The Late Stone Age: How Beauty Standards Changed with Climate

Climate change and beauty standards are two controversial topics in today’s society. The serious effects of climate change are often questioned among the public; some fail to believe in human’s role in it, others doubt its harsh impacts, and some don’t believe in its existence at all. Beauty standards are an entirely different concept that has changed with time; some try fiercely to match up with them, others defy them. Either way, I bet you never considered the idea that these two hot topics were potentially once related; that climate change once defined beauty.

The Upper Paleolithic Period or Late Stone Age, when humans were hunter-gatherers using stone-based tools.

This idea was first proposed by scientists Richard Johnson and Miguel Lanaspa, and anthropologist John Fox (Johnson, Lanaspa & Fox 2020). They studied unique figurines from the Upper Paleolithic period, a time period also known as the Late Stone Age, when humans roamed the world as hunter-gatherers. In general, sculptures and other forms of human art were reserved for depicting richness, health, and beauty. What was interesting about the figures in this study was that they seemed to portray plus-sized women, and what the researchers stated to be a form of obesity. This finding was especially odd because anthropologists have determined that obesity was a rarity in ancient times. While it’s much more common today, it’s may not be the first idea of beauty and good health. Nevertheless, these so-called Venus figurines demonstrate that higher body mass was a trait to be envious of.

The Venus of Willendorf, an 11.1-cm- (4.4-inch) tall Venus figurine estimated to have been made 30,000 BCE, in the Museum of Natural History Vienna, Austria. Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / CC BY-SA 4.0. Sci News

So wait, how does this relate to climate change? The conventional definition of beauty changes all the time and it usually doesn’t have to do with the weather conditions. However, these researchers found a correlation between the presence of such uniquely shaped sculptures and the incidence of climate change in Europe, specifically the ice ages. Figurines retrieved from locations and time periods that faced increased levels of glaciers, and decreased temperature, had the largest waist-to-hip and waist-to-shoulder ratios. Areas that lacked major climatic changes produced slimmer models.

“…Individuals with larger body mass were considered survival symbols because of their ability to withstand the changes in climate…”

This still doesn’t immediately explain why these statues were made more frequently in harsher, colder climates. What do environmental conditions have to do with weightier individuals? The study explains that individuals with larger body mass were considered survival symbols because of their ability to withstand the changes in climate and the poor nutrition that resulted from it. They theorize that obese women, in particular, would have been more successful at carrying pregnancies and breastfeeding at a time of serious food shortage in difficult climates. These capabilities to survive the environmental and nutritional stress of climate change gave plus-sized individuals a higher societal and beauty status, which explains the Venus figurines we see made after them.

The European Ice Age. Getty Images.

Some may argue that this connection between climate change and beauty standards is a stretch, and the researchers partly agree by listing out a few limitations of their study. One such constraint was the fact that many of the observations they made from figurines were of photographs rather than the actual statues themselves, which may have resulted in inaccurate measurements. Secondly, the exact age of such figurines was difficult to pinpoint and was sometimes categorized solely on the style with which they were made. Finally, the fact that different locations displayed different sizes of figurines could be attributed to elements other than climate such as culture.

Venus figurines from Europe and the steppes of Russia (38,000 to 14,000 BP). (A) Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech, 26,000 BP. (B) Venus of Savignano, Italy, 24,000‐23,000 BP. (C) Venus of Zaraysk, Russia, 19,000 BP. (D) Venus of Abri Pataud, France, 21,000 BP. (Johnson, Lanaspa & Fox 2020)

While this study definitely brings forth interesting societal insight into our ancestors, there are two things we should know now. Firstly, climate change is real and its environmental impacts are worsening every year. According to the New York Times, 2020 is tied with 2016 as the hottest year ever. Secondly, beauty standards? Every size, every skin color, every hair form, and every other type of human body is beautiful. Let’s leave it at that!

What do you think about the findings of this study? Is this theory plausible in your book? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below!


References

Johnson, R. J., Lanaspa, M. A., & Fox, J. W. (2020). Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity may Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change. Obesity, 29(1), 11-15.

News Staff. (2020, December). Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity May Be Linked to Climate Change. Sci News. Retrieved from http://www.sci-news.com/archaeology/venus-figurines-09113.html

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