New research identifies the origin of the Venus of Willendorf as northern Italy (all images courtesy Gerhard Weber)

The Venus of Willendorf, estimated at between 25,000 to 30,000 years old, has long been a source of contemporary mystery and intrigue, and for good reason — little was known about its origins and purpose. The statuette, as suggested by its name, was quickly saddled with the burdens of human history, sexualized with a blithe reference to antiquity although the context of its creation in Paleolithic times remained obscure. Now, thanks to research led by anthropologist Gerhard Weber at the University of Vienna, we know that the stone used to mold the figurine originated from northern Italy, over 350 miles away from Willendorf in Austria and across a formidable mountain range, the Alps.

Micro-CT scanning gave researchers a better understanding of the origins of the oolite limestone which the Venus of Willendorf is molded from.

First excavated in 1908, the statuette, which measures less than four and a half inches in height, is a prime example of portable art — objects made out of stone, ivory, and other types of animal bone that would be easily transportable for migratory people during the Paleolithic period. The Venus of Willendorf is faceless with plaited hair and large breasts and hips, assumed by many over the decades to represent fertility. The figurine was long speculated to have come from outside Austria, given that it is made from oolitic limestone, a rock that does not exist in or near Willendorf. This feature set the Venus of Willendorf apart from other venus figurines found elsewhere, as the only one in the world fashioned from this material. 

Shells embedded in the oolite helped researchers broaden the geographic radius of their search.

A paper summarizing the new research was published in Scientific Reports. Using micro-computed tomography (CT) scanning, Weber and his team were able to take high-resolution cross-sectional images of the Venus of Willendorf. In an interview, Weber told Hyperallergic that the oolitic limestone was “not homogeneous at all inside,” a boon to their attempt to track down the Venus’ hometown. The researchers found that the stone was packed with a pattern of layers of different densities, with pieces of shells baked in. Given the hints offered by the shells, they enlarged the radius of their search — from France to eastern Ukraine, and from Germany to Sicily. They took oolite samples from across Europe and compared them to the Venus of Willendorf.

“It turned out that northern Italy has a perfect match,” Weber said.

This finding is significant because it gives us insight into the migratory tendencies and patterns of those who had made and protected the Venus of Willendorf. These hunter-gatherers were some of the first modern humans in Europe, “traveling through the countryside following the deer and rivers,” Weber explains. Curious about what path the Venus might have taken to arrive ultimately in Lower Austria, the researchers considered different routes and “found a way that would have been very obvious” — a roughly 600-mile route which would have required crossing the Danube. They speculate that the Venus was cared for over multiple generations and that the migration did not occur in one lifetime but over several, suggesting then that the totem was cherished.

Researchers speculated about the route the Venus of Willendorf might have taken to reach its final destination.

The researchers’ micro-CT scans also help another question that has puzzled art historians about the Venus of Willendorf: Why are there hemispherical cavities that bespeckle the surface of the figurine? As the figurine was being carved, some limonites must have broken out and left cavities behind. The sculptor likely took advantage of that when a piece happened to fall out of the navel area.

Although Weber’s team writes in their paper that the match between the Venus of Willendorf’s rock and the northern Italy sample is “almost perfect and suggests a very high probability for the raw material to come from south of the Alps,” they also allow for the possibility that the figurine could have originated from eastern Ukraine.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.