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Self-representation in Upper Paleolithic female figurines

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Directions:
NOTE: I’ve attached the reading as a file for you to answer the questions below.
Although now over 20 years old, LeRoy McDermott’s article entitled, “Self-representation in
Upper Paleolithic female figurines,” provides a useful source for this week’s lab exercise.
McDermott presents a brief history of research on the figurines before sharing his interpretation
that they were carved by women looking at their own bodies. You will note that McDermott’s
article is followed by nearly 20 pages of comments by other experts on the topic, most of whom
do not agree with his interpretation. You will also find his reply to his critics at the very end.
This week’s lab assignment involves 2 parts.
1. Read the entire article (McDermott_1996.pdf), including the comments and reply (pages 227-
271). Don’t just skim it mindlessly. These are the kinds of questions you want to keep in mind
while reading:
How does McDermott attempt to support his argument? Do you find the evidence convincing,
and why or why not?
Can you think of possibilities that McDermott does not consider? If so, what are they?
Do the commenters raise some valid points that weaken McDermott’s argument? What are they?
How much do you think we can really say about who carved the figurines and for what reason(s)
they were carved in the first place?
How might the way in which figurines are classified by archaeologists (i.e., as either a “Venus”
figurine or something else) influence the kinds of interpretations one might come up with when
studying all of the figurines from a region?
It seems the commenters all have their own notions about what the figurines can say about the
cognition of Upper Paleolithic people, and there is very little overlap among them. How can we
ever hope to get to the correct answer in this case without a chance to ask one of the carvers what
the figurine actually meant? Is this a hopeless endeavor? If so, does that mean the endeavor is
also worthless? What do we learn about ourselves by asking such questions?
2. Once you have had a chance to read the article and think about some of these issues, return to
the question at hand—What can the “Venus” figurines tell us about Upper Paleolithic cognition?
Were you convinced by McDermott’s argument? If so, what is the implication of his
interpretation for human cognition during the Upper Paleolithic? Do you think a woman at the
time would have had to be capable of symbolic thought in order to carve a sculpture of her body?
Does his interpretation rule out the presence of symbolic thought even if it wasn’t required for
one to sculpt one’s own body? Are we born with the ability to sculpt an object out of stone, or
does the very presence of a sculpture (regardless of who made it or why) serve as evidence of
symbolic thought and perhaps language used for teaching the skill? Please address the heart of
the matter as you see fit in a written document of 1-2 double spaced, 12-point New Times
Roman font.

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