Monday, 9 February 2009

Prehistoric Music

by Kathryn Hadley

Yesterday, the premiere of ‘Sounds of the Neanderthals’, a recreation of prehistoric music by Jazz composer Simon Thorne, was staged at the National Museum Cardiff. Thorne was commissioned by the National Museum Wales to create a musical backdrop to the Paleolithic section of its new exhibition ‘Origins: In Search of Early Wales’, which opened last December, and spent the last year researching the way in which Neanderthals created language through sound rather than words. He was introduced to brain experts, studied fossil remains from the museum’s collection and visited Pontnewydd cave in Denbighshire, where excavations between 1978 and 1995 revealed the earliest human presence in Wales dated to around 230,000 years ago. The exhibition notably includes teeth discovered at Pontnewydd cave as well as a Neanderthal hand axe. Thorne’s 75-minute composition was also inspired by Professor Stephen Mithen’s book The Singing Neanderthals and David Lewis Williams’s The Mind in the Cave. The event was follwed by a talk by Stephen Mithen from Reading University.

In April last year, a team of scientists led by Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University, reconstructed, for the first time, Neanderthal voices using 50,000-year-old fossils from France and a computer synthesizer (notably reported by Reuters). Stephen Mithen’s book notably argues that the Neanderthal language was more musical than modern human language and predated the separation of language and music into two different forms of cognition. Recent research has suggested that Neanderthals were more innovative and resourceful than was previously believed and that they may have created the first forms of music.

Thorne explained:
"It's a ridiculous notion to suggest we could ever know the precise role that
music played in the lives of the Neanderthals, but imagining it has been a
fascinating experience [...] Given that Neanderthal's man brain was about
the same size as ours, and much of our brain is given over to language, then you
can assume they probably had language too [...] We can't not be - we have to
invent things and who's to say Neanderthal man did not invent the beginnings of
music? [...] We use language for words, to communicate. But how do we learn
language? If you look at babies and the noise they make, they learn to make
singing noises before they learn to speak."

The Neanderthal man evolved from the late Homo erectus in West Eurasia and the middle-east about 230,000–150,000 years ago. The classification of the Neanderthal is subject to debate - he is either classified as a subspecies of humans (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) or as a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis). The Neanderthal was a cold-adapted species and they were the first humans to express aesthetic qualities and religious beliefs in the form of burials. They became extinct approximately 28,000 years ago as more numerous and versatile populations of Homo sapiens sapiens colonized their territories.

‘Sounds of the Neanderthals’ is due to go on a separate live tour in Wales, with four singers, stone instruments and a video project, at the end of March.

For more general information on the prehistoric period, visit our prehistory focus page
For information on the discoveries at Pontnewydd cave, visit the blog of the National Museum Wales

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