Review: The Singing Neanderthals; the Origins of Music, Language,Mind and Body by Steven Mithin(2005) Assessment 9 out of 10

The book is a deceptively easy read, understating the considerable research and thought which has gone into it.  

I read this book, as I have been impressed by Mithen’s other works on prehistory. Its subject matter encompasses the evolution of language, the African origins of modern humans and their relationship with archaic Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, all of which are matters I continue to think about.

Mithen built his model of the evolution of language, mind and music based on research in psychology and linguistics, ensuring the model accords with the findings of archaeology, genetics and anthropology.

It bridges gaps in existing theory, combining bipedalism and the emergence of modern language, arguably the two biggest steps in human evolution.

Bipedalism facilitated the descent of the larynx, increasing the scope for vocalisation.  Exploitation of that more flexible voice, came later, evidenced in the size of the hypoglossal nerve linking brain and tongue.

The model also integrates the view of anthropologists, that language appeared over an extended period of at least 2 million years, with that of linguists,  that modern language appeared suddenly and relatively recently.

Mithen suggests early hominins and Neanderthals were “hmmmmm” communicators, hmmmmm standing for:

Holistic -each communication wasn’t grammatical, but complete in itself

Multi-modal – including voice, gesture and dance

Manipulative- not informing, but indicating what to do  

Musical- including dance, encouraging group think

Mimicking- both animals and fellow group members. Not naming birds and animals but imitating their calls

He suggests hmmmmm communication emerged out of animal grunts and gestures. It was conservative, contributing to the long stability in the culture of archaic Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

Modern language appeared in modern Homo sapiens in the last 200,000 years, probably in Africa, as recursive verbal communication. It accompanied mutation in the FOXP gene, which differs critically between modern humans and their predecessors and close relatives.

 The brains of archaic Homo sapiens and Neanderthals involved separate social, nature and technical intelligences, with only limited cognitive fluidity between the intelligences.  Compositional language, with its infinite capacity to express different ideas, resulted in or accompanied cognitive fluidity between the hitherto separate intelligences. This didn’t happen overnight. It probably originated in small groups in Africa, which expanded out of Africa during inter-glacials. Eventually, perhaps 50,000 years ago, modern man expanded into Eurasia, spreading their revolution in culture, in cave art and technology.

Compositional language only gradually superceded Hmmmmm communication. It lingers on in the formulaic nature of much social chit-chat, the cooperative, “group building” style of music, marching and dance and the intuitive way we talk and sing to babies.

Hmmmmm communication, combining music and language, split into language, communication specializing in transmitting information, and music, communication specializing in the expression of emotions (“mood music”). This explains why, within the brain, pathways involving language and music both overlap and separate. Interestingly, song reunites language and music.

Mitthen suggests all religious practice has been accompanied and encouraged by music.

Buy the book, turn on the music and think about what Mithen has to say

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