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Hybrid Animals: when gods create jigsaw puzzles

Chimera of Arezzo - hybrid animals

Hybrid animals are commonplace in mythology. Not the natural hybrids, like mules and ligers, but a seemingly random collection of animal and human body parts mashed together into a single being that may or may not be intelligent.

The best known of them were handed down from the ancient Greek and Mesopotamian cultures: satyrs, sphinx, lamassu, mermaids, angels, manticore and centaur apparently find their origins there. The list is immense, even without taking into account deities with the head of an animal as known to at least the Egyptian, Hindu and Aztec pantheons.

Very interesting, surely, but…

…where in blazes did humanity come up with this imagery?

Old As Time

Believe it or not, humanity’s fascination with hybrid animals is as old as humanity itself. Cave art has been found that depicts humans ‘merging’ with animals to obtain traits associated with them. This belief survived the ages and still exists in many natural religions.

This same theme features in many Asian legends, where gods assume – voluntarily or not – aspects of animal anatomy. These hybrid forms are symbolic of certain characteristics, typically in stories meant to convey moral values.

However, the horse-cow skeletons and six-legged sheep carcasses found at Stone Age burial sites take the concept of mix-and-match animals way beyond the realm of moral symbolism. Various archaeological digs discovered animal skeletons that had been reconfigured to create unnatural hybrids. As with any old customs otherwise unexplained, the scientists assume this was done to appease the gods.

But this explanation doesn’t address what gave early humans the idea to create such reconfigured animals in the first place. Never mind why they believed it would appease their gods.

Morbid Curiosity

The human imagination is wild, but not very inventive. It can piece together a new imagine from different bits of information, but it cannot create new information from scratch. But those pieces you do have can fit together in countless different ways. That is why if you haven’t seen a thing before and someone describes it to you, what you imagine is likely to be vastly different from what the one describing has in mind.

As such, mythology’s hybrids may have resulted from this awkward game of ‘pass the message’. In my opinion, the Greek centaur originated at least in part from someone describing the expert horse riders of Persia to people who had never seen a person on horseback before (not unthinkable at the time).

On top of that, the human mind is notoriously unreliable. It likes to fill in the gaps of what it doesn’t understand. What fantastical explanation might our ancestors have imagined after catching a glimpse of something they had never seen before?

Another, less outlandish explanation may have been early man’s encounters with bodily deformations. Imperfect twins and other (birth) defects are rare, but all the same natural occurrences. Could the sight of that have triggered someone to add an extra pair of legs to a sheep’s carcass? Possibly. Aside from being unreliable and deviously imaginative, the human mind is also morbidly curious.

Playing God

Basic biology and psychology go a long way to explain why human fascination with unnatural hybrid animals goes back so far into prehistory and is part of so many different cultures across the globe. What it doesn’t explain, however, is the recurring connection to higher beings: if these creatures are not gods themselves, they have been created by gods – or are a by-product of the deities’ less fortunate decisions.

But as Arthur C. Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Today, our modern science creates genetic hybrids in labs. Animals growing human body parts, human embryos with animal cells added. The moral discussion of biological and genetic engineering aside, technological progress and this morbid curiosity of ours allows us – even drives us – to create living, breathing hybrids.

Of course, Neolithic man living thousands of years ago didn’t have hi-tech laboratories. They created their hybrids post-mortem by rearranging the bones. But now man has the technology to play God.

Question is, are we the first to do so?

‘We are scientists. We go where the evidence takes us. The chance of that forked spine being a perfect storm is negligible. There is no damage but the wear and tear of exposure. No evidence of the bones having splintered or abraded, either pre- or post-mortem.’ He yanked her closer by her arm and traced the oddly shaped vertebra with his nail. ‘No accident can do this. This was engineered.’

Personal notes of José Perez, file M/44008/GY

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