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Steven Mithen


The origins of music, language, mind and body

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

How are language and music connected, and what can the study of musical ability tell us about our evolutionary past? These are among the questions that Mithen delves into in this far-reaching book, which he describes as an evolutionary history of music: a subject that has been largely neglected by scientists hitherto, including, as he admits, by Mithen himself.

The book has two parts. The first looks at music and language today and at what we understand about their relationship. The second part is concerned with their evolutionary history and is certainly ambitious, for Mithen claims to provide "a complete account not only of how music and language evolved but also of how they relate to the evolution of the human mind, body and society."

Which came first, music or language? Some have suggested that language evolved first and gave rise to music; others propose the reverse sequence. Mithen thinks that they both evolved together and that the earliest form of communication had features of both music and language, "musilanguage". To describe this he uses an acronym, "Hmmmmm" (Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic).

The book starts by looking at what is known about the representation of music in the brain. This is then related to Mithen's views on the modularity of mental abilities as described in his earlier book The Prehistory of the Mind. Next comes a chapter on how people communicate with babies. This form of communication, he suggests, is quite similar to "Hmmmmm" when the infants are very young and hence pre-verbal. People use a rather similar approach when communicating with pets.

Mithen has an interesting discussion of perfect pitch, which seems to be present in small babies but is usually lost later. Contrary to what is sometimes believed, the possession of perfect pitch is a disadvantage for learning both music and language, even in the case of tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese.

Music is often said to be the language of emotion, and Mithen quotes recent research which supports this view. In modern societies music is probably seldom used to manipulate emotion outside an entertainment context because language is more effective for the purpose, but Mithen thinks it would have been used in this way in earlier times, when language was less developed. Our closest living relatives, the apes and monkeys, still use sound in this way today. Mithen does not think that the vocalizations of any of these animals are similar to human speech but they may give a clue to how the earliest human ancestors may have communicated.

Modern speech is made up of words that can be combined in different ways, but the earliest human communication would have been "holistic", meaning that utterances were complete messages rather than composed of separate words in combination. These were used to manipulate the behaviour of others rather than to tell them things about the world. This form of communication was more complex than that of non-human primates but still quite different from modern human language.

Mithen has chapters discussing how dance, mimesis (imitation of animals and other humans), prolonged child-rearing, and living in groups would have led to the development of "Hmmmmm". There is a Middle Pleistocene site at Bilzingsleben, in Germany, where Homo heidelbergensis, the forerunner of the Neanderthals, constructed circular arrangements of animal bones. Mithen favours the view that these were demarcated spaces for singing and dancing—theatres, in fact. And he presents an imaginative description of life at Boxgrove, in England, where similar performances may have been staged.

The singing Neanderthals of the title make their appearance only towards the end of the book, in Chapter 15, where Mithen confronts that hardy perennial question: could they speak? He believes that they took "Hmmmmm" to an extreme and would probably have preserved perfect pitch. They would have had a larger repertoire of holistic phrases than previous Homo species and these could have been linked together to create simple narratives. But though this would have been sophisticated in its own terms it would have favoured conservatism in thought and culture.

The musical experience of the Neanderthals would have been richer than that of modern humans because ours is relatively inhibited by our use of language. Moreover, the Neanderthals would have evolved neural networks for the appreciation of musical communication which we lack. There may be a parallel here with the appreciation of tone exhibited by some musical savants who lack language almost completely, and the way such people experience the world may give us an appreciation of what the Neanderthals' world would have have been like.

Whether or not Mithen's description of the singing Neanderthals is correct, I liked it, having always had a soft spot for that long-vanished species.

Modern humans evolved in Africa and they were the only species to acquire true language. Mithen discusses the role of the FOXP2 gene, which seems to be necessary (though not sufficient) for an understanding of grammar. It is present in a slightly different form in other primates and may have undergone a random mutation to its present form in humans about 200,000 years ago—just when Homo sapiens first appeared.

Mithen reports some interesting research on the evolution of computer simulation of language evolution and concludes that Chomsky's idea of a innate "Universal Grammar" may need to be stood on its head. Here he seems to be in agreement with Terrence Deacon's idea that languages evolve to be easily learned by children, as described in his book The Symbolic Species.

Although our musical abilities may have declined with the development of modern language, music remains important to us and remnants of "Hmmmmm" are to be found in, for example, our use of gestures while speaking and in the existence of stock phrases. We should listen to music more, he thinks.

Everything that Mithen writes is worth reading and this book is no exception, being full of ideas and insights. One subject which is not discussed at all but I think should have been is poetry. Surely this is the supreme example of the persistence of "Hmmmmm" in modern speech, containing as it does elements both of music and of rhythm.

No doubt Mithen will be accused of indulging too freely in speculation, and certainly he has to take refuge often in "may have", "might have", and "possibly". But his writing is fresh and lively, and it is well supplied with notes and references so that critics can see what he is basing his ideas on. Whether one likes it or not, all reconstructions of the remote past must ultimately be largely speculative.

25 April 2006

See also The Prehistory of the Mind

%T The Singing Neanderthals
%S The origins of music, language, mind and body
%A Mithen, Steven
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%C London
%D 2005
%G ISBN 10-0-297-64317-7
%P ix + 374 pp
%K archaeology, evolution

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