[Paleopsych] Bookslut: The Singing Neanderthal

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The Singing Neanderthal
October 2005

[9]Barbara J. King

The Singing Neanderthal

    Music moves the human body (our feet
    tap, our bodies sway) and the human heart (our emotions beat in time
    to a song's pulse). Every child in every society creates music,
    defined to include song and dance: it's a fundamental activity of Homo

    And it's a mystery too, full of questions in major and minor keys.
    Major: Why and when did music evolve? Why is music of all kinds
    capable of stirring our emotions, transporting us into our past after
    a few chords? Minor, but not unrelated: Why some days, rifling through
    my CDs, do I pass Vivaldi, Satie, even Springsteen, in a craving for
    (wait for it....) Hall and Oates? Yes, some fortunate persons'
    memories are triggered by the taste of madeleines, whereas others' get
    saddled with Hall and Oates songs. Just one snippet -- She's deadly
    man, and she could really rip your world apart/ Mind over matter/ The
    beauty is there but a beast is in the heart -- transports me two
    decades back in time and halfway across the country, ancient feelings

    Given its emotional power, it's odd to discover that music's
    evolutionary history has been neglected. Theories about the origins of
    technology and language crowd anthropologists' shelves, but most
    evolutionists fall silent about music. In The Singing Neanderthal: The
    Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, British archaeologist
    Steven Mithen sets out to redress this gap.

    On page five, Mithen commands attention by announcing a dual intention
    to take on academic superstar Steve Pinker's (The Blank Slate, How the
    Mind Works, The Language Instinct) views on the evolution of music and
    to atone for his own "embarrassing" past neglect of music (The
    Prehistory of the Mind). I was hooked; Pinker-worthy, non-ego-driven
    scientists don't grow on trees. Happily, this initial promise of
    provocation is fulfilled, for Mithen offers a fascinating argument
    about the evolutionary relationship between music and language. To be
    precise, it is provocative, fascinating and, I think, quite wrong on
    multiple points. But how much fun is it, really, to curl up with a
    book that lulls you into placid agreement?

    Somewhat convoluted, Mithen's argument depends on three key moves.
    First, he starkly splits apart language and music: language tells us
    about the world, music manipulates our emotions. Second, he proposes a
    single evolutionary precursor to both language and music. This is the
    communication system he calls "Hmmmm" for holistic, multi-modal,
    manipulative, and musical: "Its essence would have been a large number
    of holistic utterances, each functioning as a complete message in
    itself rather than as words that could be combined to generate new
    meanings." Though elements of Hmmmm are present in the communication
    of modern day apes (and thus, probably, our apelike ancestors), this
    system really took off once bipedalism evolved in the human lineage.
    Walking on two legs changed much in our ancestors' anatomy and
    behavior, and promoted the use of Hmmmm in specific ways.

    Mithen liberally credits linguist Alison Wray, who wrote that a
    holistic prehistoric utterance such as "tebima" could have a meaning
    along the lines of "he gave it to her." Mithen himself thinks that
    such holism, supplemented by varying pitch, melody, loudness,
    repetition, rhythm, and gesture, all adding shades of meaning, would
    have sufficed for millions of years as our ancestors communicated with
    each other on the African savanna.

    Then -- and this is key move number three -- late in evolutionary
    history, as pressures for complex social living increased, our own
    true, compositional language emerged from Hmmmm. Sentences were now
    made up of words, which in turn were comprised of
    infinitely-recombinable segments. Once this transition was completed,
    what was left of Hmmmm? Primarily, music. No longer needed for daily
    Hmmmm communication, music developed for others uses, first and
    foremost in the supernatural realm: "With the emergence of religious
    belief, music became the principal means of communicating with the

    Mithen's argument has a lot going for it. First, it recognizes gradual
    evolution of both language and music. As anthropologists find out more
    and more about the sophisticated language- and culture-related
    behavior of African apes, our closest living relatives, we realize
    that the evolutionary platform represented by our ancient ancestors
    was probably fairly sophisticated too. Indeed, Mithen might be
    surprised to know that two bonobo apes living in an enriched
    environment are decidedly musical. In the new book Kanzi's Primal
    Language, we learn that "The bonobos listen to music every night and
    enjoy the sound of musical instruments. Kanzi plays the drums and the
    xylophone, and Panbanisha the synthesizer and the harmonica. It might
    not satisfy a music teacher, but they enjoy it just as children enjoy
    creating sounds with musical instruments."

    Second, because he sees Hmmmm as manipulative, Mithen isn't afraid to
    ascribe emotions to prehistoric humans. As the book's title hints, he
    is most enthralled with the role of Hmmmm in the lives of
    Neanderthals, and he rescues these creatures from a hackneyed caveman
    image: "They were `singing Neanderthals' -- although their songs
    lacked any words -- and were also intensely emotional beings: happy
    Neanderthals, sad Neanderthals, angry Neanderthals, disgusted
    Neanderthals, envious Neanderthals, guilty Neanderthals,
    grief-stricken Neanderthals, and Neanderthals in love."

    Sometimes Mithen strays into bizarre territory, as when he claims (not
    in quite these words, admittedly) that ancestral females got most hot
    and bothered by those males able to make the most symmetrical hand-axe
    tools (because symmetry is favored in nature). And he persists in
    referring to the australopithecines, an important kind of early
    ancestor, as "partially bipedal." By September's end, no student in my
    Intro-to-Anthro class will make this mistake; that australopithecines
    retained adaptations for tree-climbing and walked differently than we
    do doesn't alter the fact that they were bipedal -- no qualifiers --
    before four million years ago.

    Most worrying, though, is Mithen's penchant for dichotomy when what's
    needed is nuance. Only music, but not language, is a medium for
    participatory interaction and collective engagement? Read some
    cutting-edge social linguistics -- or listen in as a group of friends
    creates emotional resonance with each other as they discuss a favorite
    book. Apes (and thus early ancestors), compared to modern humans, are
    fairly clueless about resolving "their social dilemmas over whom to
    trust and whom to exploit"? Spend a day watching a group of gesturing
    chimpanzees or gorillas sometime. No creatures before Homo sapiens
    needed compositional language, since they had only quotidian stuff to
    talk about, nothing too novel or exciting? Try to square this
    supposition with our ancestors' trekking out of Africa to new lands
    over a million years ago, or burying their loved ones in emotion-
    laced ritual at 90,000 years ago.

    In the main, though, Mithen succeeds in his goals. His central thesis
    is far more convincing than Pinker's dismissal of music as a mere
    byproduct of language, with no evolutionary value in itself. So, read
    Mithen; when you next visit an anthropology museum, or watch a
    documentary on human evolution, your mind's eye will see the
    Neanderthals dancing in rhythm. And when you fire up your IPOD to
    listen to Bach or Bjork-- or Hall and Oates--you may hear in your
    favorite songs the faint and haunting echoes of our singing ancestors.

    -- Barbara J. King is an anthropologist and author at the College of
    William and Mary.


    9. http://www.bookslut.com/authors.php?author=Barbara%20J.%20King
   10. http://www.bookslut.com/features.php
   11. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0297643177/artandlies-20
   12. http://www.bookslut.com/features.php

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