The broad outlines of Western European history are the result of extensive work carried out in the latter half of the nineteenth century by eminent geologists and prehistorians such as Lubbock, Christy, Lartet and de Mortillet. Although, judging by today's standards, we see their tools and methodology as somewhat unsophisticated; nevertheless, we recognize their great accomplishment.
These pioneers were responsible for sketching out the concept of the Palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age, and for placing these remote, glacial epochs in chronological and cultural perspective.
We now also know that these artistic representations of the European Upper Palaeolithic period were created by biologically modern populations. Homo sapiens sapiens were clearly different from their predecessors, Homo sapiens neandertalensis (the Neanderthals), of the Mousterian or Middle Palaeolithic period, whose cultural remains were cruder and far less legible.
First among these transitions - around 40,000 years ago - was the appearance in Europe of biologically modern populations. Homo sapiens sapiens were capable of creating new technologies, and soon took the place of their Neanderthal predecessors. This biological and cultural changeover occurred against a background of dramatic climate change: a maximum low temperature was reached during the last ice age, between approximately 22,000 and 18,000 years ago. This cooling period had a marked effect on the societies of the time: in order to survive over the course of the millennia, human beings had to adapt. Communication systems were among the things they invented, and the Gravettian Venus figures were one of the most ancient and striking examples of communication tools developed.
The changing face of Europe was thus continuously subjected to major environmental upheavals, which affected both animal and plant life. It was during this long period of change - or, according to some experts, partly because of it - that the cultural phenomenon known as the Gravettian period emerged across the continent. Within this cultural context - one that we still do not fully understand - the first great statuaries of the Western world, and perhaps Eurasia, were developed.
(map based on Stringer and Gamble, 1993)