Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Why did we invent Music?

Music is something that has been central to humanity, well since forever. Or that is as far as we can tell. The archaeological record shows that where-ever we find humans, we find musical instruments. The oldest known musical instruments, flutes made of bear bones and mammoth ivory, have been found in Germany and dated to 42,000 years ago, which matches the time at which homo-sapiens were moving into Europe. And to hear what these flutes may have sounded like, some have been reconstructed and can be heard here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHy9FOblt7Y. Given the complexity of the instruments and that other musical instruments made of material less likely to survive in the archaeological record, it can be assumed that the use of musical instruments dates back further.
The importance of music to people may have been lost in recent years, while the advent of various personnel music playing devices has allowed for everybody to engage in the art of listening to music, the actual practice of making music has become confined to those with ‘musical talent’, but in many societies everybody engage in dancing and music-making.The evolutionary origin of music has been a matter of some debate. Darwin argued that it was due to sexual selection, that music served an adaptive function, in that it was used to charm the opposite sex. Some have argued, such as Dan Sperber and Steve Pinker, that it an evolutionary parasite, that in our development of the necessary skills for language, that is the ability to process complex sound patterns that vary in pitch and rhythm, that music arose as a by-product of this, a pleasant but entirely useless from an evolutionary perspective.

This view though of has been questioned, with Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist arguing that language and music have a common origin. Mithen sees early communication between Neanderthal Harry and Neanderthal Bob as based in singing rather than talking, a proto-music/language that he dubs the ‘Hmmmm communication system’. This system was, Holistic, in that it relied on whole phrases rather than words, Manipulative, it was not about passing on information but about manipulating the behaviour of others, Mutli-modal, Musical and Mimetic (HMMMM). These singing Neanderthals, according to Mithen, while having the necessary vocal tract and respiratory control for language, lacked the required neural circuitry. Hence communication took the form of gesture, dance, onomatopoeia, sound synaesthesia and vocal imitation.   

According to this stance, at one time then in the human lineage, music and language, were one and the same but then diverged. The mechanisms behind this divergence are not understood but the effect was that but became specialised in their respective roles, language in communicating information and music in expressing emotion and creating a sense of group identity. Which many have argued has played a crucial role in our evolution.   

In ‘The Prehistory of the Mind (1996)’ Mithen contends that the lack of symbolic artefacts found in association with Neanderthal dwelling sites, implies an absence of symbolic thought and therefore of symbolic utterance, i.e. the spoken world. This is a bold claim though, not only from a purely theoretical point but given the limited archaeological record from this era, the ‘absence’ of anything should not be taken as evidence that it wasn’t at one point present. There also has been some revision over the symbolic material culture associated with Neanderthals, people have been reluctant to attribute any kind of significance to evidence of Neanderthal ‘ritual’, so Neanderthal burials were viewed as purely functional acts, ‘no point in having a rotten body stinking up the cave’ rather than ritual. However, there is increasing evidence that Neanderthals did engage in symbolically mediated behaviour, with findings of decorated and worked bone tools, personnel ornaments now dated to the time of the Neanderthals.

Therefore while recent archaeological findings and new dating techniques may have damaged the strength of some of the claims made by Mithen, it does show how archaeology can contribute to this debate. Also the findings that Neanderthals may also have engaged in symbolic thought may help to element the speciesism inherent in Cognitive Science. And for those who like archaeology and music (how could you not), here's some interesting musical instruments from ancient Ireland

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