I was reading about paleolithic art and culture and came upon the famous Venus of Willindorf (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Willendorf). I was shocked to see that she is quite portly! From my understanding, there are several interpretations of what this particular figurine, and others like it from the same era, meant to our paleolithic ancestors, ranging from a goddess-like deity for a female-centric religion (maybe we could adopt that part of paleo-life too?! ha), to a self-portrait, to cave-man porn. My question is: if everyone in the paleo era was eating (ahem) paleo , then how does that square with the creation of such images of corpulent women? Is it possible that paleo women were actually this obese?
Most of the educators from whom I've learned about these statues and the culture surrounding them, from an anthropological standpoint, are pretty much in agreement that these images represent abundance in a culture that had to work hard for every bit of food... They represented fertility, over-abundance, and generosity. They weren't the 'ideal' for the culture, but were recognized as being a sort of unattainable 'perfect generosity'. This being said, it is to be noted that many "medicine women" or female shamans in cultures who shared (and still do share) that perception of the female 'creatress' tend to the rotund, and were typically generously fed by their people, even when other members of the group went hungry, because they were considered to be the "vessels" of their representation of divinity, and they did not want their divine personage to feel "restricted" or be unable to exercise her full power while in the shaman's body.
Male shamanic individuals, on the other hand, often practiced asceticism and would go long periods without food or drink, for similar reasons -- in their case, to avoid any personal physical condition that might prevent their male divinity from being able to fully take up residence -- there was the sense that, for men, greater physical presence tied them too much to the physical world, and prevented the necessary release of the body to their deities.
These carvings come from a period when the hunting of large herds of megafauna was at its peak.
The high density of large animals, compared to the low density of people, would have made hunting very different to our modern conception. There would very likely have been times of incredible bounty and also really low levels of food. However, the level of art , artifice and cultural development found from this era suggests it was an era of plenty - contrast this with the later mesolithic where the great herds disappeared and hunting changed to stalking with bows rather than communal battue spear hunts
It's also very likely that people in this time period didn't follow our version "paleo" diet. There would have been a much, much greater array of plant foods consumed and fruits and starchy tubers would have been the most valued things, with greens and dried meat providing a lot of the day to day calories. They would have been desperate to eat the very things we try to cut down on as this would help them get lots of calories. Surviving hunter gatherer diets in Australia put an emphasis on tubers and ground seeds provided by women and meat by men - this is worth noting as it runs counter to our perception but could as easily be an adaptation due to climate rather than representative of pre-agricultrual diets as a whole.
The basis of diet in the Paleolithic would have been similar to what we see as a Paleo diet, but with different priorities and food stuffs (no coconuts outside the tropics, bigger variety of green plants). Their diet would have been more seasonal than what many of us eat now with some periods of year (late summer and autumn) being times of high caloric intake and an abundunce of more carbohydrate rich foods. Winter diets would have relied more heavily on dried meats, frozen meats (it was an ice age after all) and other preserved foods. Spring would likely have been the trickiest time, with the diet again being more meat based as there's relatively little vegetation available.
It is probable that these Venus figures represent an idealised version, people who were plumper would have had some advantages and it could also be a symbol of status or of fertility. There would certainly have been times of enough surplus for people to become overweight and there would have been some interest in foods which are linked to getting the Venus shape.
I'm in no way wishing to criticise the modern "Paleo" diet - I think it makes evolutionary sense, works well and helps create healthy, happy people. I just think it is an over-simplification of what people actually ate in the late Paleolithic era.
Some sources of interest: Modern stone age hunter gatherer experimental living in Norway http://livingprimitively.com/ Ray Mears & Gordon Hillman Wild Food (not the best wild food book but with lots linking it to the mesolithic era) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-Food-Ray-Mears/dp/0340827904 Archaeological article on starch in the mesolithic (PDF) http://sites.google.com/site/mesolithicmiscellany/journal-information/journal-volumes/18.2.pdf?attredirects=0&d=1 Types of meat eaten by paleolithic cultures in France (PDF) http://faculty.washington.edu/grayson/jas25.pdf An interesting dissertation which touches on diet in Paleolithic Portugal http://www.scribd.com/doc/21744890/Diet-and-subsistence-in-Upper-Paleolithic-Portugal#page=36
Could it be because Paleo woman actually had a high bodyfat percentage?
Could it be because high bodyfat (by modern-paleo standards) is actually healthy?
Could it be because having high bodyfat (by modern-paleo standards) is actually sexually desirable?
It all boils down to perspective. Paleo women didn't have mirrors. It's what they thought their bodies looked like just from what they could see of themselves looking downward. In my anthropology of gender class we had Dr. Leroy McDermott present his research into this topic - really interesting stuff!
I was just listening to a podcast on this- so, the gene or whatever that predisposes one to be fat did manifest itself in the Paleolithic era- very infrequently, however. It is likely that very infrequence, coupled with the fertility-related things that other people responded with, that made it so attractive. It did exist, obesity in the Paleolithic, just not often.
I think we should withhold speculation until we find out what Jimmy Moore thinks. After all, he has the anthropological background to properly weigh in on this. Most of these commentators are just amateurs.
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