Few people were able to see the portraits of their great grandfathers, their wives and siblings, before photography became accessible and inexpensive. Even now few of us can examine the faces of our ancestors beyond the 5th generation. So, to contemplate the chance of glimpsing a portrait of our predecessors some 800 generation back would be somewhat unrealistic.

Yet, two such portraits of Ice-age women exist, carved in mammoth ivory. One, known as La Dame `a la Capuche - the hooded woman - was discovered in a cave at Brassempouy, in southwest France in 1892 and is about 25,000 years old. The other was found in the 1930s at the archaeological site Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, and is approximately 26,000 years old. The Australian Museum acquired casts of these carvings in the 1970s.

Palaeolithic female head
This Palaeolithic female head is carved in mammoth ivory and was discovered in 1892 at Brassempouy, France. Size: 3.5 x 3.5 x 2.1cm. The Australian Museum has a cast of this carving, acquired in 1977. Image: Presumed Public Domain
© Presumed Public Domain

The carvings are small (3.5cm and 4.7cm respectively) and their individual features are subtle in these miniature portrayals. One hundred years ago, in 1914, a Belgian artist Louis Mascré (1871-1929) produced a life-size sculpture of a woman related to the same period of European prehistory. His inspiration was an original 44cm high relief carved into a cave wall, depicting a woman with a horn and discovered in 1911 at Laussel, Dordogne, France.

Mascré’s sculpture was not just an artistic vision. He collaborated closely with Belgian geologist and pioneer of prehistory Aimé Louis Rutot. But the scientific evidence was sparse and debatable. The public imagined prehistoric humans as clumsy primitive ‘cave-men’. The bust by Mascré and Rutot meets, in some ways, this misguided and romanticized view. It tries to convey what was known and unknown as well as presumed.

But the starting point was that Ice-age humans were not like us, and the analogy was sought in indigenous peoples in faraway lands. Black Africans and especially Aboriginal Tasmanians were often held at the time as representatives of earlier stage of humanity. Thus Mascré’s bust has the inscription N´egroide de Laussel, Dordogne.

Ironically, we came to understand that the roots of humanity are in Africa, and our common forefathers were ‘perfectly black.’ The Ice-age Europeans were not vastly different from us. They did not have writing or mobile phones and did not know how to fly, but they built warm huts, began making cloth by weaving, crafted and baked clay objects, played music, and produced accomplished paintings and sculptures.

Prepared by Charlotte Kowalski and Stan Florek.