The ‘Hottentot Venus’
John R. Baker
Unquestionably the external genitalia and secondary sexual characters of the female are the strangest features of Sanid anatomy.
The earliest records on this subject are rather vague, and uncertainty results from the fact that there was a tendency to call both Bushmen and Hottentots by the latter name, so that one is often at a loss to know whether the descriptions refer to a Sanid or a Khoid. This is not, however, a matter of much importance in the present context, since the peculiarities of female anatomy that are about to be described are very similar in the two subraces. In the early days of European colonization at the Cape of Good Hope, the Hottentots were in much closer contact with the newcomers than were the Bushmen, and the facts to be recounted were probably first noticed in Khoids. There seems to have been some reticence at the start in referring to the matter in print. Dapper, writing on Hottentot women in Dutch in 1668, remarked mildly that ‘The lining of the body appears to be loose, so that in certain places part of it dangles out.’
Many of the subsequent reports were misleading, and it is therefore all the more remarkable that a description published only eighteen years after Dapper’s was very accurate. Wilhelm ten Rhyne, a physician of the Dutch East India Company, referred to the subject in a book written in Latin and published in 1686. The women to whom he refers must have been Hottentots, not Bushwomen, since they were among a group of cattle-dealers. ‘They have to themselves this peculiarity from other races,’ he wrote, ‘that most of them possess finger-shaped appendages, always double, hanging down from the private parts; these are evidently nymphae.’ (‘Nymphae’ is another word for the labia minora.) Rhyne derived his information from a surgeon of his acquaintance, who had lately dissected the body of a Hottentot woman who had been strangled to death.
It is curious that this correct account, published both in Latin and not long afterwards in English, was for a time overlooked, and a totally wrong description, published in 1708, accepted as true. François Leguat had been in charge of a party of French Protestants forced to leave their country by the persecutions that followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He was told of the peculiarities of Hottentot women when his ship called at Cape Town on the return journey from Mauritius to Europe. He mentions the clothing of Hottentot women and remarks, ‘They would not need this to cover that which bits of skin, hanging like a flounce (Falbala) from the upper part, would conceal sufficiently from the view of passers-by. Several people have told me that they have had the curiosity to see these veils, and that one can thus satisfy one’s eyes for a piece of tobacco.’ A crude picture accompanying Leguat’s account shows a female Hottentot with a semicircular fold of skin hanging from the lower part of her abdomen and covering her external genitalia.
Although Leguat himself did not use the word, it was probably his report, and in particular the picture accompanying it, that gave rise to the idea of a ‘tablier’ or apron of skin, hanging down from the abdomen: and the word has persisted to the present day. Captain James Cook (then Lieutenant), on the homeward voyage of his first circumnavigation of the world, called at Cape Town in 1771, and took the opportunity to investigate what he called ‘the great question among natural historians, whether the women of this country have or have not that fleshy flap or apron which has been called the Sinus pudoris.’ A local physician declared that he had examined many hundreds of Hottentot women, and ‘never saw one without two fleshy, or rather skinny appendages, proceeding from the upper part of the Labia, in appearance somewhat resembling the teats of a cow, but flat; they hung down, he said, before the Pudendum, and were in different subjects of different lengths, in some not more than half an inch, in others three or four inches.’ This passage of Cook’s was known to Blumenbach, who relied on it in the first edition of De generis humani uarietate nativa liber as the basis for what might be regarded as an understatement of the peculiarity of Khoisanid women. (See p. 26 of the present work.) ‘The most recent testimony of travellers,’ he wrote, ‘commands us to put the cutaneous ventrale of female Hottentots (the existence of which was asserted by the early travellers) in the same category as the human tail, and in like manner to relegate it to the fables.’ He added in a footnote, ‘The pendulous labia seem to have deceived the early observers.’
The first thorough investigation of the external genitalia of female Khoisanids resulted indirectly from an expedition sent out by the French government in 1800, at the instigation of the Institut de France, to make scientific observations in Australia and Tasmania. Few such enterprises have met with so many misfortunes. Many sailors and scientists had already deserted the ships before they had left Mauritius: violent tempests caused changes of plan; at one stage illness reduced the effective crew of one of the ships to four men; the other was eventually seized by the British on its return journey, and taken to England. Only two of the zoologists who had set out, Péron and Lesueur, remained with the expedition throughout. On the way back to France their ship called at Cape Town, where they took the opportunity to study the anatomy of Bushwomen.
A, a Bushwoman (the famous ‘Hottentot Venus’); B, a Korana woman; C, the external genitalia of a Bushwoman, standing upright; D. the same, of a Bushwoman lying down with the labia minora separated and turned aside.
A, from Cuvier; B, from Friedenthal; C and D, copies of coloured engravings by Lesueur, reproduced by Blanchard. The latter made the mistake of saying that the organs were those of a Hottentot.
Even when both ships had at last reached France, the ill luck of the expedition was not at an end. The two zoologists prepared a full account of the external anatomy of Bushwomen, accompanied by the excellent coloured engravings of Lesueur (two of which are reproduced here in black-and-white in Fig. 56C and D), and their paper was read by Péron at a meeting of the Institut in 1805. It was then referred to Cuvier and Labillardière, both of whom without delay pronounced it suitable for publication; but for some unexplained reason the opinions of these authorities were disregarded. It may have seemed incredible that there should descend from the vulva an object, 8½ cm (3.3″) in total length, extending 4 cm (1.6″) below the vulva, and somewhat resembling a penis (Fig. 56C). The object was in fact the two labia minora, enormously lengthened, and adhering (as they usually do in Khoisanids) to look like an unpaired organ. Spread out, when a woman lay on her back, their appearance was quite different (Fig. 56D). It may have been supposed that the report of Péron and Lesueur was inaccurate or exaggerated, or that they had examined monstrosities and represented them as normal, or perhaps the subject may have been regarded as indelicate. In fact the only errors made by Péron and Lesueur were their denial that the ‘tablier’ represented any part present in Europeans, and their statement that only Bushwomen, not Hottentots, possessed it. Yet 78 years elapsed before their most interesting paper was at last published in 1883. Much of the scientific work of the expedition suffered a similar or worse fate. Most of the records of anthropology and zoology were dispersed and remained unpublished, though as many of them as possible were eventually collected and preserved with Péron and Lesueur’s in the Museum at Le Havre, the port from which the ill-fated expedition had set out in 1800.
Meanwhile investigation of the subject had by no means stood still, for Sanids had begun to appear in Europe, and to allow themselves to be examined by anatomists. In 1804 there was great shortage of food among the Bushmen living in the northern part of Cape Colony, and one of them, who happened to be personally acquainted with the Governor, asked the latter to take care of his son, aged about ten years. The boy was sent to Cape Town and eventually found his way to Paris, where he was examined by Georges Cuvier. A Sanid girl of about the same age found her way to Cape Town in similar circumstances, and evidently lived there for many years. She married a Negro and had two children. An Englishman eventually persuaded her that she could make a great fortune if she visited Europe and exhibited herself, and she travelled to Paris. Here she was heartlessly abandoned to a showman of animals and exhibited under the misleading description of ‘La Vénus hottentote.’ This was in 1814, when she was about 26 years old. In the spring of the next year she had the ‘complaisance’ to remove her clothing so that she could be examined by Georges Cuvier. She was painted in the naked state on this occasion, in front and lateral views. Bushwomen are accustomed to tuck their labia minora into the vagina in such circumstances, and this is evidently what she did, for the famous anatomist did not see them on this occasion, and they do not appear in the paintings. She died at the end of the year of some unspecified inflammatory disease, after everyone who wished to see her enormous buttocks and other physical peculiarities (apart from the tablier) had had an opportunity to do so. Her corpse was made available to Cuvier for more exact study. He described her anatomy before an audience in 1817, and on this occasion took the opportunity to exhibit her external genital organs, prepared in such a way as to leave no doubt as to their true nature. He confirmed the general accuracy of Péron and Lesueur’s unpublished account, but stated correctly that the organ projecting from the vulva consisted in its upper part of the prepuce of the clitoris, while the whole of the rest of it represented the greatly enlarged labia minora. Thus the true facts were established on the authority of Cuvier. It is to be remembered, however, that Rhyne had given the correct interpretation, though with extreme brevity, 131 years before. Cuvier’s paper was republished in 1824 by his brother Frédéric and Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, at the very beginning of their enormous Histoire naturelle des mammifères. It was in Volume 1 of this book that the two paintings of the Bushwoman that had been made nine years before were at last published. The lateral view is reproduced here in monochrome in Fig. 56A.
The conclusions of Rhyne and Cuvier were confirmed by many investigations carried out during the second half of the nineteenth century. There were some who studied Bushwomen in their native territories; others examined in life those who had been brought to Europe; autopsies were carried out on the corpses of those who had died there. It was soon apparent that the strange structure of the female external genitalia was normal among Khoisanids, though Fritsch, a distinguished authority on South African peoples, understated the hypertrophy of the labia minora, and considered (wrongly) that those of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ had been monstrous. It was observed that while the prepuce of the clitoris was enlarged, the latter organ itself was not. Virchow noted that the organs in question did not resemble the female genitalia of apes. Péron and Lesueur’s paper was at last published in 1883, and immediately followed in the same journal by an important paper on the female anatomy of Khoisanids by Blanchard, only marred by the fact that in reproducing Lesueur’s engravings, he described them as representing the organs of Hottentots. He remarked that the hypertrophy of the labia minora is already noticeable in infancy. Blanchard gave 20 cm (7.9″) as their maximum length in adult Khoisanids; Vincent, referring to Bushwomen, said 18 cm (7.1″). These were presumably measurements of the labia minora from the uppermost point of their emergence from the vulva to their lower extremity when the subject was standing and the organs pendent. Blanchard’s maximum figure may refer to Hottentot women, among whom they are in some cases particularly large.
In the present century our knowledge of the female genitalia of Bushwomen has been extended chiefly by studies carried out on living subjects in southern Africa by Pöch, Drury, and Villiers. All these authors agree that there is no evidence of artificial elongation of the labia minora. These are already enlarged and protrude from the vulva in young girls, and increase in size at puberty. Their average length in Bushwomen is much less than the maximum given by Vincent. The organs assume different forms in different districts. In South West Africa, for instance, each labium is flattened and broadened to form a winglike object, when laid out flat (cf. Fig. 56D); this is known as the ‘butterfly’ type. In Botswana and the Cape Province of South Africa the width is reduced and the anterior part thickened, and this results in an object resembling the wattle of a turkey-cock. The ‘wattle’ type is commonly 3-4” long (7½ – 10 cm), the ‘butterfly’ l½ – 2” (3.8 – 6.3 cm), according to Drury and Drennan; Villiers gives a maximum of 9 cm (3½″) for the ‘butterfly.’ The women shown in Fig. 55B probably had organs of the latter type, but they are shown in the pendent (penis-like) position.
It is said that in former times Bushwomen deliberately exposed the labia minora to the view of men in the course of erotic dances. What appear to be enormously elongated labia minora are represented in many examples of Bushman rock art (Fig. 55C). Although the artists were experts at the naturalistic representation of animals (see Fig. 82, p. 547), and also produced tolerable likenesses of Negrids and Europids, their representations of members of their own taxon, both male and female, were highly stylized and fanciful.
The enormous size and strange form of the buttocks in the female sex are among the most striking peculiarities of the Khoisanids. They are characteristic of Bushwomen, Korana, and Hottentots alike. Perhaps they reach (or reached) their maximum among some of the latter, but if so the Bushwomen (Fig. 56A) and Korana (B) run them close. Very large buttocks occur sporadically among Sudanid, Aethiopid, and Europid women, and were depicted by Palaeolithic artists in European caves; but their form is rounded in these people, whereas it is particularly characteristic of the Khoisanids that the shape of the projecting part is that of a right-angled triangle, the upper edge being nearly horizontal while the hypotenuse slopes at about 45° (Fig. 56A). Internally the female buttocks of Sanids (and probably of the other Khoisanids) consist of masses of fat incorporated between criss-crossed sheets of connective tissue, said to be joined to one another in a regular manner. Some of the Wolof women of West Africa (Sudanid Negrids) have greatly enlarged buttocks, but in them there is a mere accumulation of fat between two of the gluteus muscles (maximus and medius). It has been suggested that the term ‘steatopygia’ should be used only for the specialized type of buttocks characteristic of Khoisanid women. Many Kafrid women have large buttocks, and since there is strong reason to believe that there was a Khoisanid element in the ancestry of the Kafrid subrace (p. 333), it is possible that the term ‘steatopygia’ is applicable to them; but this does not seem to have been proved by anatomical study.
The degree of steatopygia is recorded as the shortest distance between the deepest point in the hollow of the back and a plane, placed at right angles to the median sagittal, just touching the most posterior point of the buttocks. In her work among the Kalahari Bushwomen, de Villiers found an average of 7.8 cm (3″) and a maximum of 11½ cm (4½″) in adults before middle age; 3 – 6” (7½ – 15 cm) has been quoted as the range in Bushwomen of the Cape Province. If, as seems probable, the painting here reproduced as Fig. 56A was accurate, the steatopygia of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ must have amounted to about 19.3 cm (7.6″).
It is improbable that the enlarged buttocks of female Khoisanids represent a storehouse of nutriment on which the body may call in times of scarcity. The Hottentots, Korana, and Bushmen are not to be regarded as people adapted by natural selection to desert life. The great authority on the history of the Khoisanids, George Stow, has written, ‘In the days of undisturbed occupation by the early Bushmen, the country literally swarmed with game, both large and small.’ It is far more likely that the buttocks became enlarged in response to sexual selection. This is what Darwin implied in the case of Hottentot women, in whom ‘the posterior part of the body projects in a wonderful manner.’ He mentions the admiration felt for this peculiarity by the males of their tribe. This should indeed not have surprised him; for he wrote his work on sexual selection at the time when bustles were in fashion in England, and he must have realized that the women who wore them were under the impression that this change in their appearance increased their charms for members of the opposite sex. The admiration for this particular feature of feminine anatomy must, however, have been much more lasting among the Khoisanid males, for the remarkable results achieved suggest selection over a long period.
Steatopygia is often accompanied by the accumulation of fat in the thighs (steatomeria) (Fig. 56B).
It is not unusual for the breasts of Sanid women to be situated near the armpits (Fig. 55B, right-hand figure). In women who have borne several children they become very long and hang downwards. The dark areas round the nipples (mammary areoloae) are very large (Fig. 56A). The nipple is short, and tends to be sunken at its base.
Bushwomen. The pendent labia minora are well shown in B. Photographs from Seiner and Staudinger.
From John R. Baker: Race, Oxford University Press, 1974; Athens, Ga, Foundation for Human Understanding, 1981, pp. 313-319.