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Mithen's "The Prehistory of the Mind" was one of the most intellectually exciting books that I can remember reading. His thesis is that the sudden flowering of symbolic representation - like the beautiful cave art of Lascaux - only 40-50,000 years ago could only be explained by a radical change in the mind of homo sapiens. The apparent paradox he addresses, is why the undoubted technical abilities of early man and his ancestors - as evidenced in the abundant and often exquisitely fashioned stone and flint tools - had remained essentially at the same level for many hundreds of thousands of years. Throughout this time - including the period from about 190,000 to 50,000 yag during which anatomically modern humans existed - there is virtually no evidence of any use of these abilities to make anything that could be described as art or decoration. Mithen's solution to this paradox is that early homo sapiens had a "modular" mind - consisting of a "social" module, that allowed them to conduct their relationships with others, a "technical" module that helped them learn to manipulate materials and make tools, and a "natural history" module that understood the animals and plants in the world about them. What they lacked was an integration of these modules - "cognitive fluidity" - which would for example have allowed crossover between social and technical modules, and enabled man to use their technical abilities to fashion art or ornamentation which could be used to modulate or manipulate their relationships with others. It was the evolution of this integrative ability which caused the cultural/artistic florescence that we find so remarkeable.
Perhaps because I have followed and found very logical the arguments of the Evolutionary Psychologists, who see the mind as a collection of evolved adaptations to a series of specific fitness problems, I found Mithen's thesis very intuitive and appealing - even though it inevitably involves a great deal of speculation and extrapolation from evidence which can only be described as circumstantial (what the late S.J. Gould unkindly referred to as "Just So" stories).
Because of my enthusiasm for "Prehistory", I eagerly awaited subsequent books from Mithen. His second book "After the Ice - a Global Human History, 20,000-5,000 BC" was a huge disappointment; suffice it to say, that this was one of the few books I have started, and failed to read through to the end. The present book - although not in any way as groundbreaking or as stimulating as "Prehistory" - is a worthwhile read.
In fact it is a very "worthy" book; the central argument is that, as man's early ancestors evolved into fully bipedal hominids, they developed a means of communication, which was not language, which Mithen refers to as "Hmmmmm" - Holistic (consisting of whole sounds not parseable into words and syntax), Manipulative (designed to achieve ends, rather than describe), Multi-Modal (sound and body movement), Musical and Mimetic (using mimicry and immitation). The two two main supporting strands for this thesis involve, on the one hand consideration of the neurological and behavioral aspects of music and language, and on the other, hypotheses based on what is known about the lifestyles and selection pressures on early humans at different stages of evolution.
In the early chapters, Mithen's review of the similarities and differences between music and language, leads to the conclusion that they both evolved from some kind of primitive proto-language-music combination. He then reveals some fascinating aspects about what can only be described as the "competition" between linguistic and musical abilities for brain space. For example, that people with either congenital or acquired neural speech disorders often have enhanced musical abilities e.g perfect pitch - "musical savants". Or, that most infants possess perfect pitch (like many people suffering from autism). It appears that most babies are born with perfect pitch, which is gradually replaced by a bias toward relative pitch. Language acquisition involves the "unlearning" of perfect pitch (which is disadvantageous, because it prevents "generalization" - understanding that songs sung in different keys, or words spoken at different fundamental frequencies are the same.)
The second half of the book descibes what is known about the lifestyles of various early humans - homo ergaster, homo heidelbergiensis, and the neanderthals of the title - . Mithen's objective is to demonstrate that, at each of these stages, those individuals best able to communicate with their fellows, be trusted by them and gain their cooperation would have been the fittest (in darwinian terms). There would therefore have been a strong selective pressure for developing effective communication, and Mithen's argument is that this would have led to the progressive elaboration of communication into his "Hmmmm" - but not to language as we know it. Arguments involving many, many occurrences of words like "might have" and "we can imagine that" (which later morph into less speculative "did" and "were") are inevitable, given the paucity of hard evidence. They require the reader to very comprehensively "suspend disbelief" until the end, in order to see whether the whole edifice stands up or not.
Where Mithen is able to provide evidence or deductive argument from evidence, he does so. He also very conscientiously presents and evaluates evidence and counter-arguments that might contradict his thesis. Personally, I found the argument that, even the neanderthals - perhaps the closest and most recent relatives of modern humans - lacked language, quite convincing. However, Mithen's conclusion from this - that music played a major role in their lives (to the extent of having "performance spaces" in their caves) - left me unconvinced.