The first Upper Paleolithic representation of a woman was discovered about 1864 by the Marquis de Vibraye, at Laugerie-Basse (Dordogne), where initial archaeological surveys had already been undertaken; Vibraye named his find the Vénus impudique, a knowing contrast to the "modest" Venus Pudica Hellenistic type, the most famous of which is the Medici Venus. The Magdalenian "Venus" from Laugerie-Basse is headless, footless, armless but with a strongly incised vaginal opening. Another example of such a figure being discovered and recognised was the Venus of Brassempouy, found by Édouard Piette in 1894 (but not originally labelled as a "Venus"). Four years later, Salomon Reinach published a group of steatite figurines from the caves of Balzi Rossi. The famous Venus of Willendorf was excavated in 1908 in a loess deposit in the Danube valley, Austria. Since then, hundreds of similar figurines have been discovered from the Pyrenees to the plains of Siberia. They are collectively described as "Venus" figurines in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty, Venus, since the prehistorians of the early 20th century assumed they represented an ancient ideal of beauty. Early discourse on "Venus" figurines was preoccupied with identifing the race being represented; and the steatopygous fascination of Sartje Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus" exhibited as a living ethnographic curiosity to connoisseurs in Paris early in the nineteenth century.
The question of the steatopygia of some of the figurines has led to numerous controversies. The issue was first raised by Édouard Piette, excavator of the Brassempouy figure and of several other examples from the Pyrenees. Some authors saw this feature as the depiction of an actual physical property, resembling the Khoisan tribe of southern Africa, while others interpreted it as a symbol of fertility and abundance. It must be noted in this context, that not all Palaeolithic female figurines are rotund or have exaggerated feminine features. Also, not all are devoid of facial features.
The Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Laussel bear traces of having been externally covered in red ochre. The significance of this is not clear, but is normally assumed to be religious or ritual in nature -- perhaps symbolic of the blood of menstruation or childbirth.
All generally accepted Paleolithic female figurines are from the Upper Palaeolithic. Although they were originally mostly considered Aurignacian, the majority is now associated with the Gravettian and Solutrean. In these periods, the more rotund figurines are predominant. During the Magdalenian, the forms become finer with more detail; conventional stylization also develops.
According to André Leroi-Gourhan, there are cultural connections between all these groups. He states that certain anatomical details suggest a shared Oriental origin, followed by a westward diffusion..
The absence of such figurines from the Iberian peninsula is curious. Only few and rather dubious examples have been reported, especially at El Pendo and La Pileta. The so-called Venus of Las Caldas from a cave near Oviedo is a Magdalenian antler carving. Although some scholars see it as a stylised female body with an animal head, it is probably a decorated atlatl-type device.
At Gagarino in Russia, seven Venus figurines were found in a hut of 5 m diameter; they have been interpreted as apotropaic amulets, connected with the occupants of the dwelling. At Mal'ta, near Lake Baikal, figurines are only known from the left sides of huts. The figurines were probably not hidden or secret amulets, but rather were displayed to be seen by all (a factor that may explain their wide geographic spread).
The apparent obesity of the figures strongly implies a focus on fertility as, at the time of their construction, human society had not yet invented farming and did not have ready access to rich or plentiful foodstuffs. An image of excess weight may have symbolized a yearning for plenty and security. Nevertheless, the widespread theories concerning a possible fertility cult or a Mother Goddess are entirely speculative and cannot be scientifically evaluated.
Recently, two very ancient stone objects (between 200,000 and 300,000 years old) have been interpreted as attempts at representing females. One, the Venus of Berekhat Ram, was discovered on the Golan Heights; the other, the Venus of Tan-Tan, in Morocco. Both pieces remain controversial. In any case, both are at best very cursorily and marginally carved, at worst simply natural, their anthropomorphic appearance being coincidence.
Some scholars and popular theorists suggest a direct continuity between the Palaeolithic female figurines and later examples of female depictions from the Neolithic or even the Bronze Age. Such views have been contested on numerous grounds, not least the general absence of such depictions during the intervening Mesolithic.