"...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, <>.