Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Songs Without Words Volume 59 Number 2, March/April 2006
by Kate Wong

Move over, Mozart--you've got nothing on the Neandertals. Our beetle-browed cousins may not have mastered art or language, but they were maestros of music--and dance. So contends archaeologist Steven Mithen in The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (Harvard University Press, $25.95). Not merely entertaining, these abilities were, in his view, essential to their very survival in the extraordinarily challenging environment of Ice Age Europe. Indeed, they formed the primary means of communication among these large-brained hominids.

The Singing Neanderthals

The Neandertals were not the first to engage in these activities. By Mithen's estimation, shortly after our forebears became fully upright around 1.8 million years ago, they began using music and gesture, including dance, to express themselves and influence others. Together these elements formed a sort of protolanguage, but one that lacked words or grammar. He believes this communication system--dubbed "Hmmmmm" for its holistic, multimodal, manipulative, musical, and mimetic aspects--ultimately gave rise to language and music as we know them.

Mithen marshals an impressive range of evidence from such diverse fields as linguistics, musicology, archaeology, psychology, anthropology, genetics, and neuroscience to make his case that the universal appreciation of music among today's societies--be it by Brahms or Britney--is a legacy bequeathed to us by our long-ago ancestors. Along the way, he describes scenes of hominid life as he sees and hears them. Mithen's early humans don't just sit around the campfire knapping stone tools. They sing their babies to sleep, celebrate feasts with communal chanting and dancing, serenade potential mates, and mourn the dead with song.

"Hmmmmm" stood the Neandertals, our closest relatives, in good stead for nearly 200,000 years, enabling them to persevere through the harshest conditions endured by any hominid known. But it was no match for true language, which many scholars, Mithen among them, believe emerged only in our own species, Homo sapiens, around 50,000 years ago. Once availed of this more powerful means of conveying information, H. sapiens was unstoppable: it pushed into new locales, outcompeted the Neandertals and other resident archaic hominids, and quickly rose to world domination.

Appealing as Mithen's theory is, it is largely untestable, for song and dance do not fossilize. But his informed speculation is nonetheless deliciously provocative. For anyone who has marveled at music's power to stir us to tears and incite us to dance, or wondered why we instinctively coo to infants in a singsong voice, this book will surely come as music to their ears.

Kate Wong is the editorial director of

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America