The Singing Neanderthals, by Steven Mithen

The songs that made us human

Moving from lover to community, Roberts's song expresses two of the fundamental purposes of music. If Steven Mithen is right, its values span not just the ages of the spinning wheel and the iPod, but the Stone Age as well. Over the course of human evolution, Mithen argues in this book on "the origins of music, language, mind and body", musical qualities have been fundamental not only to courtship but also to the sense of togetherness that enables a bunch of clever, edgy primates to make the most of their talents. Walking upright made our ancestors snappier and more rhythmic than our ape cousins, who lurch on two legs. Chimps make war; but they don't march.

Nor do they have much to say for themselves. By contrast, Mithen proposes, our deep ancestors would have filled the air as they knapped their flints and gathered their fruits; not with song, but with calls that were fundamentally musical. Some of these sounds might be complex, but were not composed of words. They would be accompanied by gesture, including mime; together, these efforts would be directed towards altering the behaviour of others. In sum, their communication system would be holistic, multi-modal, manipulative and musical: Hmmm for short.

The acronym strikes a pleasing note of modest uncertainty in a field in which convictions are often in inverse proportion to evidence. Mithen is anything but diffident in his arguments, though. His passion is the use of archaeology (in which he is a professor at Reading University) to construct narratives about the evolution of the human mind. He explains that he neglected music in his 1996 book The Prehistory of the Mind, and the fretful urgency of his prose suggests that it has been preying on his thoughts ever since.

Mithen is unusually Darwinian for an archaeologist. His "cognitive archaeology" could be regarded as a branch of evolutionary psychology - but that school of thought tends to ignore anything before about 50,000 years ago, which is a bit like starting history in 1963. His perspective is therefore vital and his mission - to tell an epic story, and to make it make sense - will win him his audience.

Here he positions himself as more Darwinian than the prominent evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who regards music as an accident rather than an adaptation. Mithen argues that we are able to appreciate music because such capacities helped our ancestors leave more descendants. Emotions, he emphasises, are fundamental to thought, and varying the pitch of utterances is a powerful way of conveying emotion, particularly to offspring. His case is persuasive; but I would say that, for it includes a hypothesis, about the use of stoneworking abilities as a criterion for mate choice, on which I collaborated with him some years ago.

In one respect, however, I suspect that he has made the course of evolution look too easy. To move from Hmmm to language, our ancestors had to trust each other. Taking up arguments about animal communication made by John Krebs and Richard Dawkins, the anthropologist Chris Knight warns that words are cheap and therefore inherently unreliable. Mithen quotes him but is not guided by him to the conclusion that ritual and language evolved together, and that the cost of the former - in resources, time, effort and pain - guaranteed the latter. If Mithen's story had ended like that, he would have given the religious role of music the due that its universality demands. Without a sense of a higher power, we return to our own interests after the song fades away.

Marek Kohn's 'As We Know It: coming to terms with an evolved mind' is published by Granta