The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body - Steven Mithen Despite the title, Mithen is not arguing that bands of Neanderthal were roaming the tundras of Northern Europe 100,000 years ago breaking out in Gilbert & Sullivan tunes. Rather, he's taking up the incredibly complex relationship between our physical evolution and our capacities for language and music. And, here, "music" is not just the structured compositions of a Bach or (even) a Brittney Spears but is, instead, the propensity among primates for rhythmic movement and pitch- and tone-based vocalizations.

I read [book:After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC] a couple of years ago. There Mithen took the reader on a tour of archaeological sites around the world, exploring how early humans coped with the vicious climate swings that accompanied the end of the last ice age and propelled the advent of agriculture and the world as we know it. He's an engaging author who can weave a multitude of threads together into a coherent argument.

In the present volume, he masterfully accomplishes the feat of bringing together the evidence of physical evolution with brain studies and archaeology to show how they all worked together to, first, evolve a capacity for music (as defined above) and then the related capacity for language. The first part of the book is taken up with research among modern humans and some of our primate cousins like the vervets that establishes the existence of separate but overlapping faculties for music and language. While necessary for his arguments in part two, I found this part the least interesting section (though only in a relative sense). Of far greater interest to me was part two, where Mithen begins to look at the evolutionary and archaeological evidence for music and language in the hominids (ranging as far back as 2 million years).

The following is a gross oversimplification of Mithen's argument; at best, a poor reproduction of his "tapestry." The hapless reader is strongly encouraged to go directly to the source.

Our earliest hominid ancestors, the australopithecines, probably had a limited capacity for tone- and pitch-based vocalizations, a faint echo of which is found in the "infant-directed speech" (IDS) of human mothers. A communication that is nonlinguistic (even though it may utilize words) and depends on rhythm, tone & pitch to convey meaning.

As australopithecines gave way to the more human-like homo strains like habilis and ergaster, the range and complexity of this nonlinguistic communication grew. Mithen calls this prelinguistic speech "Hmmmmm," which stands for holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, mimetic. The most important component of Hmmmmm is the "holistic" part. Mithen argues that prelanguage hominids communicated in whole, inalterable phrases composed not just of vocalizations but also gestures. For example, there may have been a meaning unit for "hunt," and then others for the various animals suitable for hunting. Or there might have been a phrase that meant "sabertooth tiger attacks camp," similar to the vervet monkey's unique call and posture signaling a snake is in the neighborhood. In the most advanced hominids (the Neanderthal, particularly), there may even have been a rudimentary grammar; i.e., you could say/gesture "hunt" + "moose" + "you" + "me" but you couldn't say/gesture "you" + "me" + "moose" + "hunt."

Approximately 170,000 years ago, however, a random mutation in some group of archaic, prelanguage homo sapiens gave them a capacity for what Mithen calls "cognitive fluidity" - the ability to combine one's natural intelligence with one's social and/or technical intelligences. For the first time (as far as we know), someone associated the phrase "gluk" with "deer" and "mama" with "mother"; words and language were born (and Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, more of that later). Language was a far more powerful tool than Hmmmmm for conveying information and manipulating the world, and it opened the possibility for rapid, technical advance and cultural change. Mithen points out that the spoken/gestural components of Hmmmmm were fiercely resistant to change over time because you couldn't explain to your neighbors what a new phrase meant (at least not easily). That, the physical isolation of hominid groups and (perhaps) the sheer physical inability of the brain to fully process compositional language, retarded technical and cultural innovation for hundreds of thousands of years. The Neanderthals, for all their otherwise human-like characteristics, used essentially the same tool kit from the time they appeared in the fossil record (450-500,000 ya) to their extinction c. 40,000 ya. The only evidence for innovation comes late and only in relation to proximity to modern human sites - Neanderthal was intelligent enough to imitate but not innovate.

One of the most interesting images Mithen invokes is that the first "mutants" with the language gene probably talked to no one but themselves. Because they could talk, however, these original soliloquists were more successful than their mute neighbors and passed on their genes. Eventually, a critical threshold was passed and all successful human groups carried it out of Africa, overwhelming and driving to extinction all of our cousin hominids.

Hmmmmm communications remained a part of our repertoire but the purely musical and manipulative aspects predominated. What resulted was the modern human's capacity for language and music - related but distinct forms of communication.

And I still haven't discussed the physical changes that promoted first Hmmmmm and then language such as bipedalism. I will leave those aspects of Mithen's argument alone and again invite the reader to check out the book.

Not directly related to Mithen's argument but of personal interest is the mental state that Mithen's Hmmmmm speakers must have enjoyed. It sounds remarkably like the state mystics of every religion describe when they meditate - timeless and wordless. It reminds me that (for Christians, anyway) human history didn't start until God uttered the Word, or the Taoist notion of the The Ten Thousand Things of human perception. Language ushered in self-awareness and moral quandaries, and it appears that we've always hankered for a return to the innocent, unknowing state of our prelanguage ancestors.