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The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body [Hardcover]

Steven Mithen
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

30 Jun 2005
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, those of that other aural and vocal communication system, music, have been neglected if not ignored. Like language it is a universal feature of human culture, one that is a permanent feature of our daily lives and one that is capable of both expressing and inducing intense emotion. In The Singing Neanderthal, 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.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; First Edition edition (30 Jun 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297643177
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297643173
  • Product Dimensions: 3.8 x 16.4 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,070,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'offers a new perspective on the development of the modern mind.' (HISTORY TODAY (May 2005) )

'a detailed erudite exploration of the psychology and neurobiology of music, and the relationship between music and language....a genuine tour de force - unquestionably Mithen's best book to date.' (Robin Dunbar BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGY (July/August 2005) )

'grand in its scope and bold in conception...[with] profound conclusions.' (Adrian Woolfson SUNDAY TELEGRAPH (10.7.05) )

'Mithen's rich, dispassionate study of the origins of music, language and mime goes back to music-making among primates as the basis for understanding what role music might play in the human mind, primative and modern, healthy and damaged.' (Norman Lebrecht EVENING STANDARD (18.7.05) )

'This is a long-overdue book, which approaches human evolution from an intriguing as well as entertaining angle.' (R.I.M. Dunbar TLS (29.7.05) )

'Mithen argues in this book on "the origins of music, language, mind and body", musical qualities have been fundamental not only to courtship but also to the sense of togetherness that enables a bunch of clever, edgy primates to make the most of their talents.' (Marek Kohn THE INDEPENDENT (29.7.05) )

'a joy, packed with the latest research and intriguing new suggestions and ideas.' (Richard Wentk FOCUS (September 2005) )

'This is an absorbing and thought provoling work.' (WESTERN DAILY PRESS (16.7.05) )

'an absorbing page-turner of a book that makes an interesting case for new thinking of the origins of language and brings the hitherto neglected consideration of the evolution of music into the spotlight..fascinating and well researched.' (Ian Simmons FORTEAN TIMES (September 2005) )

'Mithen knows a great deal and he writes well.' (LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS (6.10.05) )

'...the book is extremely well written, and Mithen's clear and infectious enthusiasm make it a good introduction for non-specialists interested in the topic. I can recommend it to anyone interested in the biology and evolution of music or language - and particularly to readers interested in Darwin's idea that music constitutes an ancient and important form of human communication, intertwined with, but independent from, language.' (NATURE (November 2005) )

'This is a stimulating book with a wealth of ideas.' (Richard Collins IRISH EXAMINER (29.11.05) )

About the Author

Steven Mithen is Professor of Early Prehistory and head of the School of Human and environmental Sciences at Reading University. Author of numerous books and articles, he has also consulted and appeared on TV and radio programmes about prehistory around the world. He has directed fieldwork in Western Scotland and is currently co-directing excavations in Wadi Faynan, southern Jordan.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As highly convincing as it's enthusiastic 8 Jan 2006
I bought this book as a must-have after hearing Mithen speak at Art and Mind in autumn 2005. Not having read any of his earlier work, I was prepared to be disappointed, because a few others in this field have an incredibly dry writing style that can be frustrating if you lack some of the academic background.
I needn't have worried. By the time I'd read the introduction it was obvious that I was going to enjoy the book. He writes as enthusiastically as he lectures, gently starting with modern-day scenarios that are accesible to most people before laying out his arguments for the evolution of music and language in hominids over the last six million years or so. He appears to be scrupulously fair, pointing out where others disagree with his arguments, but links the whole chain of reasoning together in a convincing manner.
One of the outstanding features of the book for me, coming to the subject without a great depth of understanding of topics such as DNA, or sexual dimorphism in apes, is that I've learnt enough to be able to penetrate the work of others in the field without really noticing that it's happened.
I was sad to discover that I was halfway through the last chapter, torn between wanting to finish it and wanting more.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From "Hmmmm" to "Hmmmmm" 7 Mar 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Fear not, dear reader. I'm not making the sounds of indecision. Nor have I forgotten the words to my local national anthem. Instead, those sets of letters are acronyms. Steven Mithen uses them to typify the foundations of our ability to communicate in our distant past. The letters stand for "Holistic, "multi-modal", "manipulative", and "musical". With the addition of "mimetic", he uses the collective phrase to explain why "music" in this broadly defined sense, preceded the development of language and grammar in our species. He also explains the "how" of this phenomenon, which is what gives this book its real value.
Mithen's previous works are a foundation for this one, although he openly admits that the phenomenon of music eluded him in them. He makes up for that oversight with a detailed examination of fossil and genetic information to support his thesis. As humans fluent in the use of speech, with its lexicons and syntax, we've become blinded to our true roots. We rush children through infancy, overlooking the process we use in communicating with those who lack words and their meanings. Mithen says this period is critical - both because its universality among cultures should tell us something about our past, and because a better understanding of the communication process can lead to smarter and healthier children. Who, among the mothers we know, fails to "sing" to their newborn?
In Mithen's view, that childhood communication method repeats what our African ancestors did with each other prior to the development of language. Words, in our time, are representative. They "mean" something - an object, an event, a lesson. In those early days, emotions, especially the basic ones of fear, flight, fight or feed, were the only significant topics.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, clearly written, but not easy! 6 Jan 2009
By Jezza
I've been thinking for a while about how come we (humans) all like and make music. It's a fairly fundamental question, and the answer isn't obvious in Darwinian terms -- the only terms I'm prepared to consider, really.

This is a brilliant account of the co-evolution of music and language, and one which I found utterly convincing, in so far as I could follow it. I think of myself as fairly smart, but be warned that this is a hard book - it's not a populist ramble through the subject area, though it does contain much of interest to the general reader (me).

I'm going to try to read his other books, because he writes so well on such an important topic, but I don't anticipate that the ride will be any easier.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking 15 April 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A great read whilst doing online course in paleoanthropology so it helped in a big way. Interesting theory on the origins of language.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Hmmmmm. 21 Jan 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The backbone of this book is an interesting and thought provoking thesis, and if you have an interest in the origins of music, or the evolution of the human mind then I recommend that you read it. The first part of the book presents a broad selection of scientific theory and research results, the second part expounds Professor Mithen's theory, referencing back to the research presented in part one. And a very attractive theory it is too; Australopithecines whooping and singing together like gibbons, Homo ergaster communicating with bird-like song and dance-like gesture, Homo neanderthalensis sharing complex information in a wordless song and dance routine and Homo sapiens singing to God and talking to each other. As with all scientific theses, the research Mithen presents supports his theory. But there are occasions when major elements of that theory appear to be built on fairly flimsy footings and much contradictory evidence is disregarded or dismissed somewhat casually. That is to be expected from a scientific theory, but needs to be born in mind by non-scientists who read this book. So yes, buy it, read it, think about it, but also buy, read and think about other theories. This book is by no means the end of the debate.
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