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The Singing Neanderthals Paperback – March 2, 2006
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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 Pinkers 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 musics evolution holds the key to language. Yes, language ultimately supplanted musics 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 groups 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 Franceunequivocal musical instruments. Beyond that, one is hard-pressed to display tangible evidence of musics 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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Top customer reviews
I spend a lot of my free time actively listening to music. I have a large vinyl record and CD collection acquired since my childhood and I take pride in keeping it well maintain. I only watch an average of 10-12 hour of television per month. So alternatively I listen to music, all kinds of music. I also love to read a lot of non-fiction and have over the past year become interested in paleo-anthropology and our human and societal evolution. While searching "neanderthal" on Amazon I came across this book and obviously I found the title appealing. Wow, this book was incredible! It covers human development from our ancient hominid ancestors and proposes a theory of how they communicated along with the evolution of music and language. I found it extremely interesting. It was also one of the most "fun" reads I've ever experienced. I'll never look at human behavior and communication the same. I can see so much more meaning in various human activities which I previously took for granted and I see the shadows of our ancient ancestors everywhere. Thank you Steven Mithen.
One of the main topics I took form the book was author's way of discussing Chomsky's generative grammar. For longer time already I was suspicious about Chomsky's universal rules distributed by genetics and this book gave me arguments against it.
I disaggreed sometimes but still the book provoked my own thinking. I had started to read it because I wanted to know something about origins of art within humankind development but it gave me much more.
The book is written in very readable manner and the author shows respect to all whom he criticizes.
Last not least - I like the book title very much. Could you imagine a Neanderthal standing at the top of a hill singing Song of Joy?
Much is speculation and at times one has the impression that the author sees his own speculation as not being all that speculative (e.g. even his main argument that Neanderthals are music-using but not language-using animals is, I believe, still open to debate - as is his statement that music emerged after language evolved). Furthermore some of his assumed truths (such as genetic proof that there was no interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans) appear to me to be more a matter of belief than fact.
In all as other reviewers have indicated and in detail described, a work worth reading and well-referenced.
Perhaps because I have followed and found very logical the arguments of the Evolutionary Psychologists, who see the mind as a collection of evolved adaptations to a series of specific fitness problems, I found Mithen's thesis very intuitive and appealing - even though it inevitably involves a great deal of speculation and extrapolation from evidence which can only be described as circumstantial (what the late S.J. Gould unkindly referred to as "Just So" stories).
Because of my enthusiasm for "Prehistory", I eagerly awaited subsequent books from Mithen. His second book "After the Ice - a Global Human History, 20,000-5,000 BC" was a huge disappointment; suffice it to say, that this was one of the few books I have started, and failed to read through to the end. The present book - although not in any way as groundbreaking or as stimulating as "Prehistory" - is a worthwhile read.
In fact it is a very "worthy" book; the central argument is that, as man's early ancestors evolved into fully bipedal hominids, they developed a means of communication, which was not language, which Mithen refers to as "Hmmmmm" - Holistic (consisting of whole sounds not parseable into words and syntax), Manipulative (designed to achieve ends, rather than describe), Multi-Modal (sound and body movement), Musical and Mimetic (using mimicry and immitation). The two two main supporting strands for this thesis involve, on the one hand consideration of the neurological and behavioral aspects of music and language, and on the other, hypotheses based on what is known about the lifestyles and selection pressures on early humans at different stages of evolution.
In the early chapters, Mithen's review of the similarities and differences between music and language, leads to the conclusion that they both evolved from some kind of primitive proto-language-music combination. He then reveals some fascinating aspects about what can only be described as the "competition" between linguistic and musical abilities for brain space. For example, that people with either congenital or acquired neural speech disorders often have enhanced musical abilities e.g perfect pitch - "musical savants". Or, that most infants possess perfect pitch (like many people suffering from autism). It appears that most babies are born with perfect pitch, which is gradually replaced by a bias toward relative pitch. Language acquisition involves the "unlearning" of perfect pitch (which is disadvantageous, because it prevents "generalization" - understanding that songs sung in different keys, or words spoken at different fundamental frequencies are the same.)
The second half of the book descibes what is known about the lifestyles of various early humans - homo ergaster, homo heidelbergiensis, and the neanderthals of the title - . Mithen's objective is to demonstrate that, at each of these stages, those individuals best able to communicate with their fellows, be trusted by them and gain their cooperation would have been the fittest (in darwinian terms). There would therefore have been a strong selective pressure for developing effective communication, and Mithen's argument is that this would have led to the progressive elaboration of communication into his "Hmmmm" - but not to language as we know it. Arguments involving many, many occurrences of words like "might have" and "we can imagine that" (which later morph into less speculative "did" and "were") are inevitable, given the paucity of hard evidence. They require the reader to very comprehensively "suspend disbelief" until the end, in order to see whether the whole edifice stands up or not.
Where Mithen is able to provide evidence or deductive argument from evidence, he does so. He also very conscientiously presents and evaluates evidence and counter-arguments that might contradict his thesis. Personally, I found the argument that, even the neanderthals - perhaps the closest and most recent relatives of modern humans - lacked language, quite convincing. However, Mithen's conclusion from this - that music played a major role in their lives (to the extent of having "performance spaces" in their caves) - left me unconvinced.