A fascinating and incisive examination of our language instinct from award-winning science writer Steven Mithen.
Along with the concepts of consciousness and intelligence, our capacity for language sits right at the core of what makes us human. But while the evolutionary origins of language have provoked speculation and impassioned debate, music has been neglected if not ignored. Like language it is a universal feature of human culture, one that is a permanent fixture in our daily lives.
In THE SINGING NEANDERTHALS, Steven Mithen redresses the balance, drawing on a huge range of sources, from neurological case studies through child psychology and the communication systems of non-human primates to the latest paleoarchaeological evidence.
The result is a fascinating and provocative work and a succinct riposte to those, like Steven Pinker, who have dismissed music as a functionless and unimportant evolutionary byproduct.
Mithen (The Prehistory of Mind; After the Ice) draws on archaeological record and current research on neurology and genetics to explain how and why humans think, talk and make music the way they do. If it sounds impenetrably academic, it isn't: Mithen acts as a friendly guide to the troves of data on the evolution of man (and myriad sub-mysteries of the mind, music, speech and cognition), translating specialist material into an engrossing narrative casual readers will appreciate. Beginning with a survey of modern theories of the evolution of language, music and thought, Mithen cherry picks ones that lay the groundwork for the book's second (and most substantial) part, which applies those ideas to 4.5 million years of evolutionary history, beginning with the earliest known hominid, Ardipithecus ramidus, and ending with Homo sapiens. Mithen's work here is equally remarkable, but perhaps because this is his area of specialty, the findings are less accessible to the average reader: they hinge largely on subtle differences in the interpretation of archaeological sites and the dating of artifacts. However, Mithen's expertise in the science and history of his subject is combined with a passion for music that makes this book enjoyable and fascinating. Readers from most academic disciplines will find the work of interest, as will general readers comfortable with research-based argument and analysis.