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The art of our species

If Neanderthal man created any form of art, no traces of it have yet been found. But with the arrival of modern man, or Homo sapiens sapiens, the human genius for image-making becomes abundantly clear.

In the recesses of caves, people begin to decorate the rock face with an important theme in their daily lives, the bison and reindeer which are their prey as Ice Age hunters. And sculptors carve portable images of another predominant interest of mankind - the swelling curves of the female form, emphasizing the fertility on which the survival of the tribe depends.

Perhaps the most famous of early sculptures is the so-called Venus of Willendorf. Found at Willendorf in Austria, and dating from more than 25,000 years ago, she is only about four inches high. More than 100 fertility figures of this kind have been found in an area reaching from France to southern Russia.

The sculptor of the Willendorf Venus, scraping away with a flint tool at his fragment of limestone, is not engaging in what we would call art. His tiny but profoundly convincing fertility goddess is a religious object. An encampment of mammoth hunters at Gagarino, in the Ukraine, has yielded many such figures. The huts of the Gagarino hunters even have niches in the walls, or little shrines, to accomodate them.

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