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

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Overview

The propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful, and neglected feature of humankind: this is where Steven Mithen began, drawing together strands from archaeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience--and, of course, musicology--to explain why we are so compelled to make and hear music. But music could not be explained without addressing language, and could not be accounted for without understanding the evolution of the human body and mind. Thus Mithen arrived at the wildly ambitious project that unfolds in this book: an exploration of music as a fundamental aspect of the human condition, encoded into the human genome during the evolutionary history of our species.

Music is the language of emotion, common wisdom tells us. In The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen introduces us to the science that might support such popular notions. With equal parts scientific rigor and charm, he marshals current evidence about social organization, tool and weapon technologies, hunting and scavenging strategies, habits and brain capacity of all our hominid ancestors, from australopithecines to Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals to Homo sapiens--and comes up with a scenario for a shared musical and linguistic heritage. Along the way he weaves a tapestry of cognitive and expressive worlds--alive with vocalized sound, communal mimicry, sexual display, and rhythmic movement--of various species.

The result is a fascinating work--and a succinct riposte to those, like Steven Pinker, who have dismissed music as a functionless evolutionary byproduct.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books

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

Scientific American

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

Natural History

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

Times Literary Supplement

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

Granta

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

Times Literary Supplement - R. I. M. Dunbar
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.
New York Review of Books - William H. McNeill
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.
Scientific American - Blake Edgar
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.
Natural History - Laurence A. Marschall
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.
Granta - Doris Lessing
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.
Granta
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
Times Literary Supplement
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674025592
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 423,897
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Mithen is Professor of Early Prehistory and Pro Vice Chancellor at theUniversity of Reading.
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Table of Contents

1 The mystery of music 1
2 More than cheesecake? 11
3 Music without language 28
4 Language without music 46
5 The modularity of music and language 62
6 Talking and singing to baby 69
7 Music hath charms and can heal 85
8 Grunts, barks and gestures 105
9 Songs on the savannah 122
10 Getting into rhythm 139
11 Imitating nature 160
12 Singing for sex 176
13 The demands of parenthood 192
14 Making music together 205
15 Neanderthals in love 221
16 The origin of language 246
17 A mystery explained, but not diminished 266
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