The Lion Man figurine. Copyright Ulmer Museum

The Lion Man figurine. Copyright Ulmer Museum

Take a good look at the image of this figurine. It is one of the most important clues about what makes you human.

It’s called the Der Löwenmensch (The Lion Man), and was discovered in 1939 in a German cave. It is made out of Mammoth ivory and was recently dated as being at least 40,000 years old.

But come closer and I’ll whisper you its important secret.

It is the earliest known example of creativity in the world.

There are of course other examples of artistic representations created by early human populations. Also from around 40,000 years ago, paintings were found in caves across Europe depicting images of animals and humans. And in October 2014, Nature published a new study showing that such paintings were found as far away as Indonesia around the same time.

However, these cave paintings don’t actually show any creativity. Even though the images are not lifelike representations of the animals (for example, only showing a two dimensional outline of the creature, they show depictions (or copies) or physical objects which these early humans came across. Creativity on the other hand requires the input of the imagination.

The definition of creativity is developing an idea which is both unique (new) and useful.

And this is what sets the Lion Man apart. The figurine has the head of a lion, but the body of a human. This creature does not exist, and therefore it would have been impossible for an early human to simply be copying the image of something they had seen.

The person that made this figurine must have taken two pieces of knowledge they had (the shape of a lion and the shape of a human), and combined them in their mind (having an idea), creating something unique which no human or other animal had ever seen before. The use of the figurine would then have been to describe this concept of a human-lion creature to others. At it’s most fundamental level, this is human creativity in action. And this is the first example of it happening (until older examples may one day be unearthed.

The evolution of creative imagination

This finding supports the research of anthropologist Steven Mithen from the University of Reading, who outlined the timeline across which early humans evolved the mental capacity which would ultimately lead to the breakthrough of actual creativity. In his 2007 paper for the British Academy, his timeline of links changes in our evolutionary past (based on archaeological and athropomorphical evidence) to how it ultimately enabled our creativity to develop:

  1. Theory of Mind (6.0 – 1.8 million years ago): Our ancestors developed the ability to realise that other creatures may see things differently to themselves, or have other knowledge.
  2. Human Life History (2.0 – 0.1 million years ago): This is the period where our ancestors spent a longer time in infancy compared to other animals, perhaps allowing them to engage in imaginative play for longer than other species.
  3. Specialised Intelligence (2.0 – 0.25 million years ago): By developing individual “compartments of knowledge”, such as knowledge specific to prey animals, the weather, seasons and making tools, our ancestors could begin combining knowledge from different fields.
  4. Language and music (250,000 – 100.000 years ago): Enabled the sharing and combination of ideas which wouldn’t be possible in a single human mind
  5. Cognitive Fluidity (250,000 – 100.000 years ago): Enabled early humans to combine specialist knowledge and begin to use metaphors and symbols to represent a novel idea
  6. The Extended Mind (250,000 years ago – present): By beginning to extend thoughts into a physical medium, by either painting depictions of them (40,000 years ago), or writing words which represent them (only 5,000 years ago), knowledge could be captured and passed beyond the reach of a single person
  7. Sedentary populations (11,600 years ago – present): Agriculture enabled humans to settle in large communities and freed up a proportion of the population to specialise in non-food activities, such as learning, tool design, science and everything we now consider part of civilisation.

This is separate from early human’s ability to develop tools. Our ancestors have been making complex stone artefacts for over 1.4 million years (hand-axes and cleavers), much more advanced than simple stone tools like scrapers, Oldowan flakes and choppers which came before then. By 250,000 years ago, our ancestors had even begun showing signs of more advanced techniques, like the Levallois technique for taking more control of the size and sharpness of blades and spears.

However, all of these techniques will have been the result of an initial discovery, which is then refined through practice, and the refined process taught to other individuals. In essence, individuals learn a “if you perform this action, this will be the consequence” routine, which is not a sign of creativity. Rather, it is imitation which may evolve through trial and error over time. Many species of animals, from chimpanzees to rats to crows to octopuses, have all been successfully taught to use simple tools to manipulate their surroundings for a desired & known result. This does not however constitute creativity.

So the next time you have a great idea, you can think back to and thank your ancestor who first took took a mammoth’s tusk and carved out something the world had never seen before.

Do you think there are any older examples of creative thought? Let me know in the comments below.