Thinking Lion, Being Human

Lion Head

The statuette pictured here is fascinating to me. It’s a 40,000 year-old piece of Mammoth tusk carved into what you see: an apparent human with a lion’s head. Or is it a lion with a human’s body? Whatever it is, the sculptor certainly had more imagination than whoever gave it its modern name: Löwenmensch or Lion-human. The figure reminds me of Sekhmet the bloodthirsty lion-headed goddess of the ancient Egyptians who oversaw a daily set of rituals designed to appease her and prevent her devouring the entire human race. While I doubt there is any cultural continuity between the two, I do think the statuettes represent a continuity of mind across generations of humans. I also think it’s significant that they portray the heads of lions.

Simon Baron-Cohen, known for his autism research, makes mention of the Löwenmensch in his discussion of the evolution of a characteristic that defines humans: an enhanced capacity for theory of mind. While great apes – and I have argued, hyenas – show an ability to think about what another is thinking, humans have evolved this capacity to a whole new level. A classic example of this is in a particular production of Shakespeare’s King Lear in which the director intended for the audience to think that Edgar realized the fool suspected that Edgar wanted King Lear to believe he was a madman.

There are several orders of intentionality there but we humans can get through them all quite easily when sitting in dark theatres, absorbed by the events. Baron-Cohen posits that theory of mind was absolutely crucial in human evolution, as a necessary condition for other adaptations that distinguish humans from other apes. He even argues that without theory of mind, humans could not have evolved language, and this is evidenced by the difficulties with language associated with autism, the condition which inhibits a capacity for theory of mind. So the question I’m posing here is: What was it that supercharged this ability in humans? Assuming that our last common ancestor with chimps had only a rudimentary theory of mind, what were the socio-ecological differences between the ancestral human (hominin) and ancestral chimp niches that fostered the ability of the former to know what the director of King Lear was intending? I would argue it was in large part due to large carnivores.

In the Pliocene, when hominins began to exploit more open environments they put themselves into competition with, and under threat of predation from, big cats and hyenas. Of course predation pressure was there in the forest, too, and chimps have dealt with it for millions of years, but in open environments the predators are not as hidden and they live in large groups. So to enter into this paradigm and try to exploit meat-based resources, our ancestors had to adapt. One adaptation was to form larger groups, a classic response to predation. Wildebeest form really large groups in response to lions and hyenas, but, as far as has been evaluated, they cannot match humans in theory of mind to several orders of intentionality.

The Lion Headed Goddess Sekhmet 1 200x300

I believe that another crucial response to the challenges of open environments was for hominins to know their enemies. To be able to cohabit and compete successfully with lions and hyenas, our ancestors applied their inherited primate cognitive skills to reading the minds of the large carnivores. Rather than the wildebeest approach of breeding regularly and simultaneously, our ancestors gave birth to infrequent babies that would grow up to think like lions. Faced with threats of predation and competition over resources they could know and anticipate the minds of the lions and hyenas, relying on quick wits to avoid being eaten and to get access fresh, juicy carcasses.

But it gets more interesting. As I have said, these adaptively witty hominins were forming large groups with other witty hominids, and I would argue that this compelled them to build on their existing capacity for theory of mind. Imagining that their conspecifics were not only applying theory of mind to lions but to their hominin group mates, these hominids, in turn, evolved the capacity to suspect what their conspecifics were thinking and, in turn, evolved the capacity to try to influence what those conspecifics thought about them. This could only ratchet up the capacity for theory of mind to the evolutionary stage that we’re now at.

And this brings us back to the Löwenmensch. Forty thousand years ago, when the sculpture was created, humans already had a fully blown theory of mind at (or beyond?) the levels that we have today. The sculptor would have appreciated Shakespeare as much as a modern audience member. This is in part evidenced by the sculptor’s imagination, which was able to conceive of a being that did not exist. It’s also very telling, and a homage to the sculptor’s ancestors, that the Löwenmensch has the head of a lion. Humans and their ancestors have probably been applying theory of mind to lions for as long as they have to other humans. In which case we can well imagine that the Löwenmensch was thinking about something, we just don’t yet know what the sculptor intended us to know about the lion-human’s thoughts.


Further Reading
Baron-Cohen, Simon. 1999. ‘Evolution of a theory of mind,’ in M. Corballis & S. Lea (eds.) The Descent of Mind: Psychological Perspectives on Hominid Evolution (London: Oxford University Press).