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13 November 2011
Art hints prehistoric men pierced their privates

Paleolithic phallic art suggests that many early European men scarred, pierced and tattooed their penises. The practice appears to have been most common in France and Spain around 12,000 years ago. The meaning of the symbols remains a mystery, but many match images found on cave art from the same period.
     Analysis of phallic decorations in Paleolithic art, described in the December issue of The Journal of Urology, may also show evidence of the world's first known surgery performed on a male genital organ. The alteration, or surgery, might have just been for ornamental purposes, or a piercing, the researchers suggest.
     Lead author Javier Angulo, chair of the Department of Urology at Hospital Universitario de Getafe in Spain, explains that, like today, tattooing and manipulation of body parts have always functioned as a way for people to express themselves. "[People] may feel that scars are a written story on the skin," he said. "The face and areas around natural orifices are parts of the body with a higher tendency to be decorated and shown."
     Angulo and colleagues Marcos García-Díez and Marc Martínez studied male genital representations in portable, mostly handheld sizes of art made in Europe approximately 38,000 to 11,000 years ago. The pieces, researchers say, frequently mirrored what actually appeared on the male penis. "Modern primitives did modify their bodies, including their genitals, with the use of tattooing, perforations and cuttings (scars) to change their appearance," Angulo said. They therefore believe it is "highly probable that the marks left on these phalli are not decorative for the sake of the piece of art but rather a depiction of real-life details."
     Many of the marks are geometric shapes, such as triangles or circles. Some designs appear to match those of figures seen within Paleolithic cave art from the same regions. This suggests that the symbols may have held important meanings for people then. Angulo added that possible explanations for the symbols include: "territorial signs or landmarks, shamanistic repetitive marks in the passage to an unconscious world, some forms of primitive counting, the investigation of non-figurative artistic expression playing with spaces and light and darkness... Who knows?"
     What is clear is that phallic decoration became more prevalent among men of the Magdalenian Culture in France and Spain about 12,000 years ago. Another finding of the study is that prehistoric men seemed to favor preputial retraction. As a result, the scientists think it's likely that early males practiced circumcision. To this day, ritual or religious circumcisions occur within several cultures.
     For the prehistoric cultures, Angulo believes that their 'canon of beauty' changed over time. Earlier humans of the Gravettian culture appear to have favored more exaggerated depictions of sexuality, as is evident in many of their 'Venus' figurines of naked women. The Magdalenians, on the other hand, had a more naturalistic concept of beauty, according to the authors.

Edited from Discovery News (11 November 2011)

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