Given the rapid rate at which our images of human prehistory are changing, thanks to the speed of archaeological progress, Steven Mithen’s 1996 book The Prehistory of the Mind is quite old news. I read it for the first time recently while camping in Galicia, and was both thrilled and frustrated by it. Thrilled because it painted perhaps the most coherent and sensitive picture of the evolution of human consciousness I’ve encountered; but frustrated by its frankly bizarre neglect of the possibilities raised by what we call “altered states”, altered by plants or otherwise.

The Singing Neanderthals hits a similar balance, this time honing in on the role of language and music in our journey from the world of apes, through various hominid branches, to our present identity as Homo sapiens. Mithen rallies the very latest research in archaeology (much of his evidence having arisen just a year or two before publication), plus insights from a broad survey of relevant disciplines, taking in developmental psychology, neuropathology, ethological studies of primate behaviour, and naturally a liberal dash of musicology and linguistics. His ability to sift through vast amounts of scientific data, to weigh findings in different arenas against each other, and synthesize conclusions using both common sense and methodical rigour, is hugely impressive. As is, equally importantly, his knack for expressing this process vividly, never coming across as condescending when trying to make something clear, and never getting carried away with his profession’s jargon.

It’s disappointing, then, to find the same odd neglect of altered states. Let me be clear; despite this topic being one of my personal hobby horses, I think this is an objectively sound criticism, not just a strained cry of, “Talk about my things!” The very nature of Mithen’s theories, in both books, almost begs for altered states to be factored in. His conclusions are perhaps the best support I’ve come across for the theory that altered states—especially, of course, plant hallucinogens—may have played a crucial role in the evolution of consciousness. Many will understandably remark that I’m asking too much of a professional archaeologist—they never talk about the weird shit, do they? Well, they do these days. This new wave of consideration for hallucinations and trances naturally has its detractors, who range from well-meaning scientists making valid critical observations to obsessively antagonistic fuddy-duddies with some sort of frightful, misshapen axe to grind. What is bizarre is that Mithen is neither. He doesn’t even address the subject to dismiss it. Such avoidance can only be wilful, and the charitable guess is that he wants to have the meat of his theories digested by his colleagues and wider public without the unfortunate whiff of hysteria that often surrounds discussion of psychedelics. Fair enough; but while such political considerations are a usually unavoidable part of science, they are nevertheless distasteful and distorting.

The Prehistory of the Mind proposed that the higher apes, and then hominids, evolved a few “hard-wired” types of intelligence, often referred to as “modules” or “domains”. Mithen takes those that came to be genetically encoded into hominid brains to be:

  • Social intelligence, helping to navigate the increasingly complex nature of hominid interactions
  • Technical intelligence, forming the basis of our leaps forward from the basic tool-use found in other animals
  • Natural history intelligence, basically framing our knowledge and thinking about the rest of the natural world around us

The core of his theory in that book was that hominids from the early Australopithecines through to the Neanderthal dead-end evolved each of these types of intelligence, but it was only Homo sapiens who made the breakthrough. That is, breaking through the barriers that until then seemed to have isolated these mental domains from each other. Mithen held that developments in the linguistic faculties of humans led to the ability to see one domain in terms of another, i.e. to think metaphorically. This neatly explains why, for instance, we find quite advanced tool use among early hominids (almost no modern humans can replicate the flint-knapping skills of the Neanderthals), but at best scant, debatable evidence of symbolic thinking or art. Mithen holds that what we recognize as art, religion, or science arise from a “cognitive fluidity” that lets us bring one form of intelligence to bear on another. Thus, when technical intelligence is applied to social thinking, we get the creation of artefacts, like jewellry and clothing, that communicate social signals. Similarly, when social and natural history intelligence are fused, we can personify nature, think of social structures in terms of animal relationships (totemism), and imagine the human-animal hybrids that are ubiquitous in mythology and prehistoric art.

(Seeing one thing in terms of another, metaphorical thinking, cognitive fluidity, novel combinations and juxtapositions… Are any mushroom-shaped bells ringing for you?)

Given that language is seen as one of main engines of change in this process, The Singing Neanderthals is probably a necessary follow-up. This is made plain during its conclusion, where the crucial shift in vocal expression engendered by Homo sapiens is seen in the development of compositional language, i.e. language made up of discreet words that can be juggled around according to syntactical rules to compose an infinity of expressions. It’s this ability to mix and recombine elements that ties the ideas here back to the theory of consciousness so convincingly set out in Prehistory of the Mind.

But what about before compositional language? This forms the bulk of Mithen’s theorizing here. Noting the differences and similarities between music and language (explained via fascinating excursions into case histories of people with various forms of brain damage), he eventually concludes that the debate about which came first is a chicken-and-egg dead end resulting from framing the debate wrongly. He believes both came first, that music and language have a common ancestor: a melodic form of proto-language used by hominids right up until we started mashing it all up.

Popular science writing hinges, funnily enough, on metaphorical thinking, on the author’s ability to find the most striking balance in his central metaphor between accurately representing the theory and capturing the reader’s imagination. In Prehistory of the Mind he used the image of the mind as a cathedral, with each “domain” as a chapel within it; it served admirably. (It also tickled me when I read the conclusion, in which he sees it as apt that he finished the book in Santiago de Compostela, famed for its cathedral—I was camped very close to the city at the time.) Here, the metaphor doesn’t work so well. To be precise, there’s no metaphor, just an acronym. And not a great acronym at that: “Hmmmmm”. It stands for what he sees this proto-language as being: Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic. It’s cute in a way, but it really doesn’t flow well on the page; even less so, I suspect, in speech.

In any case, holism means that he sees pre-human speech as having been a collection of expressive utterances, certainly a good few syllables at a time, but crucially not made up of re-arrangeable words. And they would be mostly manipulative, translating into compositional language as things like “Go over there” or “Share that meat with her”. Multi-modal emphasizes that body language, gestures and movement would have played a much more central role in “Hmmmmm” communication. The musical element is, similarly, still present in our language in how we intone speech and give it rhythm (something that linguistics, as Mithen portrays it, has persistently neglected, much to its detriment); but again, “Hmmmmm” sees this playing a much greater role. Finally, mimesis can be seen in the image of hominid hunters trying to communicate information to each other about their quarry by expressing its qualities and attributes.

The reasoning and evidence on all these points is lucid, interesting and convincing. Notable is part of the background against which Mithen develops this thesis: the idea that “emotion lies at the root of intelligent action in the world”. He starts the book by slowly demolishing Steven Pinker’s notion that “as far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless”. For modern Darwinians like Pinker, rallied around the powerful but highly dubious “selfish gene” metaphor, it’s perhaps natural that the evolutionary benefits of social cohesion often fall into a blindspot. Mithen makes a convincing case that social cohesion is hugely important in human evolution, that ’emotional intelligence’ is central to social bonding, and that music has always been one of our most important methods of expressing emotion and fostering social bonds.

A particularly intriguing thread in this argument is drawn from a 1995 book by eminent historian William H. McNeill: Keeping it Together: Dance and Drill in Human History. Mithen quotes from McNeill’s account of how his experiences of the apparently senseless repetition of military drills in World War II formed a fertile ground for his later theories:

[In time it] somehow felt good … a sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.

In other words, communal music, dance, or even rhythmic marching, create rather just reflect a sense of social unity. Of course, we’re talking altered states now. But Mithen fails to make the leap: if the induction of this trance can lead to an evolutionarily beneficial “boundary loss” (in McNeill’s words), what other methods of trance induction might have played a part in our development? As with Prehistory of the Mind, for anyone versed in even the basics of the study and/or experience of altered states, the terms of the argument beg this question to be asked.

A lack of concrete archaeological evidence is clearly no obstacle in general for Mithen. He has a fine talent for what might be called “bounded speculation”, evolving imaginative theories that are kept within the confines described by available evidence. He reminds us the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, and asserts:

Although I lack any evidence and doubt if any could be found, I am confident that the music played through the Geissenklösterle pipes [36,000 year-old bone instruments found in Germany] and sung within ice-age painted caves had a religious function.

I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. But the subsequent discussion of religion betrays some rare shoddy thinking, and deepens the mystery as to why hallucinogens are absent from the discussion. He states:

Ideas about supernatural beings are the essence of religion. But when such beings cannot be seen, except perhaps during hallucinations, how should one communicate with them?

It suddenly seems like his anthropological reading has been censored by Harry J. Anslinger! There’s an easy answer to this question, and he skirts right by it. He quotes a Darwinian professor of religious studies, Matthew Day, as saying “one of the bedevilling problems about dealing with gods is that … they are never really there“. You can almost see all the shamans looking at him sideways, irate or bemused. The roots of this groundless puzzlement are all too predictable. Mithen says:

Ideas about supernatural beings are unnatural in the sense that they conflict with our deeply evolved, domain-specific understanding of the world. As a consequence they are difficult to hold within our minds and to transmit to others—try, for instance, explaining to someone the concept of the Holy Trinity, or try understanding it when someone explains it to you.

Firstly, the idea that religious ideas conflict with our evolutionary grounding is plain wrong. As Mithen himself argues, religious conceptions were probably the earliest products of the newly evolved “cognitive fluidity”. They are our “deeply evolved … understanding of the world”, developed over hundreds of thousands of years. Our current conception of “natural” and “supernatural” is a mere froth on the surface of this deep, dark well.

Further, it seems wilfully perverse to use the unfathomable wackiness of Christian theology to argue that humans in the Palaeolithic had problems interacting with the gods. I’m not saying they found their way easily, far from it. I merely think that even a scant survey of initiatory traditions among hunter-gatherers will reveal that many techniques have been developed through our evolution to get around the problem of the gods not being “there”. In fact, it was never a problem to get around. Some trance-induction techniques are more gruelling than necking some mushrooms, but the presence of gods and spirits is usually far removed from the opaque situation that Christianity and its kin have landed us in. Looking at the immense subtlety of animistic beliefs, and the radically different conception of “supernatural beings” it implies, brings up a wealth of further objections to Mithen’s and Day’s narrow view of the matter.

This is an excellent, even essential book otherwise, and it’s tempting to be philosophical about the lack of substantial discussion of altered states. I certainly wouldn’t kick up any fuss of this nature if I was reading a preliminary paper on a new theory of the origins and music and language. But this is a thick book, painfully close to being comprehensive, and falling short of that mark for no apparent good reason. I look forward to finding someone at Mithen’s level who can at least mention the stoned elephant in the middle of the room. In the meantime, with a little customisation, his theories will do nicely.