October 2005

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 sapiens.

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 bestirred.

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 gods.”

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.