Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body is absolutely lovable. Part of that lovable quality is its charming subject. A book tracing the importance of music to our evolution and to our social organization – its importance, in fact, to our humanity – is almost bound to be fascinating.
Yet it isn’t the most elegantly written book. Sometimes the author’s constructions are clumsy; sometimes the ideas he writes about seem silly. But if you slog through to the end, you’ll find yourself bathed in the warm and loving light of human existence.
Bad things first (and they’re not that bad.) First, throughout the book, one is aware Mithen is a scientific, not an elegant, writer. That’s perfectly fine, even an advantage. He’s writing about a combination of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and music theory for an audience who may be fresh to these subjects and who would therefore prefer scientific clarity to prettiness.
Sometimes, however, when Mithen adds personal notes –- telling us what sort of music we should imagine when we we think of different hominids going about their business, for example, or talking about his family's musical tastes -– it jars sharply with his usual academic crispness.
Second, sometimes it seems like Mithen – indeed, the whole field of pre-historic anthropology – is pulling silly, subjective ideas out of thin air. The most striking example of this was the Sexy Hand-Axe hypothesis (that pre-historic humans tried to impress mating partners by spending disproportionate amounts of time producing symmetrical flint axe-heads), which reads here like a bad joke.
Anthropology is a science full of uncertainties and speculations that can seem like affronts to common sense. Any book with anthropological themes will be full of them as well, and The Singing Neanderthals is no exception.
However, everything else about this book is splendid. Most of the time, the anthropological ideas Mithen writes about are extremely interesting and not silly at all, and none of them are superfluous to his eventual conclusions. Happily, the times these anthropological ideas are clearest come when he discusses his central subject – the evolutionary history of music. One striking example was a speculative but straightforward physical and chemical description of how hominids with a sense of self and others (like us) can come to trust each other using dance and the creation of harmonies.
And sometimes Mithen writes about transcendently fascinating ideas that relate more indirectly to music’s role in the life of our species, like a quick explanation of the necessity of emotion as a guide to action coming before rationality. Such ideas look long-winded in sentences like that. Mithen makes them clear and crisp.
The great achievements of The Singing Neanderthals, however, are in the final chapters when Mithen draws all the strings of his arguments together – including the ones that read like bad jokes in the middle of the book. His conclusions make one think about Neanderthals admiringly, even lovingly, and fill even the most unmusical head with imaginings of what their music may have sounded like. Not only that, he makes one understand the musical arts of modern humans in a simultaneously deeply scientific and truly uplifting way.
The book is a chewy read, but delicious in the end. If you can make it there, you’ll love it too.