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The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674021921
ISBN-10: 0674021924
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Mithen (The Prehistory of Mind; After the Ice) draws on archaeological record and current research on neurology and genetics to explain how and why humans think, talk and make music the way they do. If it sounds impenetrably academic, it isn't: Mithen acts as a friendly guide to the troves of data on the evolution of man (and myriad sub-mysteries of the mind, music, speech and cognition), translating specialist material into an engrossing narrative casual readers will appreciate. Beginning with a survey of modern theories of the evolution of language, music and thought, Mithen cherry picks ones that lay the groundwork for the book's second (and most substantial) part, which applies those ideas to 4.5 million years of evolutionary history, beginning with the earliest known hominid, Ardipithecus ramidus, and ending with Homo sapiens. Mithen's work here is equally remarkable, but perhaps because this is his area of specialty, the findings are less accessible to the average reader: they hinge largely on subtle differences in the interpretation of archaeological sites and the dating of artifacts. However, Mithen's expertise in the science and history of his subject is combined with a passion for music that makes this book enjoyable and fascinating. Readers from most academic disciplines will find the work of interest, as will general readers comfortable with research-based argument and analysis.
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From Scientific American

Early hominids largely looked and acted like apes. With one key difference: they stood and walked upright. This change in posture and mobility had profound implications for our evolution and "may have initiated the greatest musical revolution in human history." That is the ironic conclusion of Reading University archaeologist Steven Mithen, who continues his search for the essence of human behavior in his latest book, The Singing Neanderthals. Particularly within the past two million years, early humans refined the ability to walk, run and jump. With big brains and bottoms, spring-loaded legs, and sophisticated sensorimotor control, they could also dance, Mithen argues, if not sing. With a fascinating blend of neurology, anatomy, archaeology, developmental psychology and musicology, Mithen seeks the source of our propensity for making music, a universal human feature that has been strangely neglected compared with the origin of language. Darwin, naturally, touched on the topic, positing that unable to woo with words, our ancestors "endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm." Essential to both bipedal locomotion and music, rhythm plays a pivotal role as well in language. Music and language share other intriguing attributes. Both can move or manipulate us. Both can be spoken, written or gestured. Both possess hierarchical structure. And both seem to activate multiple regions of our brains. Mithen takes on linguist Steven Pinker’s assertion that music is just an entertaining invention, not a crucial biological adaptation like language. He carefully constructs and deliberately lays out his argument that music’s evolution holds the key to language. Yes, language ultimately supplanted music’s role in emotional expression and became our means of conveying ideas and information. Music, however, still stirs our most basic emotions. Until the relatively recent advent of syntactic language in modern humans, Mithen maintains, it was music that helped hominids find a mate, soothe a child, cheer a companion or provide a group’s social glue. Like language, much of music does not fossilize. We have elegant bird-bone flutes as old as 36,000 years from sites in Germany and France—unequivocal musical instruments. Beyond that, one is hard-pressed to display tangible evidence of music’s role in prehuman society. Mithen must speculate that Neandertals, for instance, strummed stalactites, drummed on mammoth skulls or otherwise made music without leaving a trace. But step inside a cave used by prehistoric people, and it is easy to appreciate its acoustic potential. By drawing data from a diverse range of disciplines, Mithen makes a persuasive case that our ancestors got rhythm and brings to prehistory a sense of sound.

Blake Edgar is a science editor and writer. He is co-author of From Lucy to Language, forthcoming in a revised edition from Simon & Schuster, and of The Dawn of Human Culture (John Wiley & Sons, 2002).


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1st edition (March 31, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674021924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674021921
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #574,370 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on November 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Fear not, dear reader. I'm not making the sounds of indecision. Nor have I forgotten the words to my local national anthem. Instead, those sets of letters are acronyms. Steven Mithen uses them to typify the foundations of our ability to communicate in our distant past. The letters stand for "Holistic, "multi-modal", "manipulative", and "musical". With the addition of "mimetic", he uses the collective phrase to explain why "music" in this broadly defined sense, preceded the development of language and grammar in our species. He also explains the "how" of this phenomenon, which is what gives this book its real value.

Mithen's previous works are a foundation for this one, although he openly admits that the phenomenon of music eluded him in them. He makes up for that oversight with a detailed examination of fossil and genetic information to support his thesis. As humans fluent in the use of speech, with its lexicons and syntax, we've become blinded to our true roots. We rush children through infancy, overlooking the process we use in communicating with those who lack words and their meanings. Mithen says this period is critical - both because its universality among cultures should tell us something about our past, and because a better understanding of the communication process can lead to smarter and healthier children. Who, among the mothers we know, fails to "sing" to their newborn?

In Mithen's view, that childhood communication method repeats what our African ancestors did with each other prior to the development of language. Words, in our time, are representative. They "mean" something - an object, an event, a lesson. In those early days, emotions, especially the basic ones of fear, flight, fight or feed, were the only significant topics.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You can tell the ambitious scope of this book by its subtitle: "the origins of music, language, mind, and body." Wow! Is that all? Actually, the task the author sets out to do isn't as vast as one might at first suppose because they are seen as related in the way early hominids arose and then evolved further. Steven Mithen is less concerned with the origin of music than the way in which the homo sapiens mind differed from its ancestors and the then contemporary hominids.

But before I get to my attempt at summarizing what Mithen says about these matters, I want to address something else. The speculative stories that professional anthropologists and archaeologists tell have a very different meaning to them than they end up meaning for the general public and there is some small danger in that difference. Science professionals are all aware of the raw evidence and the context and conjecture surrounding each piece. There are always ambiguities and tentative "conclusions" arrived at by one authority or another and they often conflict. However, to make sense of a broad collection of data a story is created as a kind of summary of what is known at that time.

These stories are always fragile as art glass. But they can be a useful way of organizing what is known and if new evidence found fits within the model it is strengthened. However, it is known that any new evidence found might undo a part of the story or overthrow it altogether. The problem is that the general reader doesn't know the evidence and has no idea of its context. Such a reader is unlikely to read broadly enough to gain some sense of the strength of such a story and whether its speculation is more mainstream or something radical.
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Format: Hardcover
Starts slow, but soon zooms along. Before you know it, you're in the midst of a fascinating story about monkey calls, baby babbling, opera and rock, and the weird, wired harmonies that cascade through the human nervous system when people engage in speech and song. Then, halfway through the book, using the information of the first half as a lens to bring the second half into focus, the author leads you on a trip from the darkest depths of hominid prehistory to the dawn of homo sapien culture, developing, as he goes, a theory about the origins of oral communication and music. The wonder of the book is not the theory, but the author's protean curiosity and delightful talent for explanation and synthesis. He weaves together strands of thought from all sorts of different disciplines to create an argument so lively and thought provoking that it doesn't matter if it's right. You come away full of ideas that seem to apply to almost everything you see. The book is a lovely, multi-layered intellectual tune, which makes you hummmm with thought as you turn each page.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Mithen's "The Prehistory of the Mind" was one of the most intellectually exciting books that I can remember reading. His thesis is that the sudden flowering of symbolic representation - like the beautiful cave art of Lascaux - only 40-50,000 years ago could only be explained by a radical change in the mind of homo sapiens. The apparent paradox he addresses, is why the undoubted technical abilities of early man and his ancestors - as evidenced in the abundant and often exquisitely fashioned stone and flint tools - had remained essentially at the same level for many hundreds of thousands of years. Throughout this time - including the period from about 190,000 to 50,000 yag during which anatomically modern humans existed - there is virtually no evidence of any use of these abilities to make anything that could be described as art or decoration. Mithen's solution to this paradox is that early homo sapiens had a "modular" mind - consisting of a "social" module, that allowed them to conduct their relationships with others, a "technical" module that helped them learn to manipulate materials and make tools, and a "natural history" module that understood the animals and plants in the world about them. What they lacked was an integration of these modules - "cognitive fluidity" - which would for example have allowed crossover between social and technical modules, and enabled man to use their technical abilities to fashion art or ornamentation which could be used to modulate or manipulate their relationships with others. It was the evolution of this integrative ability which caused the cultural/artistic florescence that we find so remarkeable.Read more ›
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