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May 21st, 2009
Music and Evolution
Music and the Neanderthal's Communication

Scientist and author of The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body Stephen Mithen explains his theories about The Neanderthal’s musicality.

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Stephen Mithen: The Neanderthals—there’s no evidence that they had language. But they must have had a sophisticated form of communication. They were just like humans, they might would have had to have told other people how they’re feeling, they would have had to look after their children and nurture them. They had to have made plans for group hunting and general movement. So what sort of communications system did they have? Now I came to the conclusion which must have been based on high degrees of musicality. Because we can see traces of that in our nearest living relatives. This seems to be the only form of communication with that language that would have been complex to allow them to have function as a social group, and yet not gone that extra step to modern language. So I think they communicated by using sets of phrases, almost like musical phrases that would have had semantic meanings, phrases such as something that would translate into “Let us share meat,” “We’ll go hunting” or “How are you feeling?” but would have been expressed in musical tones, different types of pitches, different types of rhythms. They might have used these also to build a sense of group identity, very much how we use music today, especially for caring for infants, you know just like we do today with our youngest children before they got language, we sing to them and move them rhythmically . I’m sure the Neanderthals would have been doing exactly the same.

  • Kevin Fitzpatrick

    Intriguing – look forward to seeing the broadcast to see if there are some additional lines of evidence to support his theory.

  • Stephen Dolle

    I watched the TV airing of this PBS piece last night, as I am a neuroscientist and musician. I will be making a presentation next week to a Southern California science center on what I would deliver in a workshop or keynote presentation on the rhythms of the brain.

    I am an Afro Cuban percussionist and drum circle facilitator, and have undertaken research with rhythm and cognition, movement, and apply this to team building, communications, neuro disorders, and even sports like basketball and football. It all figures together.

    I see a massive connection of music to human movement and communication, also seen in the dancing Cockatoo. I believe music originated as a training tool to replicate important sounds of everyday life. The role of birds as communicators to aid human and other animal survival has been well covered. Birds warn us of danger, sing us to sleep, are of a spiritual nature, and perhaps the first entertainers on Earth.

    I believe music originated to enhance our survival thru improved movement and communications for social, reproductive, team work, and averting danger, i.e. recognizing critical sounds on Earth. When science measures the emotional response to music, what it is testing is really whether the person understands the “meaning” of various audible sounds, that I believe is in part passed on genetically (at least pre-wired), familarly, and easily learned thru life.

    I believe our brains are pre-wired to process the sounds and movement we will see and hear in a lifetime. Movements outside of our audible range are still rhythmic, and serve us much in the same way as audible sound. We sense movement by way of our vestibular system: sight, sound, middle ear, mid-brain sensors, and body sensory. Our sense of smell can tells us direction when it is unclear.

    I believe we sense sound vibration and movement also with our physical body, and that our body is able to carry out cognitive tasks to support multi-tasking by the brain. Using your body aids a specific type of intelligence. Our bodies are also pre-wired to recognize rhythmic patterns, with sensors in each of our joints. We can communicate, think, recall, and execute cognitive tasks in part with our bodies. That is why the brains of musicians are often thicker in certain cortex areas, having had music as a training tool.

    I would be happy to share more of my rhythm and brain research with any in this program. I am now doing keynotes where I play and speak. Please contact

  • Stephen Dolle

    The following is a language learning trial I’d like a school or teacher to try out.

    I am a drum circle facilitator, and I believe that playing and listening to percussion in an “open format” strengthens the areas of the brain necessary in learning language. I have notice times when I play a lot, I am able to understand foreign languages in ways I would not normally pick up on.

    Visualize how before a golfer or baseball player goes out to play, he/she takes numerous practice swings. The same holds for a person preparing for an exam. Well, is there some prep you might do to enhance learning in a language course?

    I would propose a language class try 10-15 minutes at the beginning of each class playing small hand percussion in open format, in the hopes it may trigger the language centers of the brain. You could include another class or two as a control.

    I’ve spoken about this to my colleages in drum circle facilitation, and there seems to be some concensus on the connection.

    If you desire more information, contact me at Dolle Communications. Thanks.

  • Leotaurus

    Seem utopian and absurd. Neanderthals may live in today’s society
    According to the appearance and the reconstructed skull of such people is very rare, their intellect is several times lower.

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  • Cocoa Frye

    Regarding the learning of language; perhaps the act of tapping or performing on a drum before a given activity satisfies a certain primal need which perpetuates openness to the new input. Certainly performing physical acts require cognative activity which “warms up” the brain before it encounters new information. This may also work in the reverse causing there to be a block to new information, if you will. Is it conceivable that any form of physical or emotional activity performed prior to another creates brain stimulation?

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    It is interesting to me to see the part in the video where the practicing Stephen Minister was in need of a Care Giver and became a Care Receiver. I am a Stephen Minister and I was a member of the first Stephen Ministry Class in our Church. The person that encouraged me to take the training to become a Stephen Minister is a Clinical Psychologist. He also participated in the class and assisted with the training. He and I were the only males in the class. About a year and half after we completed the training the 21 year old son of the Psychologist died tragically in an auto accident. I then became his Stephen Minister. That was quite challenging for me as a Lay Care Giver caring for a Professional Care Giver and I also had a son the same age so I could feel some of his pain. My Care Receiver and I took many long walks together with God. The walk was not always easy but with God leading the way we have gotten through it. A couple of years ago I became seriously with a potentially fatal illness and guess who was by my side. That is right My Care Receiver and I had switched roles and I became the Care Receiver. We have both recovered and we are doing well.

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  • Seatche

    Could have the first signal directly addressing audible noises have been the signal to be quiet? This signal is certainly needed, when the group was out on the hunt. Of course, it is strange to think of hairy guys and girls singing an “Ah” in a single tone, while point to something. Everything would seem weirdly religious to me. Makes me wonder if yes (AH HA) and no (Uh, Uh) are equally as old, since AH HA has a lower to higher tone, and Uh, Uh has a higher to lower tone, making them primitive articulations, even with the added “H” in “HA”. OK, I’ll be quiet; boy, am I hungry… SHH!

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