What did prehistoric people know about conception?

Even today, stories of women who gave birth without knowing they were pregnant make the news occasionally. Although I do not normally follow such sensationalist news, they do not cease to fascinate me. Yes, it is possible, despite the tell-tale signs, to completely block out a pregnancy. This happens primarily to women who believed they could not conceive, to victims of abuse, or to women who did not even consider raising a child at this point in their lives.

The cause-effect relationship between sex, pregnancy and birth is so natural to most of us today that we sometimes forget this knowledge is not universal. Nine months is a long time between cause and effect, and especially the first four months, a pregnancy is far from obvious to outsiders, if not to the mother. There are traditional societies, especially hunter-gatherers that do not breed livestock, which do not connect sex and pregnancy/birth at all. It is knowledge that has to be taught and learned as children grow up and start their own sexual experiences.

Perhaps from the time people began to domesticate animals, it became clear that letting animals mate may result in offspring. If this knowledge was extrapolated to humans, and indeed, how common it was, is not clear. It may have been restricted to certain age and gender groups. Interestingly, young girls – the ones to whom it matters most – are kept in the dark most often. Until recently in the Western World, newly-wed women did not know much about what would happen to them in the wedding night, and many could not explain ‘where babies came from’.

The conception of new life remains miraculous to this day. In my view, a detailed scientific and medical knowledge about conception – how chromosomes combine, how DNA of two people merge, how embryos develop – makes the miracle of life even more awesome. But just imagine not knowing any of this. Being a first-time mother in a prehistoric society must have been weird and scary. With any luck, you may have seen others pregnant and giving birth successfully, whilst your belly expands. Perhaps in your small-scale society, this has not happened for several years and you do not know what is growing inside you.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker

Anna Artaker’s work ‘Conceptus’ beautifully illustrates these thoughts. It juxtaposes the Venus from Willendorf, a 29.500 year-old stone figurine found in Willendorf in the Wachau (Austria), with a wax figure of a four months old foetus. They are both about the same size and show other similarities, too, such as the way the hands are held against the upper body. The objects themselves remain hidden – only their shadows are put side by side.

The analogy to the Rorschach test is deliberate. Viewers have to come close to the case to discover what is in them. In this way, the work focusses on people’s quest for understanding their own origin.  For Anna Artaker, ‘conceptus’ shows the miracle of life – once in the form of an object frequently interpreted as a fertility goddess, once in the form of the modern medical understanding of how life develops in the uterus.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker

Anna Artaker chose the name ‘Conceptus’ for the work, as in its Latin form, the word refers to both the act of conception and its consequence, the embryo/foetus. It further encompasses the meaning of thought and idea (from which the term concept is derived).

The artwork was put on display in a high-security case at the site of Willendorf in Lower Austria, at the place the Venus was found in 1908. The Venus from Willendorf is normally on display in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. For the 100-year anniversary of its discovery, it was displayed at the location it was found. The Venus has since returned to Vienna and is on display. So next time you visit Vienna, make sure to pay her a visit. Since the on-site exhibition, the case remained in place and a different artist fills it with a unique installation each year.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker


About Katharina

Katharina is a prehistoric archaeologist working at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests include the archaeology of the human body, gender, identity and personhood as expressed through funerary practices and art. She specialises in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe. As a mother of two young boys, she gathered some practical experience in addition to her theoretical interest in motherhood.
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2 Responses to What did prehistoric people know about conception?

  1. Pingback: Old times, new life | Ronde Maan

  2. Pingback: Oude tijden, nieuw leven | Ronde Maan

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