The Singing Neanderthals  

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"This idea, called the singing Neanderthal hypothesis, is a model of language evolution proposing that both music and language derive from the same source, the humming of prehuman social interactions. It's important to note here that Mithen uses the term Neanderthal loosely." --The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (2015) by David Ludden

"Mithen achieves this largely by incorporating into this evolutionary context the ideas of several other researchers. Principal is Alison Wray’s idea of holistic and manipulative (functional, in Wray’s terms) early linguistic behaviour; with this Mithen incorporates the important point that communication uses both vocal and corporeal media and is thus multi-modal, Merlin Donald’s idea of mimetic communication, and the idea that such vocalizations would have exhibited musical qualities. From these components are derived the appropriately onomatopoeic acronym ‘Hmmmmm’, which Mithen names the pre-linguistic communicative behaviour."[1]

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The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (2005) by Steven Mithen.

It is a reaction to Steven Pinker's "music is useless" dictum and builds on How Musical is Man? (1973) by John Blacking and the work of Alison Wray on formulaic language.


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, music has been neglected if not ignored. Like language it is a universal feature of human culture, one that is a permanent fixture in our daily lives.

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.


Steven Mithen proposed the term Hmmmmm (holistic (non-compositional), manipulative (utterances are commands or suggestions, not descriptive statements), multi-modal (acoustic as well as gestural and facial), musical, and mimetic ) for the pre-linguistic system of communication posited to have been used by archaic Homo, beginning with Homo ergaster and reaching the highest sophistication in the Middle Pleistocene with Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis. Hmmmmm is an acronym for holistic (non-compositional), manipulative (utterances are commands or suggestions, not descriptive statements), multi-modal (acoustic as well as gestural and facial), musical, and mimetic.

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