We Were All Animals Once: The Beginning of Anthropomorphic Thinking

from Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind:


This propensity to think of the natural world in social terms is perhaps most evident in the ubiquitous use of anthropomorphic thinking—attributing animals with humanlike minds. Consider the Inuit and the polar bear. This animal is highly sought after and is “killed with passion, butchered with care and eaten with delight.” But it is also treated in some respects as if it is another male hunter. When a bear is killed the same restrictions apply to activities that can be undertaken as when someone dies in the camp. The polar bear is thought of as a human ancestor, a kinsman, a feared and respected adversary. In the mythology of the Inuit there was a time when humans and polar bears could easily change from one kind to another. This idea—that in the past humans and non-human animals could be transformed into each other—is indeed a pervasive feature of the minds of hunter-gatherers. It is the basis of totemic thought, the study of which is a foundation stone of social anthropology….

Consider once again the image in figure 18. This figure has a lion’s head and a human body. We cannot prove, but equally cannot doubt, that it represents a being in the mythology of the Upper Paleolithic groups of southern Germany. Whether it is an image of an animal that has taken on certain human attributes—reflecting anthropomorphic thinking—or a human who is descended from a lion—reflecting totemic thought—we do not know….

tfImages like this pervade not only the art of Upper Paleolithic groups, but that of almost all hunter-gatherer societies, and indeed those living by agriculture, trade and industry. We have many spectacular examples from prehistory. In the art of the Upper Paleolithic they include the “sorcerer” from Trois-Frères—a painted figure that has an upright posture, legs and hands that look human, but the back and ears of a herbivore, the antlers of a reindeer, the tail of a horse, and a phallus positioned like that of feline—as well as a bird-headed man from Lascaux and a female figurine from Grimaldi Cave paired back to back with a carnivore. Indeed one of the paintings in the newly discovered Chauvet Cave, some of which are dated to 30,000 years old, is a figure with the head and torso of a bison and the legs of a human. Similarly the prehistoric hunter-gatherers who lived 7000 years ago in the forests of Europe after the ice had retreated made monumental carvings of fish/humans at the site of Lepenski Vir on the Danube. As I noted in Chapter 3, among the modern hunter-gatherers described by anthropologists, animals are frequently attributed with human-type minds….

We seem unable to help anthropomorphizing animals—some claim that it is built into us by both nature and nurture … The very first pieces of Paleolithic art indicate that it stretches back to the cultural explosion of 40,000 years ago. But I doubt if it goes back any further.

Totemism is the other side of the human/animal coin. Rather than attributing animals with human characteristics, it involves embedding human individuals and groups within the natural world, epitomized by tracing descent from non-human species…. [Claude] Lévi-Strauss’s [definition of totemism] is perhaps the mostly widely-known: animals are not just good to eat but also “good to think.” He viewed totemism as the practice of humanity brooding on itself and its place in nature. To his mind, the “study of natural species, provided nonliterate and prescientific groups with a ready-to-hand means of conceptualizing relationships between human groups.”

– Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art and Science, 48, 164-165