The awe-inspiring mystery of the paintings and figurines made by the first Homo sapiens in Europe at caves like Chauvet in France and Hohle-Feels in Germany.  But what made our ancestors produce them, what do the images mean and where do they come from?

These questions are especially relevant to a figure like der Löwenmensche of Holhenstein-Stadel. This figure of a lion-headed man is the oldest unequivocal evidence of the human imagination creating an image that does not exist in the material world.  It almost certainly had a religious ritual significance but its symbolic meaning is as lost to us as the Aurignacian person who carved it out of a mammoth tusk nearly 40,000 years ago.

Jung might have said that the lion-man was evidence of an archetype but, if so, where would such archetypes come from?  Jung claimed they were ‘pre-existent’ forms in the psyche but in my forthcoming book on The Emergence of Symbolic Imagination, I suggest a different explanation.  Drawing on ‘emergence theory’, I suggest that the use of symbolic objects by early humans, brought into being the ideas they came to represent.  So instead of there being ‘archetypal ideas’ pre-existent in the mind, symbolic objects like the lion-man made it possible to ‘think the spirit’, to find forms that gave shape and meaning to our specifically human emotional response to the material and social aspects of our world.

Emergence theory is the idea that complex forms can emerge out of more simple elements with new properties that cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts.

Creating the cultural world

These symbolic forms – and the activities in which they were used – created the cultural world of symbols in we live in today – a world full of symbolic images that is as natural to us as the earth, sea and sky.  Rather than imagining things ‘in our heads’ and then re-presenting them as symbolic objects, I describe how it was through the making of material objects that we first developed the capacity to imagine.

Since these things first emerged in the context of shared activity in early human societies, the psychic symbols that Jung (and Jungians) are so interested in are also social  symbols.  This helps us see ourselves in a more united way in which the psychic, social and physical aspects of our being are all part of one world which, for humans, is also a symbolic world.

Click to buy Act and Image: The Emergence of Symbolic Imagination

Click here for a video trailer interview prior to the 2014 Zurich Lectures on which the book is based.