She doesn't have a head, and her massive breasts balloon over a giant vulva.
The oldest depiction of the female form ever discovered has been unearthed in southwestern Germany, German archeologist Nicholas Conard reports in Thursday's edition of the journal Nature. The sexually explicit figurine was carved from the tusk of a mammoth 35,000 years ago.
"The split between the two halves of the buttocks is deep and continues without interruption to the front of the figurine, where the vulva with pronounced labia majora is visible between the open legs," Dr. Conard wrote in the research paper describing his discovery.
"There can be no doubt that the depiction of oversized breasts, accentuated buttocks and genitalia results from the deliberate exaggeration of the sexual features of the figurine," concluded Dr. Conard, who works at the University of Tübingen.
British archeologist Paul Mellars, who wrote an article accompanying Dr. Conard's paper in Nature, said that by 21st-century standards the figurine "could be seen as bordering on pornographic."
Other sites in Germany and France from the same period have yielded phalluses carved out of bone, ivory and bison horn, Dr. Mellars said in an interview. These finds are a reflection of the artistic creativity of the earliest modern humans, as well as an obsession with sexual characteristics.
"Whichever way one views these representations, it is clear the sexually symbolic dimension in European (and indeed worldwide) art has a long ancestry in the evolution of our species," Dr. Mellars wrote in his article.
Fragments of the figurine, including one large piece that represents most of the torso, were dug out of red-brown silt in the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany in September, 2008. Only the left arm and shoulder are missing.
The figurine is an important addition to a remarkable trove of finds from southern Germany, including superbly sculpted mammoths and horses, cave lions and two creatures that are half man, half animal. Other finds from the period include flutes carved from bird bone and mammoth ivory.
"There was an absolute explosion of this highly sophisticated art with the arrival of humans in Europe," said Dr. Mellars, who works at the University of Cambridge.
The newly discovered figurine is arguably the oldest depiction of the human figure yet found, he said, and is certainly the oldest known representation of the female body.
The female figurine is tiny, about six centimetres long, and instead of a head has a polished ring that suggests it was worn as a pendant.
The breasts protrude from broad, slightly uneven shoulders. The arm and legs are short, and the hands have been carefully carved and rest on the stomach below the breasts. The thighs and belly are chubby.
It is at least 5,000 years older than other "Venus" sculptures found in Germany and in other parts of Europe, but shares many characteristics, including the big breasts, belly and thighs and markings that may represent clothing.
Experts have speculated that the Venuses may have had been a reflection of beliefs about fertility, or played a role in shamanistic rituals.
Dr. Mellars is intrigued by what these ancient carvings suggest about the human brain at a time when modern humans arrived in Europe and their close cousins, the Neanderthals, began to disappear. No one knows what led to the demise of the Neanderthals, but they do not appear to have had the ability to create musical instruments or the kind of sophisticated art produced by the carvers of Hohle Fels.