The “Prey-Mother” Hypothesis -

A New Interpretation of Paleolithic Feminine Imagery

Fig. 1 - An untouched photograph of a pregnant therianthropomorph, known as the “Femme au Renne”. Laugerie-Basse rock shelter, Dordogne. Engraving on reindeer antler, 101 mm x 65 mm. Musée des Antiquités Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Inv. No. 47 001).

My most recent articles to delve into the significance of Paleolithic feminine imagery are:

  1. -Supernatural Pregnancies1, which was published in the English, French and Spanish, 2010 editions of Arts & Cultures - a book published annually by the Barbier-Mueller Museums of Geneva and Barcelona,

  2. -and a long peer-reviewed article entitled The Identification of the First Palaeolithic Animal Sculpture in the Ile-de-France: The Ségognole 3 Bison and its Ramifications(see the PDF links below), which was presented on September 6th, 2010 at the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations’ Congress on Pleistocene art of the world and published in its Acts (Pleistocene Art of the World, ISBN 987-2-9531148-3-6). 

Along with an earlier peer-reviewed paper on the implications of the simplest paleolithic feminine figurines2, both of these articles built a case for a new interpretation of a large part of the Paleolithic feminine canon. This re-interpretation, which could be dubbed the “Prey-Mother” hypothesis, is based on new readings of such iconic works of Paleolithic art as the “Femme au Renne” from Laugerie-Basse (Figs. 1-3) and the engraving of a pregnant therianthropomorph following a horse from Étiolles (Fig. 4). Although the new theory is based on internal evidence, it is also in keeping with women’s known roles in cold-weather “hunter-gatherer” - or, as I prefer to call them,  hunter-sewer economies.

Frequently, one of these roles is to increase the chance of a hunter’s success by supernaturally providing him with animal qualities. Several polar cultures believe wives do this while sewing their husbands’ weatherproof clothing and camouflage by synthesizing the powers of the species whose hides compose the garments, thereby imbuing their husbands with animal qualities needed for success. Another common role is for wives to enter trances in which they “become” their husbands’ prey and lull it into coming within range. A third is to reconcile hunters with animals they have killed by “feeding” dead animals like honored guests and inviting them upon their “departure” to return where they came from as new, living creatures. “Whale-wives” among the Koryaks and Nootka, for example, do this by supernaturally initiating the regeneration of harpooned whales. All three roles involve beliefs in a woman’s maternal capacity not only to give birth to humans but also to morph into, control and generate the largest and most socially and symbolically important prey species.*

There is evidence that horses and large “armor-headed” herbivores - mammoths in the north and usually bison in the south - filled these roles during the Eurasian Upper Paleolithic and were associated with extremely gravid “women” who have zoomorphic traits and connections – through umbilical lines from their vulvas or identical markings - to animals, which may be variously interpreted as animal-doubles, animal-husbands or animal-progeny. Surprisingly, all three roles are consistent with such ethnographically observed customs as the “whale-wife-mothers”.

Some Paleolithic feminine images, like the pregnant figure with a herbivore’s head and woman’s pregnant body from Étiolles (Fig. 4), seem to be connected to animals umbilically - in this case with a horse. Another engraving – this time in the one from Laugerie-Basse (Fig. 1) - has always been interpreted as showing a pregnant woman under a large male herbivore - already a provocative image. But a closer examination reveals several more layers of information, the first of which prove that the gravid figure is hardly just a "woman".

The first clue is a change of angle in her shins from one side of the fragmentary herbivore’s fetlocks to the other, leading us to find faint incisions across the fetlocks that confirm the impression that the pregnant figure has hocks (Fig. 2, highlighted in blue). Another clue that the figure isn’t as human as we thought lies in the fact that both the leg of the reindeer or bison straddling her and the lower half of her body are covered with identical fur patterns (Fig. 2, purple). Put her hocks and fur together and it's clear that the pregnant figure is really partly zoomorphic, making her what prehistorians call a therianthropomorph!

But the engraving has even more secrets. First, two lightly incised hoops (Fig. 2, orange) arch over the therianthropomorph's belly, faithfully echoing the more heavily incised curve of the realistically portrayed pregnancy with outer dimensions that seem to be ballooning pulsations or supernaturally large “pregnancies” towards the reindeer or bison.

Fig. 2 - La Femme au Renne. The pregnant therianthropomorph from Laugerie-Basse, with newly observed features in color (Caldwell). A change in the angle of her shins from one side of the reindeer’s of bison’s fetlocks to the other indicates that the “woman”  has herbivore-like reverse knees (hocks) in addition to forward-facing knees (stifles) higher on her legs. Her hocks  are shown here as dotted blue lines across the straddling herbivore’s leg, but, as one can see in figure 1, they are also present on the engraving itself as light incisions.

The fur on her pregnant belly and legs, which is incised in the same way as the fur on the animal’s leg, is shown without enhancement in figure 1 - but is highlighted here in purple.

Two larger-than-life dimensions, echoing the deeply engraved contour of the “woman’s” realistically swollen belly, are shown here in orange.


Next, the engraving contains two features that were probably only intended to be seen even later that the 2 arches - for example, after a further degree of initiation. The first is a probable baby (Fig. 3, blue), which may not have been noticed since the Paleolithic. Its head, which is composed of a semi-circle of fine cross-hatches, rests within the bubble formed by the extra dimensions above the “woman’s” swollen belly. The two lines arching over the pregnancy contain their own discrete secondary feature – an eyed snake whose tail issues umbilically from the “woman’s” vulva (Fig. 3, orange). The back of the snake’s head is be evidenced by slight shifts in the ballooning lines over the belly while its snout and mouth actually touch the circular pattern that seems to be a baby’s head. 

The last feature that I’ve been able to interpret is a “stream” of 4 largely parallel lines (Fig. 3, yellow) from the tip of the overhead herbivore’s penal sheath down to the point on the upper arch that corresponds to the back of the snake’s head. The graphic unit obviously represents one or more of the literal projections from such a sheath; in other words, urination, insemination or an erect phallus. But a complementary interpretation is suggested both by the fact that arched snakes are equated with rainbows from Angola (among the Chokwe) to Australia and the resemblance of the 4 slanting lines to distant rain**. If this reading is correct, then the imagery reflected beliefs, which at one of their deepest levels, encompassed the earth, sky and weather in between, making this possibly the oldest known image to include references to the heavens.  


   Fig. 3 - La Femme au Renne. The most legible lines of a probable baby on top of the “woman” are shown in blue. The part of the double arch over the pregnancy that can be read as a snake touching the baby’s head is shown here in orange. The “stream” of 4 parallel slanting lines from the herbivore’s penal sheath to the back of the snake’s head are highlighted in yellow. Could this imagery, at one level, illustrate the oldest known “rainbow serpent” and inseminating rain? (Caldwell)

Together, the complex imagery of this engraving suggests equally layered beliefs concerning the relationship between women’s pregnancies and the animal world.  The pregnancy here has supernatural dimensions that encompass the phantasmal, lightly incised, dotted “baby” while pulsing towards the herbivore overhead. But the pregnancy’s larger-than-life dimensions also contain the possible umbilical serpent, which may be associated, like umbilical cords, with humanity’s original connections and ineluctable separations. At the heart of this polysemic image involving literal births, supernatural transformations, and cycles of life and death probably lies a belief that women had the capacity to generate and intercede among humans and their prey - making them the sex that spiritually controlled the food supply.

Fig. 4 - A pregnant therianthropomorph with a herbivore’s head and high rear leg, but a woman’s breast and pregnant belly, linked “umbilically” to a horse, which is performing the same action, with lines issuing from both figures’ mouths. Magdalenian. Étiolles, France. After Taborin et al. 20003; Taborin et al. 20014; Olive et al. 20035.

  1. *Beliefs and rituals that associate women in their maternal capacity with symbolically and socially important prey are found south of the circumpolar regions too. During the Ainu Bear Festival, for example, “a bear cub, after being captured, is put in a cage and fed, while the people parade around it invoking the gods. Then they secure and strangle the bear with poles and cut off its head with a sword, while the woman who had been wet nurse to the cub cries” (my italics) (Severin, Timothy. 1973. The Horizon Book of Vanishing Primitive Man. p. 234). 

Here’s another example, which comes from below the equator: After boys of the dugong clan in the Torres Strait have speared their clan’s totem animal as part of their initiation into manhood, the clan’s women symbolically suckle the slain dugong while moaning their grief during the Zug Ngurrpai ceremony.

** One of the most beautiful evocations of this widespread family of myths comes from Wade Davis’s book about his search for a zombi poison and its antidote in Haiti, “The Serpent and the Rainbow”: “‘Ayida Wedo!’ someone called, his shout a whisper. It was true. Mist fell over the basin, and the water splintered the sunlight, leaving a rainbow arched across the entire face of the waterfall. It was the goddess of many colors, delicate and ephemeral, come to rejoice with her mate. Ayida Wedo the Rainbow and Damballah the Serpent, the father of the falling waters and the reservoir of all spiritual wisdom.” (The Serpent and the Rainbow. 1985. Warner Books. pp. 212-213)

Here’s another example - this time from Australia: “Initiates in the rainbow serpent totem produce the sacred opals that symbolize his joining of the water and sky, and in their dances shake bird’s down into the air to imitate rain-bearing clouds” (Severin, Timothy. 1973. The Horizon Book of Vanishing Primitive Man. p. 61).

1 Caldwell, D. (2010) Supernatural Pregnancies: Common features and new ideas concerning Upper Paleolithic feminine imagery. Arts & Cultures, Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva. pp. 52-75

2 Caldwell, D. (2009) Palaeolithic Whistles or Figurines? A preliminary survey of pre-historic phalangeal figurines. Rock Art Research, Vol. 26, No. 1: 65-82 (Also see the page on this site dedicated to the work of Pascal Raux - the father of the Phalangeal Figurine Hypothesis)

3 Olive, M., N. Pigeot, Y. Taborin, G. Tosello and M. Philippe (2003) Lorsque le galet gravé paraît. Les témoins symboliques à Etiolles (Essonnes). In Sens dessus dessous. La recherche du sens en Préhistoire. Recueil de textes offerts à Jean Leclerc & Claude Masset. Revue archéologique de Picardie, Senlis.

4 Taborin, Y., M. Christensen, M. Olive, N. Pigeot, C. Fritz and G. Tosello (2001) De l’art magdalénien figuratif à Etiolles (Essonne, Bassin Parisien). Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française 98(1): 125–132.

5 Taborin, Y., M. Olive, N. Pigeot and M. Christensen (2000) Le site magdalénien d’Etiolles: bilan des fouilles de 1998–1999–2000. Bulletin de la Société historique et archéologique de Corbeil, de l’Essonne et du Hurepoix 70: 107–120.

© 2009 Duncan Caldwell


Key words: Prehistoric venuses, Paleolithic sculpture, Paleolithic art, Paleolithic cave paintings, Prehistoric goddesses, Prehistoric mother goddesses, Women in prehistory, Paleolithic women, Paleolithic revolution, Paleolithic statuary, Paleolithic venus, Prehistoric venus figurines, Laugerie-Basse, Dordogne, Paleolithic engraving, Kostienki, Avdeevo, Etiolles, women in art, art by women, supernatural pregnancy, Paleolithic man, archaeology, feminine art, Paleolithic venuses, Willendorf Venus, Lespugue Venus, Dolni Vestonice Venus, Venus of Willendorf, Stone Age women, Women in prehistory, Paleolithic Venuses, Prehistoric women, Mother goddess, Upper Paleolithic figurines, Venus figurines, Palaeolithic art, Venus statuettes, Venus of Hohle Fels, Prehistoric art, Prehistoric porn?, Prehistoric matriarchy, Prehistoric matriarchies, Matriarchal myths, Venus of Brassempouy, Prehistoric venus, Mother goddess, Women in prehistory, prehistoric art, cave art, Venus figures of the Stone Age, The role of the venus figurines in the Upper Paleolithic, Female figurines of the Upper Paleolithic, What are venus figurines, Mother goddesses, Paleolithic goddesses, Paleolithic fertility goddesses, Neolithic fertility goddesses,

Other Prehistory Pages


Please click on the following thumbnail photos, which I’ve used as icons, to see the web pages or PDFs described in the captions.


PDF: Supernatural Pregnancies:  Common features and new ideas concerning Upper Paleolithic feminine imagery. 2010. Arts & Cultures, Barbier-Mueller Museum


The Foz Coa / Coa Valley rock art scandal

Prehistoric Art Emergency &  Foz Coa /

Coa Valley home page

World's Oldest Optical Illusion Found?” -
National Geographic article by Andrew Howley about Duncan Caldwell’s discovery of one of the world’s oldest known intentional optical illusions (Dec. 22, 2010)

PDF: An historic sign, possible Mesolithic menhir, DStretch, and problems in dating rock art to the Sauveterrian in the Massif de Fontainebleau. Co-authored with my intern, Ulrika Botzojorns. Journal of Archaeological Science (2014, Vol. 42, February: 140-151)

The Neanderthal / Neandertal insulation hypothesis concerning Neanderthal diets, behavior, extinction & adaptations to cold

Baby slings & human evolution: The baby-sling hypothesis concerning the speciation that led to Homo habilis & the origin of our genus, Homo

PDF: The First Paleolithic Animal Sculpture in the Ile-de-France: The Ségognole 3 bison & its ramifications. L’Art Pléistocène dans le Monde / Pleistocene Art of the World / Arte Pleistoceno en el Mundo. Edited by Jean Clottes. Actes du Congrès IFRAO, Tarascon-sur-Ariège, septembre 2010, N° spécial de Préhistoire, Art et Sociétés, Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Ariège-Pyrénées, LXV-LXVI, 2010-2011. ISBN 987-2-9531148-3-6

A Murder, Bombing, and Trip to “Dolmens”

PDF: Identification of a possible engraved Venus from Předmostí, Czech Republic.  Journal of Archaeological Science. (2011, Vol. 38: 672-683)

Expedition Photos

Ancient & tribal feminine imagery

Prehistory home page

PDF: Palaeolithic Whistles or Figurines? A Preliminary Survey of Pre-Historic Phalangeal FigurinesRock Art Research. (2009) Also see my web page on Pascal Raux’s earlier, parallel discoveries, which overlap & help confirm those in this paper.

PDF: Observations et hypothèses sur le site du Paly : Milly-la-Forêt (Essonne). This article is the second of two papers about engravings at a megalithic complex around le menhir du Paly. After announcing the discovery of fingers, which confirm that a cruciform  motif on the menhir is really an anthropomorph, and not a Christian cross, it goes on to reveal other discoveries and interpret the “idol” in relation to the site’s possible structure and uses.  The paper speculates that the circle composed of nine white dots, which seem to form the anthropomorph’s belly, could represent the nine lunar months which occur between a woman’s last period and a full-term birth. If this supposition is correct, then the circle  may be one of the oldest known pregnancy calendars. The article goes on to describe a number of humanly modified features on the adjacent slab, including a pair of carved and polished basins, which probably began as solution cavities. The polishing may have been done to modify the shapes of the puddles, which form in them and double as mirrors of the sky. The puddle that forms in the larger one becomes almost perfectly circular, while the one in the smaller basin varies between an oblong and disc, depending on its depth, making it look like a changing moon. The smaller of these cavities, whose water flows to the larger one, also has four natural cracks, grooves, and accentuated cracks, which correspond perfectly to the four cardinal points, forming a cross. The second and larger of the polished bowls has an incision pointing due north, two natural cracks pointing east and west, and one heavy and two light incisions pointing northwest to 300 and 330°. The article goes on to discuss an oriented grid and other engravings at this crucial site for interpreting the Neolithic iconography of northwestern France. (Art Rupestre : Bulletin du GERSAR n° 63 - janvier 2013: 29-32)

PDF: This article, which revealed the existence of a huge, plumed, Neolithic face on a stele at Le Closeau, Nanteau-sur-Essonne, France,  appeared in Art Rupestre in July 2013. After comparing the iconography of statue-menhirs from Guernsey to Switzerland, it concludes that the Closeau stele may be one of the oldest ones in France. (Art Rupestre : Bulletin du GERSAR n° 64 - juillet 2013: 37-46)

Historical & Biographical Pages


Spy Catcher, my father, Robert Caldwell’s, biography