Friday, July 20, 2007

Steven Mithen - The Singing Neanderthals; The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body

Quite early on in the reading of this book, it becomes clear that just how humans communicate, how language developed and how our minds work are matters that keep specialist scientists arguing late into the night.

Steven Mithen's excellent introduction to the debates around these matters does a good job of introducing the basic ideas to an audience of non-specialists. At almost roller-coaster speed, we learn basic brain science, how babies use language, which parts of the mind are responsible for music and language, why we might have emotions and so on.

Mithen's central theory is one that I suspect is much more controversial though. He argues that music and I mean music in all it's forms - singing, rhythm, chanting and so on, formed a much more important part of the development of the human mind. He looks at how other apes react to music, the inter-relation between music and language, and how babies develop the capacity for speech.

I must admit to finding it all a little confusing. Mithen has an easy style, but the book ends up being, in my mind, a collection of fascinating anecdotes and nuggets of information, but I felt his general argument got lost in amongst it all.

Fot instance, I was fascinated to learn about the interactions between mothers and babies, and how "baby language" actually stimulates the child's ability to pick up language later. I'm sure though, that I'll remember this much longer than Mithen's much more detailed arguments about how music and singing by mothers is part of this too. Similarly, he has very interesting stuff to say about how emotions develop and how collective living has always been central to human existence, but it all got lost in a wealth of detail and bittiness.

In the end, while thoroughly enjoying this book, I was also very disappointed by it - part of this contradiction lies in my thorough enjoyment of Mithen's earlier work, After the Ice. This was for me one of the best works about human development at the end of the last ice-age ever written for non-professionals interested in archaeology and human development. That was a superb book which will long remain with me. This is clearly a much more developed, complex work, which unfortunately didn't stimulate the right bit of my brain.

Related Reviews

Mithen - To the Islands
Mithen - After the Ice

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