Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mentally enhanced


Here she is, folks, from a report in the current issue of Nature (14 May), the oldest known piece of representational art, a 35,000-year-old female figurine carved from mammoth ivory, from the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany. Huge breasts. Explicit vulva. Tiny head. Are we surprised? The first images our male ancestors looked at were -- porn.

But wait. Why do we automatically assume that the artist was male? Maybe while the guys were out hunting woolly mammoths, the gals were home carving figurines, magical talismans, meant to enhance their own fertility. Or perhaps the so-called Venuses (there are similar figurines) were religious icons, images of the Mother Goddess. Perhaps they stood in a shrine of sorts, a niche in the cave lit by votive lamps, were mostly women came to pray, the men milling about at the door of the cave waiting for the service to end.

In fact, archeologists don't know who carved these figurines or why. All we can guess with reasonable probability is that sex was on someone's mind, which comes as no surprise. Thirty-five thousand years ago is about the time that our direct Cro-Magnon ancestors were displacing Neanderthals in Europe. They had something going for them -- more agile minds? language? imagination? Maybe the source of their success was not reproductive efficiency, as such, but eroticism. That is to say, maybe the conceptualization of sex was a driving engine of cerebral facility and language. The Playboy bunny. The Harlequin romance. Foreplay. Dirty dancing. Maybe sexual fantasy prepared the way for art and religion and technological innovation. Maybe the brain evolved as a sexual organ, and then found other things to do.