Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
Raquel Welch's fur bikini has been cast aside. Archeologists have condemned Hollywood's crude portrayal of Stone Age women to the midden heap of history, with research showing that many maintained extensive wardrobes of fine fabrics, linens and evening wear.
The research, partially inspired by the stereotyping of cave women in films such as One Million Years BC, has shown that, while skins and furs may have been acceptable day wear, palaeolithic women had plenty of seductive alternatives.
Studies on statues and other artefacts dating back between 27,000 and 20,000 years show that in central Europe cave women would flaunt themselves in low-slung revealing linen frocks and that others, in what is now the Czech republic, created the first "boob tubes" made of strips of fabric wrapped around their chests. In France, fine string skirts were the height of fashion in 23,000 BC.
"Those skirts were to die for," said Olga Soffer, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, who co- wrote the research. "We always imagine Stone Age man as dressing in smelly animal hides, but this was fine clothing. It was a far more sophisticated culture than many imagine."
Their conclusions are based on an analysis of the Venus Figurines, small hand-sized carvings of women that were popular among Stone Age cultures across central Europe. Hundreds have been found, mostly portraying women with huge breasts, bulging thighs and big bellies.
Most studies have focused on their uses, with suggestions ranging from prehistoric erotica to fertility fetishes or even teaching devices to explain sex to Stone Age adolescents. Soffer, who spent 10 years in the fashion business before becoming an academic, decided to stop the theorising. Instead she subjected the carvings to microscopic analysis - and found that they showed clothing, jewellery and body art, often in great detail. She says that the fine textiles were the Stone Age equivalent of clothing by Donna Karan or Calvin Klein. The difference was that such skills would have been common among Stone Age women.
Most palaeolithic people lived nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles in small groups of up to 25. Males probably hunted animals, while females sought out edible plants. In winter, however, smaller groups would congregate so that youngsters could meet potential mates. It was at these gatherings that religious and other rituals would take place - where the women could replace animal skins with the palaeolithic equivalent of a cocktail dress.
"These events could be the equivalent of a debutante's ball, held to mark a girl's coming of age," said Soffer.