What was prehistoric sex like? How can we even know? Researchers use several methods to make educated guesses about the sex lives of prehistoric folk, including examining closely related primates, studying what human evolution has wrought, and finding clues in the existing fossil records of early man. From these examinations, a rough picture of primitive sexuality emerges… and it’s more than just skimpy loincloths and cave rape.
There’s also prehistoric art, which, much like art in the 21st century, reveals a lot about the culture that made it. Some prehistoric art is even (arguably) pornographic. Examining all of these factors reveals that caveman sex was probably a lot more like modern sex than you might imagine. Early hunting-and-gathering Homo sapiens probably engaged in bestiality and inbreeding a bit more than we do (hopefully!), and some experts think they weren’t as keen on monogamy, but on the whole, their sex lives weren’t totally alien. Read on for some fascinating prehistoric sex facts.
Prehistoric Women Were “Extraordinarily Promiscuous”Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origin of Modern Sexuality argues that agriculture “introduced the notion of property into sexuality,” causing men to start to worry about leaving land and domesticated animals to their biological children. Prior to that, sex for prehistoric men and women was basically a free-for-all, and “paternity wasn’t an issue.”
Women, especially, were “hard-wired to behave like chimps in the bedroom,” to quote Daniel Honan over at Big Think. These “extraordinarily promiscuous” pre-agricultural cavewomen, motivated in part by their ability to have multiple orgasms, had multiple sexual partners in order to up their chances of reproducing. Sexuality in these small groups of foraging cavefolk was shared, just like “food, childcare, shelter and defense.”
Prehistoric men, meanwhile, were not “dragging a dazed woman by her hair with one hand, a club in the other” as in the popular imagination, but were instead more likely forced to wait for their turn.
See how they dominated their partners here.
There’s “No Doubt” Prehistoric People Engaged in BestialityAnthony L. Podberscek and Andrea M Beetz’s Bestiality and Zoophilia: Sexual Relations with Animalscite about a half-dozen studies chronicling examples of bestiality in prehistoric art, including one from 1968 that concludes there’s “no doubt that our prehistoric ancestors enjoyed frequent and pleasurable sexual relations with animals.”
An “engraved bone rod” from 25,000 years ago found in a cave in France, for example, depicts “a lioness licking the opening of either a gigantic human penis or a vulva.” An Iron Age cave painting in Italy “portrays a man inserting his penis into the vagina or anus of a donkey.” Some of these drawings even had “an integral part in a clan’s family history.”
Prehistoric Statues May Have Been Caveman PornographyHistorians argue about whether the so-called “Venus statuettes” carved by prehistoric man were meant as proto-pornography or were used for spiritual purposes. Team Porn – represented here by historian Rudolf Feustel – thinks the busty statues were an expression of “raw animal lust.”
Team Spirituality, including Jill Cook of the British Museum in London, says they had nothing to do with lust but were instead used as fertility idols for a culture that worshiped pregnancy. Cook says men in the Gravettian culture of 30,000 years ago, for example, “did not comprehend the biological function of sex” and thus thought pregnancy was a miraculous act to be revered. Some of the statuettes even feature “opened vulvas” and bulging bellies.
Cavemen Carved Dual-Purpose DildosEven as far back as 30,000 years ago, people were making dildos. Yes, we can’t say for sure that these lovingly-carved phallic objects – which were polished smooth and “notched” to resemble the look and feel of erect human penises – were used for masturbation, but as archaeologist Timothy Taylor says, considering the “size, shape, and – in some cases – explicit symbolism” of them, “it seems disingenuous to avoid the most obvious and straightforward interpretation.”
The phallus pictured above was discovered in the Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany and dates back 29,000 years. Unlike most modern dildos, it did double duty: Chris Wild of Mashable says “it appears to have been also used as a hammerstone.”
Homo Sapiens Totally Did It with NeanderthalsModern humans – AKA homo sapiens – totally had sex with Neanderthals (as well as other subspecies) in prehistoric times. Nature reported in 2011 that “an analysis comparing the Neanderthal genome sequence to that of modern H. sapiens showed that some interbreeding did take place between the two species in Europe sometime between 80,000 and 30,000 years ago.”
This means “to a certain extent, Neanderthals ‘live on’ in the genes of modern humans.”
Human-Neanderthal hybrid babies were a thing, but they were rare: one study suggests that “only male Neanderthals and female humans were able to produce fertile offspring” and not the other way around.
There Were “High Levels of Inbreeding”vIn 2013, findings published in PLOS ONE revealed that our prehistoric ancestors likely engaged in “high levels of inbreeding,” which was “inevitable” for most of our evolution. Researchers discovered that one fractured 100,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull, when joined together using CT scanning and 3D modeling, had an “unusual genetic mutation” that was probably caused by a whole lot of inbreeding. The mutation caused a hole in the crown of the skull, a defect known as “an enlarged parietal foramen.”
The owner of this particular skull, despite the mutation, likely lived into their 30s.
Prehistoric Art Depicts Both Male and Female MasturbationThere’s a Neolithic clay figurine from Hagar Qim, Malta with “upraised legs and hand at swollen vulva” that archeologist Timothy Taylor says depicts female masturbation. Some people think it’s meant to display childbirth, saying the nine lines on the figurine’s back represent “the nine months of gestation,” but Taylor makes a great case against that interpretation:
Traditional societies generally calculate the duration of pregnancy by the moon, by which it lasts about ten, not nine months. The figure’s belly is only slightly swollen, and the posture can only be seen as birth-giving by a society accustomed to hospital delivery. The Hagar Qim woman is not giving birth at all. She is masturbating, with one hand languidly supporting her head.
(Here’s a picture so you can judge for yourself.)
Prehistoric depictions of male masturbation, naturally, are easier to come by. Taylor points to “a masturbating [male] figurine of the Greek Neolithic” and the fact that male masturbation was a “central theme” in ancient creation myths and is thus commonly depicted.
Primitive “Birth Control” Was Brutal but NecessaryDespite engaging in an instinctively promiscuous life, prehistoric people still needed ways of restricting fertility. Historian Svend Hansen explains that “in a society of hunters and gatherers, high birth rates were unwelcome.”
Why? Weren’t they all just hanging out in the cave, eating berries, and taking turns humping each other? Not at all. Hansen says that traveling through the countryside in groups of 15 to 30 was common, and each new baby meant extra weight and one more mouth to feed.
How did they keep from multiplying like rabbits? “Plant-based birth control agents and the use of taboos” but also “abortion and infanticide.” These primitive, often brutal practices kept population levels stable for centuries.