"...the behaviour of most present day humans remains moderated by magical thinking-type mental processes (lack of integration between the left prefrontal cortical areas and memory), underwritten by sub-optimal cause and effect perception."

Robert G. Bednarik, An aetiology of hominin behaviour, Homo, 2012

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Cook and the Löwenmensch

Creating the myths of the past

The current series ‘Objects in focus’ from the British Museum provides a good example of the need to consider epistemology. The British Museum refers to the Hohlenstein-Stadel ‘figurine’ as the “Lion Man”. However, the German term ‘Löwenmensch’ is preferred since this was where it was discovered. Löwenmensch literally translates as lion-human. The intended ‘sex’ of the item is not agreed upon by scholars, many of whom interpret it as female. Schmid for example, who has studied the item in detail, suggests that the ‘head’ of the item is comparable to a female European cave lion.

In the British Museum blog post, Jill Cook goes a step further and states that the Löwenmensch is the oldest known example of a symbol representing a supernatural being (Cook 2017). To many people this may seem like a reasonable conclusion; it is possible, but is it probable?

A caption to a picture of the Löwenmensch figurine states that it is “the oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world”. Yet, Cook doesn’t frame her statement in terms of possibility, she simply proposes that it is “a being that does not exist in physical form but symbolises ideas about the supernatural”. How can Cook ‘know’ this; does she uniquely possess the ability to ‘read’ the meaning of Palaeolithic art, has Cook developed this ability by studying the same, and should we defer to her authority on the subject?

Bednarik notes that the myths created by amateurs concerning palaeoart (‘art’ of the Palaeolithic era) generally lack credibility but that the interpretations offered by professionals tend to be more plausible (Bednarik 2017). He suggests that the plausibility, or ‘reasonableness’ of these professional interpretations is an ‘insidious variable’.  Moreover, he highlights a derivative issue; whilst an amateur may readily admit their mistakes, a professional will more often attempt to defend their hypothesis until the bitter end since the academic system itself tends to discourage any admission of error.

Emic and etic interpretations

All interpretations concerning the meaning of palaeoart are etic. This means that they are made from outside of the culture concerned in their production. In contrast, emic meaning is only accessible by an interpretant from within the culture concerned. Since no living human was alive during the Palaeolithic it follows that none can access the emic meaning of any surviving palaeoart.

Furthermore, although etic interpretations are suggested to be more concerned with generalisations about human behaviour they are also made from an emic perspective - therefore by their very nature etic interpretations cannot be entirely objective.

Cook’s interpretation of the Löwenmensch is emic-etic. In other words, it is observer-relative and provides no insight into the figurine. Rather, it only provides an insight into how Cook herself thinks. Somewhat ironically, it also serves to perpetuate the mythical type of thinking that Cook suggests underpins the production of the figurine:

“Found in a cave in what is now southern Germany in 1939, the Lion Man makes sense as part of a story that might now be called a myth. The wear on his body caused by handling suggests that he was passed around and rubbed as part of a narrative or ritual that would explain his appearance and meaning. It is impossible to know what that story was about or whether he was deity, an avatar to the spirit world, part of a creation story or a human whose experiences on a journey through the cosmos to communicate with spirits caused this transformation.”

Whilst it may be possible that the wear was caused by being passed around, it is equally possible that the wear was created by just one individual. However, this does not deter Cook from then inferring that it was used in a narrative ritual. By her own admission Cook concedes that “it is impossible to know what that story was” but goes on to list several suggestions she has conjured up concerning ‘deities’, ‘spirits’, and ‘transformation’.

While the Löwenmensch may be some sort of creature that does not exist in nature, it may also be a person with a lion headdress. Such images of people are known to exist in rock art. The rock panel at Deer Rock, Kimberley, depicts aboriginal dancers with headdresses on all fours, not deer (Bednarik 2017). This serves to illustrate the danger of accepting etic interpretations as fact. The alien interpretant of palaeoart has no means of testing their assumption of the subject least of all the meaning.

Likewise, although it may have served as part of a ritual, we have no means of knowing what that ritual might have concerned, its complexity, and if it did occur, how representative of a wider behaviour it may have been.

An aside - exograms

Cook incorrectly suggests that what distinguishes humans from other animals is the use of “tools and fire” which is easily disproven with current evidence (apes have been observed to use fire, numerous animals use tools, and have ‘cultures’). What may provide a distinction between humans and other animals, is our use of exograms (Bednarik 2011). The practice of storing information outside of the brain is what differentiates humans from all other animals, not the use of tools and fire. Indeed, it is probable that this behaviour was the basis for creating self-referential realities and shared frames of reference.

Cook continues to speculate upon the meaning of the item asking rhetorical questions imbued with reference to religion and transcendence. To support her ideas Cook suggests that the positioning of the cave, and the scarcity of objects recovered, infers that it was a place where people came together to  “share a particular understanding of the world articulated through beliefs, symbolised in sculpture and acted out in rituals”. Whilst a few perforated arctic fox teeth were found in the cave, the cache of reindeer antlers also recovered suggests a utilitarian use for the cave. Again, we have no way of confirming or disconfirming any such interpretation rendering all etic interpretations worthless in the study of human behaviour during the Pleistocene. Furthermore, Cook suggests that the figurine was “carefully put away” whereas, the figurine was reconstructed from hundreds of broken pieces sifted from the cave sediments.

Contra Cook, the Löwenmensch is not the oldest known evidence for religious beliefs however much she protests it to be. Neither does the existence of the Stadel Cave suggest “that believing and belonging have a deep history crucial to human societies” any more than any other Palaeolithic occupation site does. The business of creating the myths of the past continues.


Bednarik, RG 2011, The human condition, Springer, New York.
Bednarik, RG 2017, Myths About Rock Art, Archaeopress Archaeology, Oxford.

Cook, J 2017, ‘The Lion Man: an Ice Age masterpiece’, Objects in focus, viewed 24 October 2017, <>.

Monday, 17 July 2017

On Chris Stringer’s Tsunami Theory

Periscope streamed a live question and answer with Chris Stringer from the National History Museum over Twitter on 26th June this year [1]. The full video can be watched here:

Frustrated by the predictable narrative Stringer was presenting I submitted several questions via Periscope.  One of these was selected and slightly miscommunicated.

Anticipating that Stringer would have to concede that early Pleistocene hominins were capable of complex tasks comparable to those undertaken by extant hominins I asked:

“How did hominins reach Flores 840,000 years ago if it was not by boat?”

His answer, which I did not anticipate, can be seen twenty one minutes into the video. Here is a transcript of his response:

“Well that’s a very good question too because we don’t know.

We think that lineage arrived probably more than a million years ago on the island of Flores. And the usual assumption is that you’d have to have boats to get there because this island was never connected to the rest of South-East Asia there was always deep water, but one possibility is rafting on debris.

Now it may seem extraordinary but of course that tsunami a few years ago in Asia, people were found out at sea 100 miles away from where they had started, out at sea on clumps of vegetation a week later.

So this is a tectonically very active area. When you’ve got tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years to play with, is it possible that the ancestors of Homo floresiensis were in some mango swamps foraging, a tidal wave came along and ripped that away and, somehow deposited them over on Flores? That’s a possibility.
Having boats, well you couldn’t exclude it but I think it is much less likely for creatures with very small brains that are much more primitive.”

To summarise:

·        Stringer suggests that given hundreds of thousands of years the odds are more favourable that hominins populated Flores following a freak accident(s) involving a tsunami like wave and a clump of vegetation rather than the possibility of arriving by boat.

·        He claims that their brains were very small and more primitive in support of his proposition that boat building was beyond their capabilities.


Running between Bali and Lombok is the Wallace Line - the most important biogeographical barrier (or filter) in the world. Geologically the islands from Lombok to the east are relatively young having only formed a few million years ago when the Australian plate slid under the Asian plate. They were never part of any other landmass. Evidence for Lower and Middle Pleistocene occupation beyond the Wallace Line by hominins is not limited to Flores but also includes three islands of Nusa Tenggara, Roti, Selatan, and Timor. The stone tools of Flores are up to 840,000 years old. Although this had been reported as far back as 1958 it has only been in recent decades that academics have become aware of this fact due primarily to the work of Bednarik [2,3].

Small brains

Stringer seems to imply that the so-called Hobbit arrived on Flores in its small size rather than as a result of insular dwarfism. Ignoring this lapse in thinking and giving Stringer the benefit of doubt we will assume here that he refers to the small brain volume of Homo erectus one million years ago.

Perhaps Stringer is unaware that modern aborigines’ brain volumes are comparable to Homo erectus. Would he suggest that they too would not be capable of maritime colonization? How would he explain a small brained child achieving a high IQ? The naïve idea that brain volume can be simplistically correlated with an abstract, observer-relative and etic measure of intelligence or cognitive ability is surely long surpassed? This one-dimensional view does not even withstand rudimentary testing. Numerous cases reported in scientific journals report patients with substantial parts of their brain missing being able to function normally. Furthermore, a scientifically informed model of early hominin evolution suggests that by the Early Pleistocene the neural architecture that is largely responsible for moderating behaviour patterns was already firmly in place [4–10].

Modern human brain volumes are, on average, approximately 13% smaller than so-called Neanderthals (robust hominins) living 50,000 years ago [3,11]. Applying his “small brain” logic to his own hypothesis that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to ‘modern humans’ Stringer needs to explain what evolutionary advantage would lead to robust hominins having significantly larger brains than extant hominins if they were mostly redundant?

Floating on a mat

Stringer is not the first person to put forward the idea of the floating vegetation mat. Regrettably, it appears that the more common (and dare I suggest more comfortable) “assumption” of some academics in the fields of Palaeoanthropology and Pleistocene archaeology, is the stance perpetuated by Stringer here.

There are various problems with his theory not least of which is that no other large land mammal has crossed the Wallace Line in this way. If large-bodied hominins could float across on vegetation mats then many other species could too. There are hundreds of such possible species, many of which are far better natural swimmers than extant hominins, but none have crossed the Wallace Line. Proboscideans have crossed the Wallace Line, but not on vegetation mats. They are excellent swimmers and hence also maritime colonisers [2,3].

More importantly perhaps, sea-narrows by their very nature cannot be crossed simply by drifting. The passage from Bali to Flores is not simple. It would either have been made first from Bali to Lombok and then from Lombok, to Sumbawa, and then Komodo, or alternatively via Selatan. The distance from Bali to Lombok would always have been at least 30km at any time during the Pleistocene. All these crossings require watercraft, and in all cases the opposite shore line would have been visible from departure [3].

A genetically viable population

The colonisation of islands by hominins is demonstrated throughout the Pleistocene. Skeletal evidence comes from at least nine individuals from Sardinia, Crete, Santa Rosa, Okinawa and also several hundred from Australia. The settlement of over 20 islands known so far points to a long tradition of sea-faring during this period. The maximal distances crossed can be seen to increase steadily over the course of time culminating in crossings over 200km by 50-60,000 years ago [2,3].

However, the most damning indictment of Stringer’s theory is that it does not account for population viability. It requires more than a few chance survivors of a tsunami to establish a viable breeding population on an island. It would require many reproductively viable males and females to found and sustain a population of sufficient genetic diversity to prevent collapse within several generations. At this point it becomes fully apparent that the “floating vegetation mat theory” sinks against the odds.

Even if we suppose that the extraordinary situation of a tsunami occurred in this region on multiple occasions during the Pleistocene, contra Stringer, the depth of time (“hundreds of thousands of years to play with”) only increases the statistical odds against the possibility that such unlikely events may have overlapped sufficiently to supply the island with enough genetic diversity over time to sustain a breeding population.


The transportation of sufficient numbers of Pleistocene people to colonise the island of Flores 840,000 years ago is very unlikely to have occurred by a freak accident involving a tidal wave and a vegetation mat. In fact, the colonisation of islands beyond the Wallace Line serve as one of the few reliable objective technological indices by which the capacity for innovation and creativity in hominins may be ascertained with some certainty during the Pleistocene.

Stringer has portrayed an extremely unlikely, and unsupported, scenario as more probable than the well supported case for maritime exploration and colonisation. The question is why? The answer lies in the teleological narrative for “modern humans” and “modern human behaviour” Stringer espouses. Evidence which contradicts this narrative cannot be accommodated and thus has to be rejected no matter how unlikely the alternatively proposed scenarios are.

1. Richardson, A. The Neanderthal Within Us; #NHM_Live;.
2. Bednarik, R. G. The maritime dispersal of Pleistocene humans. Migr. Diffus. 2002, 3, 6–33.
3. Bednarik, R. G. The human condition; Developments in primatology; Springer: New York, 2011; ISBN 978-1-4419-9352-6.
4. The psychology of human behavior; Bednarik, R. G., Ed.; Nova Science Publisher’s, Inc: Hauppauge, N.Y, 2013; ISBN 978-1-62257-901-3.
5. Hodgson, D. The symmetry of Acheulean handaxes and cognitive evolution. J. Archaeol. Sci. Rep. 2015, 2, 204–208, doi:10.1016/j.jasrep.2015.02.002.
6. Hodgson, D. The Earliest Manifestations of “Art”: An Attempted Integration. In Exploring the Mind of Ancient Man (Festschrift to Robert G. Bednarik); P Reddy, Ed.; Research India Press: New Dehli, 2005; pp. 25–34.
7. Hodgson, D.; Helvenston, P. A. The Emergence of the Representation of Animals in Palaeoart: Insights from evolution and the cognitive, limbic and visual systems of the human brain. Rock Art Res. J. Aust. Rock Art Res. Assoc. AURA 2006, 23, 3–40.
8. Bednarik, R. G. Beads and Cognitive Evolution. Time Mind 2008, 1, 285–317, doi:10.2752/175169708X329354.
9. Bednarik, R. G. Hominin Mind and Creativity. In The Genesis of Creativity and the Origin of the Human Mind; Putova, B., Ed.; Charles University in Prague, 2015.
10. Bednarik, R. G. Doing with less: Hominin brain atrophy. HOMO - J. Comp. Hum. Biol. 2014, 65, 433–449, doi:10.1016/j.jchb.2014.06.001.
11. Henneberg, M. Decrease of human skull size in the Holocene. Hum. Biol. 1988, 60, 395–405.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Neoteny, Manipulation and Bipedalism

This is the abstract from an unpublished manuscript I wrote quite a while back (2015). The full article can be downloaded from

Abstract: Although there are many established hypotheses for bipedalism in hominins none satisfactorily explain the basis for this development but rather propose different explanations or motives for increasingly sustained periods of bipedal behavior. The proposition here differs by suggesting an ontogenetic basis for extended periods of bipedal locomotion. This theory parsimoniously explains the underlying reason for the establishment of bipedalism by placing this particular adaptation within the context of the neotenous developmental trajectory of hominins. It is proposed that neotenous development and the plasticity this process afforded provided the platform upon which adaptations of the forelimbs supported increasingly refined manipulation. Natural selection for the advantages of increased dexterity likely resulted in further retardation of the hominin lineage by tending toward favouring progressively more neotenous hands. In parallel, increasingly neotenous feet demanded more sustained periods of bipedalism which indirectly conferred further self-selective advantages by freeing the hands for longer periods of time. Morphological evolvability conferred by neoteny may underlie both the evolution of the human hand and the subsequent transition toward obligated bipedal locomotion. Ultimately it was adoption of a bipedal stance which supported the accelerated encephalization maintained over the course of several million years until the fairly recent “self-domestication” of our species rapidly reversed this trend.

Keywords: bipedalism; encephalization; ontogeny; manipulation; neoteny