Male genital representation in paleolithic art: erection and circumcision before history

Urology. 2009 Jul;74(1):10-4. doi: 10.1016/j.urology.2009.01.010. Epub 2009 Apr 23.


Objectives: To report on the likely existing evidence about the practice of circumcision in prehistory, or at least a culture of foreskin retraction, and also the meaning of erection in Paleolithic minds. The origin of the ritual of circumcision has been lost in time. Similarly, the primitive anthropologic meaning of erection is undefined.

Methods: We studied the archeologic and artistic evidence regarding human representations performed during the Upper Paleolithic period, 38,000 to 11,000 years BCE, in Europe, with a focus on genital male representations in portable and rock art.

Results: Drawings, engravings, and sculptures displaying humans are relatively scarce, and <100 examples of male genitals are specifically represented. Some depict a circumcised penis and other represent urologic disorders such as phimosis, paraphimosis, discharge, priapism, or a scrotal mass. In addition, a small number of phalluses carved in horn, bone, or stone, with varying morphology, has survived to the present and also reveals a sustained cult for male erection and foreskin retraction not limited to a particular topographical territory. The very few noncoital human or humanoid figures with marked erection appear in a context of serious danger or death. Therefore, erection could be understood as a phenomenon related to the shamanic transit between life and death.

Conclusions: The erection in Paleolithic art is explicitly represented in almost all the figures defined as unequivocally male that have survived to the present and in many objects of portable art. Circumcision and/or foreskin retraction of the penis are present in most of the works.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Circumcision, Male / history*
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine in the Arts*
  • Penile Erection*