College Quarterly
Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3
Reviews The Singing Neanderthals: The Origin of Music, Language, Mind and Body
Steven Mithen
London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Although I am sure that I had listened to a lot of music on the kitchen radio that brought news and entertainment to my home in the late 1940s, the earliest song I can acutely recall is “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” sung by Vaughan Monroe. I was probably about four years old and just the right age to imagine that old ditty to be awesome in the Dionysian sense of inducing a blend of reverence and fear. Music can be like that. It can tap into our primal emotions.

The exploration of the plastic and performing arts have long recognized the relationship between art and what they lovingly describe as the essence of the human spirit. The study of aesthetics, which Eugene Kaelin once described as “a savage child who wanders gaily through the corridors of the House of Man’s knowledge, without ever managing to settle down in a home of his own,” has at least been able to link the arts to two abiding traditions: the Dionysian and the Apollonian.

As an antique dictionary put it, in Dionysian art, “by transcending the ‘principium individuationis,’ the ordered aspects of nature, the artist in aesthetic mystical ecstasy becomes one with the Heraclitean flux, the true reality.” Invoking an orgiastic union with the cosmos, Dionysian music is the stuff of intoxication, the overt denial of human reason. Apollonian music, in the alternative, seeks to imitate the eternal harmony of the universe, to construct elegant, precise and almost mathematical paeans to beauty, defined by the leader of the Muses as the pursuit of pure form and not content, being and not becoming, stability and not chaos. Not for nothing do will-intentioned pregnant women play Bach and Mozart within “earshot” of the fetuses they carry in the hope that this will promote an elevated intelligence in their babes and, no doubt, lead to rewarding careers in science or the professions.

But which came first: the carnal drunkenness or the philosophical dreams? Some claim to know. According to Ernst Fischer, “it was the purpose of music from the start to evoke collective emotions, to act as a stimulus for work, orgiastic gratification, or war. Music,” he says, “was a means of spellbinding or spurring to action … All religious institutions,” he adds, “have systematically exploited this peculiar character of music.” I take that to be a vote for Dionysus. Contrarily, the sweet lullabies sung to infants are attempts to console and to comfort, to reassure and convey a sense of safety and security.

I am unsure, however, that such binary speculation is appropriate. Music, it seems, has an even longer pedigree than conjectures about its early social functions suggest. That, at least, is one of the main points of Steven Mithen’s exploration into the relationship between musical expression and what we are learning of human nature.

It is commonplace to put music in a category with religion as one of the elementary defining characteristics of humanity. Music and religion are claimed to be social constructions that are present in every human culture. Whether playing a grand pipe organ, a didgeridoo or simply banging on a log with a stick, human beings have been making music since time immemorial. Likewise, whether engaged in pantheism or monotheism, in thrall to natural spirits or the ghosts of ancestors, articulating complex theologies or simply expressing faith in the “higher power” of Alcoholics Anonymous, humanity throughout space and time has contemplated some variation on the theme of god or, at least, spirituality. Mithen, however, seems to distinguish between social constructions such as religion and music which, he suggests, is different because it is built into the fundamental nature of our being, into nothing less than our biology. First, we sing; then we psalm.

The better way to approach the study of musical origins is to do so in tandem not with rites and rituals, but with defining human capacities, especially the capacity for language. Musical forms, like economic activities, kinship patterns, moral codes and the entire kit-bag of cultures are responses to specific environments. They are mediated by geography and technology. They are communal survival strategies in constant change as circumstances evolve and human populations strive to evolve with them. Musical and language capacities are more important; they are the inherent bio-social foundations upon which cultures particular cultures are built.

In The Singing Neanderthals, Steven Mithen goes back to basics, to human origins and the emergence of the qualities that gave rise to the organic structures that we call modern humans and the diverse practices that we know as human culture. He begins by pointing out that inquiries into the earliest expression of our ancestors have focused on what we call language, the words and sentences, the sounds and the syntax of vocalizations that reputedly separate us from other animals including our closest relatives among the great apes. Neglected in the construction of theories about how abstract and symbolic communication developed is music. This is a pity not only for those interested in music itself, but for those concerned with the modification of human nature itself.

In the first part of the book, Mithen sets out an array of topics that beg evolutionary explanation. Of special importance is the matter of how music is composed (so to speak) in the brain. Both traditional methods (the study of brain lesions) and sophisticated new, non-intrusive investigative techniques (computerized tomography or CT, positron emission tomography or PET, functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, electroencephalography or EEG and magnetoencephalography or MEG) are all brilliant methods to probe what we used to call brain waves. They tell us what parts of the brain are responsible for various activities from music and language to motor functions. They light up when we think and do.

Mithen then sets out to show how this research can enlighten those of us who want to get to the source of such symptoms as aphasia (music without language) and amusia (language with without music). Through concise and engaging clinical portraits, he brings the scientific work into the familiar context of descriptions of people and their problems: musical savants on the one hand, and the singular story of the French composer Maurice Ravel whose “last years were blighted by a brain degeneration that ... entirely removed [his] ability to write down the music he composed” on the other. Apart from any intrinsic fascination that readers might have with problems of processing language and music, one of the important conclusions to be drawn from his early chapters is that “language and music have a degree of independence from each other within the brain [but] neither lesion nor brain-imaging studies indicate that one system is necessarily derivative of the other, and hence our progress toward an evolutionary scenario for music and language has been somewhat stymied.”

Undaunted, he next draws us into a revealing discussion of brain maturation and language learning. Inspired by Noam Chomsky’s argument that language is so complex that children cannot conceivably learn both the words and the grammar of their native tongues from the mere exposure to their parents’ talk, and that there must therefore be a “universal grammar” that is innate irrespective of time, place and culture. Adventuresome theorists have sought out a musical equivalent of what Steven Pinker has called “the language instinct.” They have not been successful. The reason is that musical grammar is not like language grammar. As the philosopher Douglas Dempster explained, it is not like the rules of tennis or the instructions for assembling prefabricated furniture either. Other rules for intentional construction are fairly rigid and need to be stable for the result to have meaning. In speech, Mithen points out, saying “man bites dog” is profoundly different from saying “dog bites man,” but the reversing of three notes of music will, at worst, “make the piece sound awkward, but the reversal cannot be said to change its meaning, because there was none to change in the first place.”

The implications of the differences between language and music are important. Mithen’s consideration of our verbal interaction with infants is also instructive. Parents and others “talk” to babies in ways that they do not normally use when addressing each other. He summarizes “baby talk” thus: “a higher overall pitch, a wider range of pitch, longer ‘hyperarticulated’ vowels and pauses, shorter phrases and greater repetition” emphasize the “rhythms, tempos and melodies” of spoken language and do so in an exaggerated form. This exercising of the “mental machinery” that Pinker says is later “borrowed in order to create our musical ability” is, according to Mithen, “topsy-turvy.” Humans, he says, are “born singers.”

The spoken (and, later, the written) word is the language of reason. It is used to convey information, to make contracts, to explain and instruct, to interrogate and to command. Music is the language of emotion. As such it might currently be suppressed, especially in the Western culture which imagines itself to be scientific and technological and privileges rationality over emotion in general, but especially in any project of practical importance.

Though we have trivialized music and reduced it to the role of mere entertainment, except perhaps in religious (and therefore arguably primitive) rites, it is difficult to seek out the origins of music in modern humanity. So, Mithen goes elsewhere.

He investigates our cousins the great apes and other primates. In a concise review of the communications strategies of the vervet, gelada, gibbon, gorilla, “standard” and bonobo chimpanzees, Mithen discovers four basic features: none of their vocalizations or gestures are equivalent to human words; the vocalizations and gestures do not convey information as such, but are “manipulative” in that they are dedicated to inducing desired behaviours in others, but not to convey precise information as such. They are multi-modal for they combine gestures and utterances. Especially among monkeys but also among the great apes, vocalization makes substantial use of rhythm and melody. Ape communication, then, is “holistic, manipulative multi-modal and musical.” As a proto-language, it does not consist of words but of messages. It seeks to influence the actions of others, not to convey information about the world. In that, we begin to see the roots of our own songs and stories.

In Mithen’s narrative, the foregoing is a lengthy but worthwhile exploration of the several strains of inquiry that set up the direct investigation of human music. The second part of the book moves sequentially along the evolutionary path that our forebears traveled to place us in our present spot.

Mithen’s exploration of the evolution of music now proceeds more or less chronologically. His first step involves the elucidation of communication—grunts, barks and gestures—among our non-human ancestors, who provided the essential basis from which our music emerged. One of the exploratory principles that are set forth concerns a topic of controversy among primatologists. For a considerable time, it has been evident that chimpanzees have the capacity to learn, to respond to, and to manipulate as many as 250 symbols. Claims have been made to suggest that chimps can be taught American Sign Language. The possibility of cross-species communication beyond the level of teaching our pets “tricks” or compelling obedience from draft animals is certainly an exciting prospect (though, as one concerned citizen once said: “there may be a special place in Hell reserved for the first person to tell chimpanzees that they, too, are mortal”).

He then traces our lineage through the Australopithecenes (including the world-famous “Lucy”) and explains the evolution of communication. Relating anatomical adaptations to evolving “lifestyles,” he puts forward a compelling case that the early hominid call repertoire was “holistic and manipulative, rather than compositional and referential”, but that the fill extent of “Hmmmm” communication (holistic, multi-modal, manipulative and musical”) emerged with the very early hominids, but it was “more complex than that now found among non-human primates, but one quite different from human language.

That we were musical (emotional) before we were linguistic (rational) is a genuinely important proposition, and Mithen elaborates to good advantage.

As it happened, according to Mithen, the prime candidate for making the turn toward culturally modern humans came in the form of Homo ergaster, which brought us bipedalism and hence, the dance. H. ergaster also seems to have added another “m” to “Hmmmm.” Succeeding chapters describe how various human activities—walking and running, imitating nature, patterns of sexual selection, parenting, social cooperation and bonding, and the development of a sense of self. At this stage, we our communications system became Holistic, multi-modal, manipulative, musical and mimetic!

At last, in the fifteenth of seventeen chapters do the Neanderthals of the title make their full appearance.

In popular culture, Neanderthals are portrayed as rather dim and quite brutish, despite the fact that they were tool-making, social and adaptive creatures who possessed large brains. Mithen points out that they were intensely emotional beings whose lifestyles also demanded intelligence and collective decision making. He adds that “anthropologists are tempted to equate the large brain of Homo neanderthalis with a capacity for language; but, he says with considerable justification, this is a capacity that they lacked.

The singing Neanderthal is just that, a hominid with a rich social and cultural life, which did not evolve compositional and referential speech. Our ancestral stock and a number of evolutionary “dead-ends” also lacked the “language gene.” In fact, according to Mithen, language is an exclusive “biological attribute of Homo sapiens, something embedded in the genome of our species … that had evolved by 170,000 years ago.” Its comparatively late appearance among hominids has two crucial lessons to teach us.

First, our far more enduring communications strategies are non-linguistic; they are musical. They are above all holistic. This should be obvious to anyone who reflects for a moment on what we call non-verbal communication, that combination of voluntary and involuntary movements and postures that convey much of what we communicate and does so far more honestly. We can lie, but our bodies give us away to anyone skilled at reading the largely unconscious signs we display. As a culture, we have repressed much of our emotional being; to have done so has not always been psychologically healthy.

Second, our recent adaptation, speech, has had great advantages. As the instrument of rational communication, it has permitted us to develop with ever-increasing speed and efficiency those cultural adaptations that have permitted us to fulfill the Biblical injunction to exercise dominion over the Earth. It certainly helped put an end to our musical cousins, H. neanderthalis, and it is taking its exponential toll on other species as we now live and breathe.

Every change involves a loss. We, too, are musical creatures at base, but it is a base that has been repressed and perhaps supplanted by the upstart, language. Mithen has done us a splendid service by offering a cogent and convincing description and explanation of the process. Whether we wish to acquiesce in the domination of reason or reclaim some elements of emotion is a question worth pondering. Whether we have the choice to restore a happier balance is another question.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2008 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology