explained, 'it was also at times used for knapping flints. There are some areas where it has some very typical scars from that.'

The researchers believed that the object's distinctive form and etched rings around one end meant that there could be little doubt as to its symbolic nature. It was highly polished - and clearly recognisable! 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 in 2004 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 which is associated with the activities of modern humans (who were already well along the road to completely replacing their cousins, the Neanderthals).

The dig site turned into 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 items from the Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age). Some have been truly exquisite in their sophistication and detail, such as a thirty thousand year-old avian figurine crafted from mammoth ivory.

Hohle Fels bird
The Hohle Fels cave has produced many great finds, including this sculpted piece of mammoth ivory which may be the earliest representation of a bird in the archaeological record, dating to around 28,000 BC

Hohle Fels flint

It may also have been used to knap, or split, flints (click or tap on image to read more on a separate page)

There are other stone objects known to science which are obviously phallic symbols and are slightly older - from France and Morocco - which are also 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.

Current evidence indicated 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 Gravettian culture - an Upper Palaeolithic human culture which was largely located across Europe.

New radiocarbon dates from the site of Vogelherd in the Swabian Jura were indicating that the earliest Aurignacian occupation of the region by modern humans spans the period from around 40,000 and 31,000 years ago before being superseded by the Gravettian.

If the situation at Vogelherd, in which skeletal remains from modern humans underlie an entire Gravettian sequence, can be viewed as representative for the region then 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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