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

4.1 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674025592
ISBN-10: 0674025598
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Editorial Reviews


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 the University 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: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #284,902 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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