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

19 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674025592
ISBN-10: 0674025598
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Editorial Reviews

Review

Why should music be so important to us? Steven Mithen begins his task with a detailed analysis of music and musical ability, drawing on musicology, psychology and neurobiology to build a comprehensive and erudite picture of music's capacity to move us...This is a long-overdue book, which approaches human evolution from an intriguing as well as entertaining angle. (R. I. M. Dunbar Times Literary Supplement 2005-07-28)

Mithen 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...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. (Publishers Weekly 2006-02-27)

Mithen has many fascinating suggestions about how the circumstances of early hominid life on the African savanna may have provoked changes in anatomy and improved the range and precision of communication...By bringing music to the fore, Mithen remedies earlier neglect and offers his readers the most perspicacious portrait of the role of communication among our remote predecessors that I have ever encountered. That is a great accomplishment...Mithen's book, in short, seems destined to become a landmark in the way experts and amateurs alike seek to understand the character and evolutionary importance of hominid and early human communication...[The Singing Neanderthals] offers a learned, imaginative overview of the most important and most elusive dimension of the real but unrecorded past: i.e., how communication among our predecessors changed their lives, sustained their communities, and promoted their survival. No one has previously undertaken that task so well. (William H. McNeill New York Review of Books 2006-04-27)

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. (Blake Edgar Scientific American)

Among the most dicey academic inquiries are the ones that deal with the origin of human consciousness. Faced with difficulties of such daunting scope, Steven Mithen remains undaunted. In his 1996 book, The Prehistory of the Mind, he argued that both the origins of thought and the origins of human language are natural outcomes of evolution. But according to the first chapter of Mithen's latest work, The Singing Neanderthals, that story was incomplete. What it neglected was the central role of music in the psychosocial makeup of our species...'Without music,' Mithen writes, 'the prehistoric past is just too quiet to be believed'...Thus, Mithen speculates, humanity might have developed much as the individual does: music first, then language. From an evolutionary standpoint, music would not only help ensure the well-being of the individual, but also the cohesiveness of the group. Calling on primate studies, Mithen likens group music-making to grooming, an activity that evokes feelings of contentment and belonging...Taken as a look at the natural history of music, Mithen's book is thoughtful and certainly entertaining. (Laurence A. Marschall Natural History 2006-10-01)

The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen is a book that has you making up your own theories about how grunts became speech and songs. (Doris Lessing Granta 2008-12-09)

About the Author

Steven Mithen is Professor of Early Prehistory and Pro Vice Chancellor at theUniversity of Reading.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 31, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674025598
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674025592
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #504,987 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Max Blackston on May 28, 2009
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Montague Whitsel on February 12, 2008
Format: Paperback
I have long suspected that music must be connected to language and that the evolution of language was somehow linked to our musical ability. Steven Mithen's exploration of this subject leaves me reflective, impressed and with a great deal to think about. His scientific curiosity -- as we have seen in both The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Science and Religion (1998) and in Before the Ice (2003) -- is epic in scope and yet critical in its method and approach to data (or the lack of it).

In this book, Mithen culls together a trove of evidence relating to the possible origins of music in our species' evolutionary past. I think it needs to be granted from the outset that such a subject is not going to have the same kind of hard, precise evidence that something like skeletal evolution or the evolution of upright walking has in its favor. Given this, Mithen does a superb job of marshalling what evidence there is for music's origin and evolution, and makes you believe it possible, even as you remain critical of his hypotheses. You can see the weakness of some of the lines in his argument, but also the strength of others. Mithen seems humble enough before his subject, without getting wishy-washy in the face of the gray areas of uncertainty.

All together, a fascinating read; very informative--and courageous. This book will stand as a defense of music -- against its detractors (such as Steven Pinker) as a valuable part of our cultural human 'tool kit' until even more archaeological and paleoanthropological evidence becomes available.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bruce A. Murray on December 13, 2007
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If you love music and powerful feelings it evokes, then you'll love the author's incisive and clear-headed style as he unwraps the origins of music.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jacques COULARDEAU on February 17, 2010
Format: Paperback
That book is an essential hoard of knowledge on the history of humanity, of the human species and of some of its capabilities. The human species really appeared when it became bipedal two million years ago, left the forest and moved to the savanna. That mutation that caused the apparition of homo ergaster is a change in its general structure that enabled him to stand, to walk on two feet and to run on these same two feet. He lost the ability to climb in trees, he lost some size of his hipbones and that had a direct consequence on the female who also lost some width in her birth canal, which meant the birth of premature kids. The next stage will come with the hypothetical homo helmei, the common ancestor of homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens, the former evolving after moving to Europe and the latter evolving in Africa before moving to the world. Another mutation is common to these two branches, hence justifying a common ancestor: the phonological and articulatory organs were those necessary to develop modern languages. Homo neanderthalensis though will never develop such a language, according to Mithen (though I think he did but a rather limited type) whereas homo sapiens will. The difference seems to be in the brain that is bigger (as compared to the body mass) in homo sapiens than in homo neanderthalensis. The brain zone seems to be the Broca zone that is definitely more developed in homo sapiens than in other homo representatives. This Broca zone is not linguistic per se but is the zone that coordinates the various brain areas than are required for any complex activity, like speaking or using a language.Read more ›
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