In search of the worlds oldest porn

What can the erotic objects of pre-history tell us about how humankinds relationship with sexuality has changed over time? Jasper Wrayburn looks at some really old smut.

Thinking of The World’s Oldest Porn might conjure all sorts of images: a Victorian sepia-toned photograph of a woman in bloomers, a Roman fresco of a couple enjoying oral sex or a bearded older man and a clean-shaven catamite on a Greek vase. In fact, the earliest pornography predates Classical Athens by 7,500 years. It’s a sobering thought that we were making porn before we invented money, mathematics or writing.

It’s a sobering thought that we were making porn before we invented money, mathematics or writing.

It is difficult to decide which is more surprising: that the desire to create porn is so deeply ingrained in us, or that we didn’t invent it sooner. Humans began to depict people in figurative art around 40,000 years ago, yet the earliest image that experts can say is definitely a couple having sex dates from a mere 10,000 years ago. This leaves a gap of 30,000 years – why did it take us so long to start drawing dirty pictures?

Family-friendly cave paintings

Cave paintings from Lascaux in France contain no representations of human sex

The most iconic examples of prehistoric art are the great cave frescoes of Western Europe, such as Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. They were created during the last ice age, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. When these images were discovered at the end of the 19th century they caused a sensation: the Victorians wondered how ice age humans – whom they thought of as savages – could have created such great works of art. After visiting Lascaux, Picasso famously remarked, ‘They had invented everything’. Or almost everything, because in the whole of European cave painting there is not a single clear-cut depiction of sex. This is particularly poignant given that ice age art was discovered at a time when sex was seen everywhere. Early 20th-century archaeologists were obsessed with fertility cults, seeing every oval as a vulva.

In the whole of European cave painting there is not a single clear-cut depiction of sex.

So why is there cave art, but no cave porn? Theories have it that cave art was created in order to control animals during the hunt with magic, or that the people who painted it believed that they were encouraging the herds to repopulate. Whatever its function, cave art seems unconcerned with relationships between people, including sex. Instead, it focuses on the interaction between ice age humans and the animals they relied on for survival.

Ice age sex dolls

Venus of Willendorf: one of over a hundred similar figurines dating from about 25,000 years ago

A more plausible set of candidates for the title of the world’s earliest pornography are the Venus figurines. Over 100 such figurines have been found across Europe, dating from around 25,000 years ago. The most famous is the Venus of Willendorf found in Austria, now in Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum. Much of her fame is owed to her curvaceous figure: her sprawling bosom, bulging buttocks and prominent labia have led to her being labelled a paragon of ice age beauty. Her extremities – face, legs and arms – are less detailed, suggesting that the artist was more interested in depicting her sexual characteristics than making a realistic portrait.

Her extremities – face, legs and arms – are less detailed, suggesting that the artist was more interested in depicting her sexual characteristics than making a realistic portrait.

Since the 11cm-tall Venus of Willendorfs discovery in 1908, the Venus figurines have been the subject of a series of fiercely contested ideological battles. Palaeontologist Björn Kurtén compared the figurines to coy pin-up girls posed in sexually inviting ways, their heads bowed in submission. He argued that they were made by men for their own pleasure, intended to arouse, to be touched, carried and fondled. In contrast, the figurines have been appropriated as feminist icons: goddess figures with the power to increase fertility. Some have been read as pregnant women. The theory of the figurines being viewed as possessing magical properties is supported by the fact that many were found in small pits, perhaps buried as offerings.

Pregnancy may have been seen as magical in the ice age because humans had not yet made the connection between sex and pregnancy. Women may have therefore been worshipped for their ability to seemingly spontaneously create life. This may seem absurd nowadays, but in the early 20th century anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski found that Trobriand Islanders, in the Melanesian region, believed that there was no cause-and-effect relationship between sex and pregnancy. The Islanders believed that women were impregnated by the spirits of dead ancestors when they bathed in the nearby lagoon; sex was merely a way of opening the woman for the arrival of the spirit.

Farming causes pornography

The Ain Sakhri figurine: the earliest known depiction of a couple having sex. Image: Trustees of the British Museum

The first definite image of a couple having sex appears as late as 10,000 years ago. Now in the British Museum, the Ain Sakhri figurine was found in 1933 in the Ain Sakhri cave in the Judea desert, not far from Jerusalem. At first glance, it resembles nothing more than a small white pebble. On closer inspection, two figures are clearly carved into it. The slightly smaller figure wraps its legs around its partner’s waist. The slightly larger figure holds the smaller partner’s shoulders, in what appears to be a tender embrace. They are clearly sitting upright, having sex.

The slightly larger figure holds the smaller partner’s shoulders, in what appears to be a tender embrace. They are clearly sitting upright, having sex.

Why the first image of human sex appears at this point in history may be explained by the lives of the people who made it. They lived on the cusp of the most important lifestyle change in human history: our move from being hunter-gatherers to being farmers. Archaeologists have named the people who made the figurine the Natufians, after the Wadi en-Natuf valley where many of the objects associated with these early Middle Eastern people have been found. It’s impossible to know what they called themselves, as the earliest known writing was still 5,000 years away. The Natufians lived, as humans had for millennia, by hunting and gathering. Their primary food sources were gazelle and wild cereal seeds. Although the Natufians lived during the period that agriculture was beginning to develop in the Middle East, they were not farmers in the strictest sense; they did not plant seeds or domesticate crops. But by repeatedly harvesting seeds from the same sites, they encouraged the cereals to grow back in greater abundance. Gradually, this increased food supply could support larger communities and encouraged the Natufians to settle in villages.

Living in communities of up to 300 people meant the Natufians had to negotiate a new set of social relationships, unlike those found in the smaller hunter-gatherer communities. We find an enlightening illustration of the effect of increasing community size in the work of Marcel Mauss, who lived with Inuits in the early 20th century. Most of the year, they lived a quiet life in small far-flung groups, but periodically met up with other such groups. These gatherings were characterised by intense communal life, feasts, religious ceremonies, intellectual discussion and a great deal of sex. Similarly, the Natufians, transitioning from a nomadic existence to living in large villages, would have been faced with the opportunity for sex with a far greater number of partners than before.

What does the Ain Sakhri figuring mean?

The Ain Sakhri figurine is ambiguous. The figurine exudes a sense of connection, reflected in the couple’s position: both sit upright and neither exert dominance. Their genders are not represented, raising the question of whether they may be of the same sex. It may have been created as a meditation on sex and fertility by an artist living during a population explosion, or used in some kind of fertility magic.

The figurine’s heartening depiction of love-making is tempered somewhat by the fact that from a number of angles, it strongly resembles a penis.

The figurine’s heartening depiction of love-making is tempered somewhat by the fact that from a number of angles, it strongly resembles a penis. It hints at the onset of the age of the phallus that would dominate art and porn for the next 10,000 years. It may also reflect that the Natufians, unlike the ice age Europeans, understood the role of the penis in fertility. This knowledge would prove crucial in completing the transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture.

A shift in (sexual) positions

The Adonis von Zschernitz: representing a change in sexual position

It would take another 2,000 years before farming reached Northern Europe. In 2005, German archaeologists found a relic of this culture, an 8cm-long lower half of a male figure, in a prehistoric garbage pit outside Dresden. He was excitedly described in a press release as having a ‘well-shaped behind’ and a ‘short, but impressive, penis’. It seems significant that it is at this point in history, 20,000 years after the Venus figurines, that we find our first definite figurine of a man. Dr Staeuble who found it, clearly with the Venus figurines in mind, called it the Adonis von Zschernitz. One month later, a fragment of a matching female figure was found. When placed together the fragments show that the man was standing with his pelvis at a slight angle. The woman in front of him was bent forward, almost at a 90 degree angle. In other words, this is the earliest depiction of more ferarum: doggy style.

The woman in front of him was bent forward, almost at a 90 degree angle. In other words, this is the earliest depiction of more ferarum: doggy style.

Like the Ain Sakhri lovers figurine, the Adonis von Zschernitz was created by people who had ceased to be nomadic and now lived in village communities. Unlike the Natufians, however, they were fully fledged farmers who had successfully domesticated crops and animals. Domesticating animals required a rudimentary understanding of the role the male plays in reproduction: for strong healthy lambs, only the best rams should breed with the ewes. The Adonis’ depiction of strictly delineated sex roles may reflect this new knowledge that enabled humans to successfully domesticate animals. The actual function of the figurine remains unknown, although it has been suggested that it was used to decorate one of the farmer’s thatched earth dwellings as a fertility charm.

Unlike the Ain Sakhri figurine, the genders represented by the Adonis are clear and the male appears dominant over the bending female. Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas argues that Venus figurines are indicative of a woman-centred society focussed on goddess worship. Similarly, the choice of sexual position of the Adonis may reflect a society in transition from goddess worship to patriarchal dominance. Knowledge of the male role in reproduction – vital for domesticating animals – may have also led to men becoming fiercely sexually possessive of their wives. 7,000 years of patriarchal society may have grown out of man’s desire to ensure that he was the father of his children.

The choice of sexual position of the Adonis may reflect a society in transition from goddess worship to patriarchal dominance.

Today’s porn as legacy

When looking at prehistoric porn and asking questions about the people who made it, it seems natural to wonder what future civilisations, rummaging through our virtual detritus, might think our porn says about us. Comparing the two, ice age porn seems repeatedly connected with fertility, while, on the whole, and excepting certain fetishes, contemporary porn is devoid of it. The best example of this is perhaps ejaculation, once inextricably linked with conception, now commonly presented in the ubiquitous ‘moneyshot’.

Ejaculation, once inextricably linked with conception, is now commonly presented in the ubiquitous ‘moneyshot’.

Theories of prehistoric porn usually revolve around knowledge and magic. The Venus figurines may have been created because of a belief in pregnancy as a magical act. The Adonis reflects early European farmers’ newfound knowledge of the male role in procreation. The charm of prehistoric porn is perhaps its ambiguity: that so much about it remains unknown. We live in an age that has seen pornography become more widely available than ever before, and looking at what’s easily available today, many people seem to be wondering where the magic has gone. Perhaps by looking back at the erotica of our ancestors, we can learn to make porn magical again.

But is it really porn?

Throughout the 20th century these objects have got numerous art historians and archaeologists hot under the collar, but without a time machine we will probably never know whether the artists who made them intended to arouse the viewer. Whether they are porn will probably remain the subject of speculation for many years to come.

Jasper Wrayburn is a historian of sexuality and erotica, working in the museum sector in the UK. This article was first published in Filament Magazine Issue 4 – March 2010. Get the latest issue of Filament in luminous, sexy hard copy.

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