Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs and Paleo-porn

The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs are rock carvings found in Xinjiang province in northwest China. According to this scholarly but very readable study by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, the tableau depicts a “profound fertility ritual” with stylized male, female and mixed-gender figures.

Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs

Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs – fertility ritual tableau – detail

Davis-Kimball helpfully explains the visual conventions identifying male and female figures. (The gigantic penises were easy to figure out, but I wouldn’t have known the antennae meant female.) She also explains, “In general, the figures are represented in a dance so intense that some have fallen into a trance or state of ecstasy. Others are about to engage in sexual intercourse with the obvious intent of procreation as small embryonic images evoking chorus lines emphasize the significance of this act.”

This tableau has gotten lots of media attention this week, most calling it “prehistoric porn” or “the world’s first pornography” or the “earliest transsexual orgy porn”. Far be it for me to accuse others of being porn-obsessed.

New Scientist ran an interview with archaeologist April Nowell recently about this tendency for pop science articles to describe prehistoric sexual imagery as “paleo-porn”.

You take issue with this interpretation. Who is responsible for spreading it, journalists or scientists?

People are fascinated by prehistory, and the media want to write stories that attract readers – to use a cliché, sex sells. But when a New York Times headline reads “A Precursor to Playboy: Graphic Images in Rock”, and Discover magazine asserts that man’s obsession with pornography dates back to “Cro-Magnon days” based on “the famous 26,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf statuette [with] GG-cup breasts and a hippopotamal butt”, I think a line is crossed. To be fair, archaeologists are partially responsible – we need to choose our words carefully.

Don’t miss the smoking hot XXX paleo-porn slideshow!

Daze vocabulary word of the day: “ithyphallic”.