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No. 3211:
Lion Man

by Roger Kaza

Today, Lion Man. The University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Disney's majestic Lion King is a tale told and now retold across two generations. Yet the reverence for lions goes back thousands of years. Make that tens of thousands. Lion Man is an ivory statuette about twelve inches in height, with the head of a lion, body of a man. Carbon dating tells us it's at least 35,000 years old, made by an unknown artist of the Aurignacion culture. Its fragments were found in a cave in the Hohlenstein-Stadel region of southern Germany in 1939, but reassembled only recently. Lion Man, or the German Löwenmensch if you prefer, may or may not be a king. It might not even be male, though that's the general consensus. The artist worked on his creation for a considerable period: carving a modern replica using stone tools took almost 400 hours. A polished sheen on Lion Man's torso suggests it was probably passed between many hands. Was it a guardian spirit, a totem, even a deity? Let's be fully candid--at this distance we have almost no way of deciphering the original meaning or purpose of Lion Man.

Lion Man
Lion Man
  Photo Credit: Dagmar Hollmann / Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 4.0"

That hasn't stopped anyone from trying, however. Yuval Noah Harari is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His take on Lion Man is novel: whatever it represents, he says, this hybrid creature is obviously not found in nature. It's something we humans made up. It's a fiction. Does it connect to any modern-day fictions, he asks? Making a 35,000 year jump-cut, he points us to another lion standing on two feet: the badge or logo of Peugeot, the French car company. Now, that may seem random, but, ask yourself, what after all is a "company?" You might answer academically that it's an LLC or Limited Liability Company, a type of corporation. And what on earth is that? Pretend you're a four-year old asking this question to grown-ups. And they patiently try to explain to you that a corporation isn't really the people building the cars, or the machinery needed to build them, or the dealerships to sell them, or even the cars themselves--since all these things are constantly changing. Rather, a corporation is an "entity" of sorts, an abstract thing we humans invented to support businesses, help us all work together and play by the same rules. I predict your four-year-old eyes would be glazing over about now. Another grownup thing. Another fiction.

Logo of Peugeot Corporation
Logo of Peugeot Corporation  Photo Credit: Wikipedia

And that, according to Harari, is one meaning we can glean from Lion Man. The Paleolithic era was no Garden of Eden. The forests of Europe harbored not only lions larger than today's lions, but saber-toothed tigers and enormous cave bears. We Homo sapiens from Africa were a novel introduction, and our nimble hands offered only so much protection against claws, teeth and sheer brawn. But the ability to imagine and create things that aren't real and never were, from a half-lion-half-man, to cooperative ventures like corporations, is ultimately what gave us a leg up on our furry cousins, and connects the dots from Lion Man to Lion King.

Cave lions and other Ice Age fauna in northern Spain
Cave lions and other Ice Age fauna in northern Spain
  Photo Credit: Mauricio Antón / Wikipedia

I'm Roger Kaza, from the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari's best-selling book, which has been translated into 50 languages, contains many other examples of human fictions that have shaped our modern world.

"Legal Fiction" is how the courts refer to corporations and other abstract entities. See

Peugeot is officially called Peugeot "SA" (Société anonyme), which, according to Wikipedia, is the French equivalent to "public limited company," a type of LLC. I've used the term LLC to be consistent with Harari's example in his book. Peugeot has been absent from US markets for several decades, but plans to reenter sometime in the 2020's.

More on Lion Man -

More on Aurignacion culture -


This episode was first aired on August 13, 2019