Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Neanderthal music, heard 30,000 years too late.

As part of the exhibition 'Origins of Early Wales', the National Museum Wales (Amgueddfa Cymru) commissioned an extraordinary composition: music of the Neanderthals. Musician Simon Thorne produced a 75-minute work of what he reckoned Neanderthal vocal and instrumental music sounded like.

Granted, we shall never truly know exactly what the Neanderthals sounded like*, but Mr Thorne has given us an intriguing reconstruction. His work is bolstered by findings in a couple of recent books concerning the topic (admittedly, a niche topic).
The Singing Neanderthals
The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
Steven Mithen, Harvard University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-674-02192-1

The Mind in The Cave
Consciousness and the Origins of Art
David Lewis-Williams, Thames & Hudson, 2004. ISBN 0-500-28465-2
Results from the ongoing sequencing of the Neanderthal genome suggest that they share a conserved version of the FOXP2 gene, first speculated to spread through the Homo genus before the divergence of the species. The FOXP2 gene is thought to be closely associated with speech, and interested readers should read the linked references for further information. In short, FOXP2 confers some part of the vocal phenotype we humans enjoy.

As an amateur linguist, I found it thrilling to imagine the story of Beowulf being told around Anglo-Saxon hearths circa 500 A.D., and am even further intrigued by the concept of reconstructions of a Proto-Indo-European language, the language spoken 5 to 10 thousand years ago which gave birth to a majority of extant world languages today.

Imagine, then, my excitement at the possibility of hearing -- even just for 'show' -- singing from 30,000 years ago. The mind boggles, and I shall require a moment to recuperate afterwards.

* I have often accused my dear sister Sophie of sounding like a cavewoman when she would sing in the shower, but I suspect that's just a bit of sibling rivalry at work.
Neanderthal picture attribution is here.

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