Singing Neanderthals?


October 08, 2013

The questions of when and why intelligent speech developed among humans continue to puzzle researchers. The increasing complexity of fashioning tools, from the simplest of stone implements to heat treatment and forging of metals, has been considered by some researchers as a proxy for intelligent speech but views differ as to where along the spectrum of increasing complexity did speech arise. No one was taking notes.

Stephen Methen is professor of early history at the University of Reading in Britain and in a book titled Singing Neanderthals has suggested intelligent human speech began with singing among Neanderthals. In September 2012 he gave a talk to the Forum on European Philosophy at the London School of Economics, elaborating on his book published earlier the same year. This talk can be found on iTunes you. Search under “singing Neanderthals”.

He is quick to admit he is operating in the realm of speculation. While it is plausible that intelligent speech may have arisen from increasing task complexity, requiring increasing coordination among individuals and the need for increasingly specific communication. It is also plausible The vocalizations necessary for chanting in unison could have been refined over time into speech. Add to this the phenomenon we all experience, the easy retrieval of forgotten song lyrics from memory, activated by the easier recollection of the melody, and we have a persuasive second proxy for the origins of intelligence speech.  (“Proxy” in this sense means a set of facts from which we can infer some phenomenon for which we have no direct evidence.)

Pinning down the development of intelligent speech in humans however will continue to puzzle us. Proxies are one thing but they are not the direct evidence we need to establish what went on. Proxies are not evidence. They can lead to the formation of hypotheses which can then be tested but in and of themselves, proxies are suggestive and inherently speculative. Students need to be thinking of testable hypotheses.