Those of you who get science news alerts may have seen the article on the recently-discovered engravings in a cave in France that’s about 37,000 years old. In the Science Now article, another archaeologist makes that comment, “As for the long-standing tradition among archaeologists working in France of interpreting such images as vulvas, Dibble says, “Who the hell knows” what they really represent.” In the article itself (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, aka PNAS), the authors refer to the engraving as a “vulva”, which is the traditionally-accepted interpretation of that particular symbol among archaeologists. They discuss the interpretation a bit, but generally they are just describing the forms they observed within the current archaeological paradigm.
The reason I’m writing about this is because of the NYTimes article I came across this morning, titled A Precursor to Playboy: Graphic Images in Rocks. It’s a short article, so I recommend you head over and read it. Their report is accurate, yes, but I think its focus on the ovoid image itself misrepresents the actual significance of the paper. What White et al. really were able to demonstrate is that the cave they were excavating is from around the same time period as the other caves in the region, and that it has some shared iconography. The reason they used the vulva image is because that was the distinctive and shared feature in the cave. The authors make no claims as to the purpose of the image. I found the title of the NY Times article to be misleading, although the content of the article is much less so. I guess that the NYTimes journalist was merely trying to drum up interest in the article with a catchy title, but to me it seems to be a dangerous line to walk.