The oldest potential dildo known to archaeology is around 28,000 years old, but none of the pictured phalluses is that alleged dildo.
On April 14, 2021, the Twitter account Strange Facts tweeted a photograph that showed six phallic-looking objects. “These dildos discovered in Germany are around 28,000 years old,” the account stated. “They are thought to be the oldest sex toys ever discovered.”
Unfortunately, Strange Facts has their dildos mixed-up. An artifact that many consider to be the world’s oldest dildo, known as the Hohle Fels phallus, is, indeed, around 28,000 years old. It was found in Germany. The dildos in the tweet, however, are younger, and from French archaeological sites.
The picture in Strange Facts’ tweet saw extensive media coverage after it was included in a 2015 Wellcome Collection exhibit “The Institute of Sexology.” This exhibit did include discussion of the Hohle Fels phallus in addition to the objects shown above. However, this picture was originally created as a figure for a 2009 paper in the medical journal Urology that sought to understand how old the practice of circumcision might be by using clues from the archaeological record. Looking at phallic artifacts found in Europe from 38,000 to 11,000 years B.C., the authors noted that “circumcision and/or foreskin retraction of the penis are present in most of the works.”
As explained in the paper these objects came largely from French archaeological sites — caves used for human habitation — and at least in some cases are hard to date accurately with any specificity. The authors of the study were agnostic about these instruments’ potential use as sex toys:
A collection of instruments with phallic forms performed on antler, bone, or stone have been recovered in the context of habitation from different excavations, most of them in France, that have survived to the present (Fig. 5). … Some believe they constitute dildos or domestic masturbating devices, but they could also have been used in rituals.
The only real meaning of these devices is that erection was important enough in these people’s minds to merit perpetuation.
The alleged dildo often described as the world’s oldest was announced by a team of researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany in 2005, when they excavated from an archaeological site known as the Hohle Fels Cave the final piece of what had, by then, become a very shattered stone phallus.
As reported by the BBC at the time, “the Tübingen team … already had 13 fractured parts of the phallus in storage, but it was only with the discovery of a 14th fragment … that the team was able finally to put the ‘jigsaw’ together.”
Using radiocarbon dates of animal bones contained in the same layer as the phallus, the team concluded that the object was between 30,000-26,000 years old. As described by Huffington Post in 2015, “It’s eight inches long … and is as hard as, well, a rock.” For scale, here is the phallus as held by German archaeologist Petra Kieselbach during the Tübingen team’s announcement:
The interpretation of the use of this object is speculative and derived largely from comments made by Nicholas Conard, the primary investigator of the archaeological site, to the media in 2005. Here’s how the BBC made that connection in 2005:
Its life size suggests it may well have been used as a sex aid by its Ice Age makers, scientists report.
“In addition to being a symbolic representation of male genitalia, it was also at times used for knapping flints,” explained Professor Nicholas Conard, from the department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, at Tübingen University….
Researchers believe the object’s distinctive form and etched rings around one end mean there can be little doubt as to its symbolic nature. “It’s highly polished; it’s clearly recognisable,” said Professor Conard
The scientific paper describing the find is a bit more muted when it comes to asserting the phallus was actually used as a dildo (translated from German using Google):
The position of the assembled fragments of the stone phallus from the Hohle Fels … supports its function as a striking stone and retoucher for the production of flint tools. … Whether the stone artifact had functions related to its masculine symbolism is difficult to answer.
What is absolutely clear, however, is that the phalluses presented in the Strange Facts tweet are not the Hohle Fels phallus. Because that, and not the collection of potential dildos shown in the tweet, is the German artifact dated to be 28,000 years old and popularly referred to as the world’s oldest dildo, we rank the tweet’s claim as “Miscaptioned.”