Anthropomorphic vs Therianthropic Representations

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The origins of anthropomorphic thinking


"Steven Mithen and Pascal Boyer (J. Roy. anthrop. Inst. (N.S.) 2, 717-21) disagree over the naturalness of anthropomorphic thinking. According to Mithen, anatomically modem humans, unlike archaics such as the Neanderthals, display ‘cognitive fluidity’, such that the specialized neural circuitry for ‘understanding of the natural world’ draws spontaneously on the ‘social intelligence’ module and vice versa. One result is that hunter-gathers intuitively attribute ‘theory of mind’ to animals, empathizing with hunted species as if they were human kin – the essence of ‘totemism’.

For Mithen, then, it is cognitively intuitive or ‘natural’ for Homo sapiens sapiens to generate and transmit therianthropic representations – as exemplified in the early Aurignacian ivory statuette of a man’s body with a lion’s head from HohlensteinStadel in southern Germany. This notion of naturalness is unacceptable to Boyer, who has invested much theoretical labour in establishing the reverse position.

Referring to human/animal composites and comparable ‘cultural representations which violate intuitive principles’, Boyer writes:

- ‘These are not part of evolved intuitive ontology but quite the opposite’ (p. 720).

It is precisely the counter-intuitive, surprising and hence attentiongrabbing nature of therianthropes and other inhabitants of the spiritual domain – their systematic violation of natural cognitive expectations – which in Boyer’s view accounts for their impact, memorability and hence success in cultural transmission." (