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From an African bestiary to universal science?

Cluster analysis opens up a world-wide historical perspective on animal symbolism in divine attributes, divination sets, and in the naming of clans, constellations, zodiacs, and lunar mansions

by Wim van Binsbergen

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© 2002 Wim van Binsbergen[1]


The philosopher of science Sandra Harding attributes modern science’s claim to universality not in the first place to its internal epistemology, but to the specific social condition that modern science is available, represented, mediated, anywhere on the globe, at specific centres of exchange such as universities, schools, the media etc. The present paper makes the point that, among systems of knowledge, modern science does not have the monopoly of this social condition. Many other systems of knowledge, far from being merely local, have extensive continuity over vast expanses of both space and time, and hence may be suspected of taking on, in the consciousness of the people sharing such knowledge, a validity comparable to modern science’s. The global distribution of the mythological theme of ‘hero fights monster’ is one initial example. The argument then concentrates on animal symbolism as providing an even more impressive example. From eleven widely differing cultural contexts in Asia, Africa and Europe and from a time span of several millennia, eleven series of animal (combined with non-animal) symbolism are processed: world-wide representations of animal demons; nomes and major gods from ancient Egypt; figurines in the Central African (Chokwe) divining basket; the names of clans among the Central African Nkoya people and the Southern African Tswana people; the classic Chinese zodiac and lunar mansions; Babylonian astronomy; the modern international names of the constellations; and the animal associations of the major Greek gods. It turns out to be possible to subsume these very disparate series in one large matrix. After a methodological discussion, the contents of this matrix are subjected to extensive cluster analysis. Given the notorious variability and manipulability of cluster analysis results, we need to proceed cautiously. However, the patterns that emerge turn out to be remarkably stable and consistent, regardless of whether the analysis is limited to animal symbols or is allowed to include non-animal symbols; and regardless of whether actual occurrences in the data set per series and per symbolic category data are taken into account, or instead the data are dichotomised in terms of mere occurrence, or non-occurrence, per series and per category; dichotomisation allows us to use a stronger, parametric distance statistic based on the Pearson correlation, but this again yields largely the same results. Three clusters articulate themselves persistently in the data set: an African / Chinese cluster; an ancient Egyptian / classical Greek cluster; and an ancient Mesopotamian cluster, to which modern constellation names are historically indebted, and to which both globally distributed animal demons, and Nkoya clan names, attach themselves. In an attempt to explain this pattern, the hypothesis is formulated of an Upper Palaeolithic cultural substratum encompassing, among other traits including an early nomenclature of (some) constellations, an elaborate system of animal symbolism. In the African (Tswana, Chokwe) and Chinese material in our data set, this Upper Palaeolithic substratum is still more or less intact. Alternatively, under conditions of state formation, the emergence of organised religion, and literacy, the substratum underwent specific transformations in ancient Egypt (from where a decisive influence was exerted on Greek religion and mythology) and, in a radically different direction, in ancient Mesopotamia. While animal symbolism remained a part of both transformative clusters, animals lost their earlier central roles as vehicles of meaning and of thought (as in the Upper Palaeolithic), and gave way to anthropomorphic symbols or to symbols derived from other natural phenomena than animals, especially meteorological and celestial phenomena. Scientific classifications ultimately arose in the context of these transformations in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, notably through early astronomy and divination systems, much later to be reworked in Hellenic and Hellenistic times, and in modern times to be partly dismissed as pseudo-sciences. Not only does this analysis support the view that extensive continuities in space and time, as a social basis for the attribution of universality, is a feature of other systems of knowledge besides modern science; it also shows how modern science and its spatial and temporal extension is historically indebted to these other systems of knowledge. In addition to this main line of argument, the paper touches on a number of additional points: the Black Athena thesis on ancient Egyptian / Greek continuity, supported by the cluster analysis; Frobenius’ concept of the South Erythraean cultural area, as a likely explanation of the Nkoya material’s associating with the Mesopotamian cluster, thus highlighting South Asian and Indonesian influences in Central African kingship and mythology; the manifestation of the postulated Upper Palaeolithic system of animal symbolism in the famous rock art of that period; the persisting manifestation of that system in such familiar themes of art history as the ‘animal style’, the ‘flying gallop’, animal tales, and certain shamanistic themes having to do with animal death and rebirth; the hypothesis that the postulated widespread Upper Palaeolithic system of animal symbolism may have facilitated the amazingly wide spread of astrology as an astral system of animal symbolism; the demonisation or diabolisation, of that system when under conditions of state formation and literacy a different religious regime emerges; and finally such historically documented interactions between the clusters as evade the tree-like representation of relationships in cluster analysis: Mesopotamian/ Egyptian, Mesopotamian/ Greek, Mesopotamian/ Chinese, African/ Egyptian, and Egyptian/ African.

                        Of course, more satisfactory cluster analyses, and a more sophisticated and subtle interpretation of their results, could be made if far more series from a wider range of provenances were included — particularly from other African and Asian societies, from the Americas, Australia and Oceania, ancient Europe, and from other spheres of life than religion, mythology, social nomenclature, and astral science. However, the preparation and analysis of our eleven series has already taken months of work. In the near future the data set will of course be greatly expanded in space and in time. Meanwhile, for a first indication of the kind of potential of this material and of this kind of analysis, the present exercise is quite sufficient. It confirms Levi-Strauss’ that animals have been bien a penser, ‘good for thinking’, in the most literal sense: as props for forms of untamed thought from which, ultimately, along an itinerary whose outline we are beginning to discern, contemporary scientific knowledge was to come forth.

These ideas are set out in the following web-book (click on the links below in oder to proceed):


Part I

1. Introduction: Universality and the extension of knowledge systems in space and time

2. A near-universal theme in systems of mythological knowledge: ‘Hero fights monster’

3. The data set

4. Methodology

5. Cluster analysis

Part II

6. Interpretation: From an African bestiary to universal science?

7. Summary and conclusion


LIST OF DIAGRAMS (as included in either of the two Parts)


LIST OF TABLES (as included in either of the two Parts)


[1]              I am indebted to the African Studies Centre, Leiden, and to the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and Humanities, Wassenaar, for greatly facilitating the research on which the present paper is based; and to Henk Visser and the Netherlands Association for the Philosophy of Science, for creating the context in which I was brought to write the present paper, as a by-product of my work on the more specifically philosophy-of-science argument: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 2001, ‘Noordatlantische wetenschap als etno-wetenschap: Een intercultureel-filosofische reflectie op Sandra Harding’, paper read at the seminar on ‘Kennis en Cultuur’ (Knowledge and culture), Annual Meeting, Netherlands Association for the Philosophy of Science, Utrecht, 23 November, 2001; English version in preparation; soon available at:


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