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

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ISBN-13: 978-0674025592
ISBN-10: 0674025598
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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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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). --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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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 (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #395,257 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By K. G. Karl on July 13, 2006
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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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Pletko on March 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover

"The Neanderthals who inhabited Europe and south-west Asia had brains as large as those of modern humans but behaved in a quite different fashion, one that indicates the absence of language...So, what were the Neanderthals doing with such large brains?...Answer: the Neanderthals used their brains for a sophisticated communication system...[that I call] `Hmmmmm'...

'Hmmmmm'...proved remarkably successful: it allowed them to survive for a quarter of a million years through dramatic environmental change in ice-age Europe, and to attain an unprecedented level of cultural achievement. They were 'singing Neanderthals'--although their songs lacked any words."

The above quotation comes near the end of this fascinating book (and explains its title) by Dr. Steven Mithen, Professor of Early Prehistory (at the University of Reading, England), archeologist, and leading figure in the development of `cognitive archeology.'

What is the aim of this book? Mithen explains:

"We can only explain the human propensity to make and listen to music by recognizing that it has been encoded into the human genome during the evolutionary history of our species. How, when, and why are the mysteries that I intend to resolve [in this book]...This book sets out my own ideas about how music and language evolved, and evaluates the proposals of others by exposing them to the archaeological and fossil evidence...The result is a complete account of not only how music and language evolved but how they relate to the evolution of the human mind, body, and society."

As one who thoroughly enjoyed this book, I can validate what Mithen says above. He does examine a large array of data and proposals from many others and critically analyzes this information.
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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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