The Mesolithic culture of Lepenski Vir, modern-day Serbia, ranks amongst Europe’s oldest. Its origins date to 9,500-7,200 BC. Today it is best known for its unique, trapezoidal houses and enigmatic stone sculptures. The symbolism of these sculptures is unknown. There are many theories, ranging from the ancestral cult to the worship of river gods. The connection to the river gods comes from the fish-like mouth, fish scales on some of the figurines, and the specific position they took in the house shrines.
From Lepenski Vir to Neolithic France
“Progenitor” or “Foremother” is one of the most famous sculptures of the Lepenski Vir. Interestingly, almost an identical sculpture has been discovered in Capdenad le Haut, France. It dates to 3200-2800 BC, meaning that it is at least 3000 years younger. Still, the similarities are so striking that they did not go unnoticed by the scholars.
Unfortunately, this sculpture is not on display, but the Occitanie Musées have an image on their website, mentioning the Lepenski Vir connection on the same page.
Modern scholars nowadays suggest that the Balkans were one of the main stations for the Neolithic spread of agriculture, from the Middle East to Europe. Genetic samples taken from the younger layers of the Lepenski Vir seem to confirm this theory. The Danube river, on which Lepenski Vir site is located, was one of the main “highways” towards Northern Europe. Could this be a possible explanation of how these two figurines are connected?
The similarities between the sculpture are striking – a similar overall shape and the facial expression, the “V neck”, the stylized breasts, and the hands with three fingers are on each sculpture. However, the overall impression is that the French figurine looks like a lower quality copy of a much older original.
From Lepenski Vir to America
Now, besides the agricultural route, we could propose a few other theories on connections between these two ancient European cultures. But whatever we come up with would not be enough to explain the links with the indigenous cultures of America. And this is, as you will see, another important piece of this puzzle.
The indigenous culture of Taino nowadays dwells in the area of the Caribbean and Florida. At the time of European contact in the late fifteenth century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, and the northern Lesser Antilles. The Taíno were the first New World peoples to be encountered by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage.
And while the French figurine is only a single exception, the Taino culture has dozens of them. It almost looks that the religious system of the Lepenski Vir is still alive over there. The examples are so numerous that I struggled with which one to choose. Here is one:
But there are many more. In the enlarged detail below you can see that the facial expression – the eyes, the nose, and the so-called “fish-mouth” by the Serbian archaeologists, is almost identical.
Here are some more examples:
The three-fingered hands
On one of the Taino images above you can see not only the similar hand position but also the “three-finger hand”. This is not the only example. The three-finger representations are very common in Taino art, in sculpture, as well as in tattoos and petroglyphs:
From Lepenski Vir to Africa
The similarities between the art of Mesolithic Balkans and indigenous America are mind-boggling and no agricultural spread theory will help us explain them. But this is not the end of the rabbit hole. It seems that the Ikom monoliths of Nigeria, Africa show the same symbolism.
Perhaps this is the solution? An older African origin, a common ancestor of both cultures? Well, not likely. These African monoliths seem to be an exception in African art, a specific cultural heritage of Nigeria, and the surrounding area. But most importantly, they are dated to 500-600 AD. (!)
Originally, there were only around 500 of these monoliths. Unfortunately, nowadays only around 250 remain. And almost all of them show similar symbolism to that of Lepenski Vir. Here are some more examples:
In the case of the “Foremother” of Lepenski Vir, it is not so easy to determine if she has male or female attributes (or both). Perhaps this was the intention of the artist. A similar ambiguity exists in Nigerian monoliths. Moreover, they quite often have “tears” pouring from their eyes. This could be an association with rain, fertility, and water. Perhaps this fact can give us a deeper insight into the universal symbolism of all these sculptures.
Similar figurines, with tears pouring from their eyes existed in the Neolithic Balkans. Here are two pictures from the archaeological museum in Sofia:
Behind the symbolism
The British museum page on the Ikom monoliths describes them as “phallus-shaped” with stylized human features, the main emphasis being the head. They also have linear geometric motifs, of unknown meaning. Locals call them Akwasnshi or Atal and usually place them in the center of the village, or a place where the elders gather. Most often, they are arranged in circles.
And as for their interpretation, the theories vary from places of sacrifice to meeting places, memorials of deceased or spirit worship. But most common associations are with the god of harvest and fertility, and the god of war. Each year, during the Yam festival the monoliths are being painted.
This last comment is particularly interesting, as even the figurines of Lepenski Vir contain the pigments of paint. They too, were painted at least once, but perhaps it was also during some yearly event?
Yam, an agricultural festival
As we just saw, the African monoliths were painted during the Yam festival. This festival marked the end of the rainy season, in early August. It was the end of harvest and as such shares many similarities with the Asian Mid-Autumn festival. Both festivals relate to harvest and are determined based on the lunar phases.
Now, this last sentence is an important piece of a puzzle. The lunar calendar is without the doubt the oldest and goes deep in prehistory. And the association with the rain and harvest can help us understand the main symbolism of these sculptures, at least in their role as the fertility gods and goddesses.
Until recently, the Autumn equinox happened in Virgo. This is why Virgo is represented as a woman with the shaft of grain. But around 12,000 years ago, the autumn equinox took place in Pisces, on the opposite side of the zodiac circle. Is this the real reason for the fish-like mouth and scales of the Lepenski Vir sculptures?
The only problem is that there was no agricultural society back then in the Balkans… or was it?
The connections between these stone sculptures are evident and without a doubt extremely ancient. If we take the Lepenski Vir as a starting point, we see similar cultural traits in the north (France) on the south (Africa), and the west (America). But it is in fact in the east that we see the most of the similar stone sculptures. They are known as balbal or the Kurgan stelae. And even though they are deeply rooted all over Asia, dominating the steppe, but reaching as far as Korea, I did not include them in this article as they are not as strikingly similar as the examples we saw.
But in any case, it is not an overstatement to say that we are dealing with an ancient global culture. Its main traits are as follows:
- The stone sculptures, with the primary focus on the head
- Circular eyes, separated by a straight line, symbolizing the nose
- A circular or elongated, fish mouth
- Hands carved on the side of the body, often with three fingers only
- Stylized breasts, genitalia, and tears in case of Africa – symbols of fertility
- Ceremonial painting / anointment / sacrifice
In the case of African monoliths, we saw that the purpose may differ. They may be the representations of gods, but in other cases, they represent the ancestors. The same was probably true for all of these cultures. But in the case of the particular figurine from Lepenski Vir, the intuition of the archaeologist was probably spot on – the fertility was the main attribute.
But probably the most shocking part lies in the connections between these cultures. When and how could they happen? Or is it all just a coincidence? I don’t believe that it is. Take for example the sculpture from Vinca – a culture that came after the Lepenski Vir. Why does it look so much like the ancient sculpture from Panama? It rather seems that many chapters of our history simply need to be re-written.
Learn more on “Lepenski Vir” culture
If you would like to learn more about the Lepenski Vir culture, here are two affiliated links from Amazon. The first one comes directly from Mr. Dragoslav Srejovic, a leading archaeologist on the project. The second is more of a general, museum handbook.
Europe’s First Monumental Sculptures: New Discoveries at Lepenski Vir (New Aspects of Antiquity) Hardcover – January 1, 1972