Why are humans musical? Why do people in all cultures sing or play instruments? Why do we appear to have specialized neurological apparatus for hearing and interpreting music as distinct from other sounds? And how does our musicality relate to language and to our evolutionary history?
Anthropologists and archaeologists have paid little attention to the origin of music and musicality — far less than for either language or ‘art’. While art has been seen as an index of cognitive complexity and language as an essential tool of communication, music has suffered from our perception that it is an epiphenomenal ‘leisure activity’, and archaeologically inaccessible to boot. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Steven Mithen; music is integral to human social life, he argues, and we can investigate its ancestry with the same rich range of analyses — neurological, physiological, ethnographic, linguistic, ethological and even archaeological — which have been deployed to study language.
In The Singing Neanderthals Steven Mithen poses these questions and proposes a bold hypothesis to answer them. Mithen argues that musicality is a fundamental part of being human, that this capacity is of great antiquity, and that a holistic protolanguage of musical emotive expression predates language and was an essential precursor to it.
This is an argument with implications which extend far beyond the mere origins of music itself into the very motives of human origins. Any argument of such range is bound to attract discussion and critique; we here present commentaries by archaeologists Clive Gamble and Iain Morley and linguists Alison Wray and Maggie Tallerman, along with Mithen's response to them. Whether right or wrong, Mithen has raised fascinating and important issues. And it adds a great deal of charm to the time-honoured, perhaps shopworn image of the Neanderthals shambling ineffectively through the pages of Pleistocene prehistory to imagine them humming, crooning or belting out a cappella harmonies as they went.