Dec. 1 (UPI) -- According to a new theory, Venus figurines, one of the world's earliest examples of art, weren't symbols of beauty or fertility, as has been previously suggested.
Instead, researchers claim the large-bodied figurines, carved some 30,000 years ago, were models for surviving Europe's increasingly frigid winters.
Researchers detailed their new theory in a new paper, published Tuesday in the journal Obesity.
"Some of the earliest art in the world are these mysterious figurines of overweight women from the time of hunter gatherers in Ice Age Europe where you would not expect to see obesity at all," lead study author Richard Johnson said in a news release.
"We show that these figurines correlate to times of extreme nutritional stress," said Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Previous studies suggest the first groups of modern humans entered Europe around 48,000 years ago, during a period of warming.
These early hunter-gatherers, known as Aurignacians, subsisted on berries, fish, nuts and plants during the summers. The Aurignacians also used bone-tipped spears to hunt reindeer, horses and mammoths.
When the dawn of a new ice age brought harsher winters and advancing glaciers, these early hunter-gatherers moved south, sought refuge in forests or died out. As the glaciers advanced, fossil evidence suggests megafauna were over-hunted.
The latest research showed the Venus figurines appeared around the time winters in Northern Europe became unforgiving.
When Johnson and his colleagues plotted the location and size of the Venus figures so far unearthed by archaeologists, they found those with the greatest waist-to-hip and waist-to-shoulder ratios -- the most obese figures, in other words -- were located closest to the region's advancing glaciers.
"We propose they conveyed ideals of body size for young women, and especially those who lived in proximity to glaciers," said Johnson, who holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology. "We found that body size proportions were highest when the glaciers were advancing, whereas obesity decreased when the climate warmed and glaciers retreated."
The Venus figures show signs of heavy wear, suggesting they were passed down for generations, perhaps from mothers to daughters.
Researchers suggest the figurines may have served as a model for would-be-mothers. In times of scarcity, women with a surplus of stored fat would have been better able to carry a pregnancy to term and nurse newborns.
"The figurines emerged as an ideological tool to help improve fertility and survival of the mother and newborns," Johnson said. "The aesthetics of art thus had a significant function in emphasizing health and survival to accommodate increasingly austere climatic conditions."