Friday, 22 May 2009

The Singing Neanderthals (2005), by Steven Mithen

Steven Mithen, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, is a leading figure in the field of cognitive archaeology and a Fellow of British Academy. In 1996, drawing together many diverse strands, he described the possible evolutionary origins of the human mind in his seminal The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Science and Religion, in which he proposed that full consciousness only arose when the previously-separate cognitive domains that make up the mind became integrated by a process he described as “cognitive fluidity” (Mithen, 1996). Subsequent archaeological discoveries in Africa forced Mithen to revise some of his timescales without affecting the validity or otherwise of his theory (McBrearty & Brooks, 2000). However Mithen, who is himself a lover of music, felt that its role in the development of language had largely been dismissed as “auditory cheesecake”, as Steven Pinker had described it.

Mithen pleaded guilty to himself failing to consider music in his 1996 work. Accordingly, in The Singing Neanderthals, he set out to redress the balance. He begins by considering language.

Language is a very complex system of communication which must have evolved gradually in a succession of ever more complex steps generally referred to as proto-language. But what was the nature of this proto-language? There are two schools of thought – “compositional” and “holistic”. The compositional theories are championed by Derek Bickerton, who believes that early human species including the Neanderthals had a relatively large lexicon of words related to mental concepts such as “meat”, “fire”, “hunt”, etc (Bickerton, 1990). These words could be strung together, but in the absence of syntax, only in a crude fashion. Mithen, however, favours the holistic view, which is championed by linguist Alison Wray. Wray believes that proto-language comprised utterances that were holistic i.e. they conveyed complete messages. Words – where the utterances were segmented into shorter utterances – only occurred later.

Mithen presents evidence that there is a neurological basis for music and that this is distinct from language. He draws on a variety of sources: studies of brain-damaged patients, individuals with congenital impairments, brain activity scans and psychological tests carried out on both children and adults.

Just as definite regions of the brain are involved with language, and that damage to these regions can selectively or totally impair linguistic skills, so is the case for music. The musical regions appear to be primarily located in the right hemisphere of the brain, in regions corresponding to the Broca’s area on the left. However there does seem to some linkage between the linguistic and musical regions.

Infant directed speech (IDS) – that is to say the way in which adults and indeed quite young children speak to infants – has a musical quality that infants respond to. Mithen believes that infants have a highly-developed musical ability, but that this is later suppressed in favour of language. For example, infants often have perfect pitch, but very few adults do. Relative pitch is better that perfect pitch for language acquisition, as the latter would result in the same word spoken by two speakers being interpreted as two different words.

This Mithen argues may give us an insight into how Early Humans, such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals communicated with one another. He falls back on the notion that “Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny”, i.e. our developmental history mirrors our evolutionary history. He rejects the notions that music arose from language or that language arose from music. Instead, he argues, music and language both evolved from a single system at some stage in our primate past.

A central point of Mithen’s theory is emotion, which he believes underpin our thoughts and actions. A fear response, for example, was necessary to force a flight response from a dangerous predator. Conversely, happiness was a “reward” for successfully completing a task. There are four basic emotions – happiness, sadness, fear and anger, with more complex emotions such as shame and jealousy being composite of these four. Emotions were crucial for the development of modern human behaviour and indeed for the development of any sapient species. Beings relying solely on logic, such as Vulcans, could never have evolved.

Experiments suggest that apes and monkeys and humans – and by implication Early Humans – all share the same basic range of emotions. Now Mithen pulls together two ideas – firstly, music can be used to both express and manipulate human emotions; secondly the vocalizations of primates serve much the same function in these animals. For example vervet monkeys use predator-specific calls to warn others of their kind. Thus a human would shout “get up the nearest tree, guys, there’s a leopard coming” but a vervet would utter a single specific “holistic” call conveying the same meaning. The difference is that the human utterance is referential, referring to a specific entity and instructing a specific response – a command”. By contrast the vervet monkey is using its utterance to manipulate the emotions of its fellows – the call is associated with a specific type of danger, inducing fear. The fear achieves the caller’s desired effect by inducing its fellows to climb into the trees for safety.

Mithen believes that in Early Humans, living in groups, extended child-rearing and the increased use of gestural communications led to an extention of the “holistic and manipulative” vocalization of monkeys and other primates into a communication mode he refers to as “Hmmmmm” – Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic”, with dance and mime being added to the repertoire. He cites a circular arrangement of animal bones at a Middle Pleistocene Homo heidelbergensis (the common ancestor of both modern humans and the Neanderthals) site at Bilzingsleben, in Germany and claims it was a demarcated space for song and dance routines, in other words a theatre. As with the vocalizations of vervet monkeys, Hmmmmm was intended to manipulate the actions of others. It was more complex than the vocalizations of any present-day non-human primate, but less so than that of modern humans. (For another viewpoint on the role of hominin group living in language evolution, see Dunbar (1996).)

The Hmmmmm of the large-brained Neanderthals was richer and more complex than that of earlier humans. It enabled them to survive in the harsh conditions of Ice Age Europe for 200,000 years, but their culture remained static and their scope for innovation limited by the lack of a true language which would have enabled complex ideas to be framed. Indeed, the sheer conservatism, lack of innovation, symbolic and artistic expression in the Neanderthal archaeological record is, to Mithen, proof that they lacked language. He dismisses the “problem” of the Châtelperronian culture, where there is indeed evidence of innovation and symbolic behaviour. Although the archaeological record is ambiguous with some claiming that the Châtelperronian horizon predates the Aurignacian horizon and the arrival of modern humans (Zilhão et al, 2006), Mithen believes this is incorrect and the Châtelperronian is a result of Neanderthal acculturation from modern humans. The coincidence of independent origin just before the arrival of modern humans is just too great to be believed, he states.

If Neanderthals lacked language, how did Homo sapiens acquire it? Mithen believes that language as we know it came about through the gradual segmentation of holistic utterances into smaller components. Though initially holistic, utterances could be polysyllabic, for example suppose “giveittome” was a holistic, polysyllabic utterance meaning “give it to me”. But if there was also a completely different utterance, “giveittoher”, meaning “give it to her”, then in time the “givitto” part would become a word in its own right. That two random utterances could have a common syllable or syllables that just happened to mean the same thing, and that this could happen often enough for a meaningful vocabulary to emerge strikes me as being implausible. However Mithen cites a computer simulation by Simon Kirby of Edinburgh University in support. Mithen also claims that Kirby’s work is turning Chomsky’s theory of a Universal Grammar on its head. Chomsky claimed that it was impossible for children to learn language without hard-wired linguistic abilities already being present, but Kirby’s simulations apparently suggest the task is not as daunting as Chomsky believed.

Language would have been the key to the “cognitive fluidity” proposed in Mithen’s earlier work (Mithen 1996) as the basis of modern human behaviour. Language would have enabled concepts held in one cognitive domain to be mapped into another. Derek Bickerton believes that language and the ability for complex thought processes arose as a natural consequence of the human brain acquiring the capacity for syntax and recursion (Bickerton, 1990, 2007) but if these capacities were also required for “Hmmmmm” then if the Kirby study is to believed, a changeover to full language could have occurred gradually and without any rewiring of the brain. Mithen argues that this was the case and that the first wave of modern humans to leave Africa, who established themselves in Israel 110-90,000 years ago (Lieberman & O’Shea, 1994; Oppenheimer, 2003) were still using “Hmmmmm”. By 50,000 years ago, “Hmmmmm” had given way to modern language and at this point modern humans left Africa, eventually colonising the rest of the world and replacing the Eurasian populations of archaic humans. That language was crucial to the emergence of modern human behaviour has also been suggested by Jared Diamond (Diamond, 1991).

“Hmmmmm”, for its part, did not disappear and music retains many of its features.

To sum up, this is a fascinating theory that clearly demonstrates that music is as much a part of the human condition as is language. Its main weakness as a theory is that it cannot, by definition, be falsified since all the “Hmmmmm”- using human species such as the Neanderthals are now extinct.

Another problem for me is the idea that anatomically-modern humans got by with “Hmmmmm” for at least 100,000 years and only gradually drifted into full language by the method outlined above. Given that creoles can arise from pidgins in a single generation, this seems implausible, unless we allow some change in the mental organization of modern humans occurring after then.

Mithen mentions the FOXP2 gene, which has been shown to have a crucial role in human language. One study suggested the human version of this gene emerged some time after modern humans diverged from Neanderthals (Enard et al, 2002). Supporters of a “late emergence” for modern human behaviour such as Richard Klein cited have cited this as evidence that otherwise fully-modern humans did in fact undergo some form of “mental rewiring” as late as 50,000 years ago (Klein & Edgar, 2002). However it has since been shown that the Neanderthals had the same version of the gene that we do (Krause et al, 2007), weakening the “late emergence” argument.


Bickerton D (1990): “Language and Species”, University of Chicago Press, USA.

Bickerton D (2007): “Did Syntax Trigger the Human Revolution?” in Rethinking the human revolution, McDonald Institute Monographs, University of Cambridge.

Diamond J (1991): “The Third Chimpanzee”, Radius, London.

Dunbar R (1996): “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language”, Faber and Faber, London Boston.

Wolfgang Enard, Molly Przeworski, Simon E. Fisher, Cecilia S. L. Lai,
Victor Wiebe, Takashi Kitano, Anthony P. Monaco & Svante Paabo (2002): Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language, Nature, Vol. 418 22 August 2002.

Klein R & Edgar B (2002): “The Dawn of Human Culture”, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.

J. Krause, C. Lalueza-Fox, L. Orlando, W. Enard, R. Green, H. Burbano, J. Hublin, C. Hänni, J. Fortea, M. de la Rasilla (2007): The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals, Current Biology, Volume 17, Issue 21, Pages 1908-1912.

Daniel E. Lieberman and John J. Shea (1994): Behavioral Differences between Archaic and Modern Humans in the Levantine Mousterian, American Anthropological Association.

McBrearty S & Brooks A (2000): “The revolution that wasn’t: a new
interpretation of the origin of modern human behaviour”, Journal of Human Evolution (2000) 39, 453–563.

Mithen S (1996): “The Prehistory of the Mind”, Thames & Hudson.

Mithen S (2005): “The Singing Neanderthal”, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Mithen S (2007): “Music and the Origin of Modern Humans”, in Rethinking the human revolution, McDonald Institute Monographs, University of Cambridge.

Oppenheimer S (2003): “Out of Eden”, Constable.

João Zilhão, Francesco d’Errico, Jean-Guillaume Bordes, Arnaud Lenoble, Jean-Pierre Texier and Jean-Philippe Rigaud (2006): Analysis of Aurignacian interstratification at the Châtelperronian -type site and implications for the behavioral modernity of Neandertals, PNAS August 15, 2006 vol. 103 no. 33.

© Christopher Seddon 2009


Singing Lessons Dude said...

wow that is truly amazing. Neanderthals singing. Thought they didn;t even have a language...

Thanks for the article.

Kieron McNulty said...

"Language is a very complex system of communication which must have evolved gradually in a succession of ever more complex steps generally referred to as proto-language"

According to Chomsky language is not primarily 'about' communication, but about thought.

He strongly argues that language did not evolve in the way suggested here but arrived as a result of mutation in an individual which rewired the brain which then gave selective advantage to that individual.

I would recommend the The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray

It gave mne a lot of food for thought!