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Million years of music tomlinson cover

History of Science, Anthropology, Music & Sound Studies

A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity

Gary Tomlinson


368 pp

2 color illus.

10 black and white illus.

Published: March 2015

6 x 9



ISBN: 9781890951528


Out of Print

ISBN: 9781935408659

What is the origin of music? In the last few decades this centuries-old puzzle has been reinvigorated by new archaeological evidence and developments in the fields of cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary theory. In this path-breaking book, renowned musicologist Gary Tomlinson draws from these areas to construct a new narrative for the emergence of human music.

Starting at a period of human pre­history long before Homo sapiens or music existed, Tomlinson describes the incremental attainments that, by changing the communication and society of prehuman species, laid the foundation for musical behaviors in more recent times. He traces in Neanderthals and early sapiens the accumulation and development of these capacities, and he details their coalescence into modern musical behavior across the last hundred millennia.

But A Million Years of Music is not about music alone. Tomlinson builds a model of human evolution that revises our understanding of the interaction of biology and culture across evolutionary time-scales, challenging and enriching current models of our deep history. As he tells his story, he draws in other emerging human traits: language, symbolism, a metaphysical imagination and the ritual it gives rise to, complex social structure, and the use of advanced technologies. Tomlinson’s model of evolution allows him to account for much of what makes us a unique species in the world today and provides a new way of understanding the appearance of humanity in its modern form.

“This is a book that has no peer, one where insights and theories from evolutionary biology, cognition, and neurology are developed into an extraordinarily subtle portrait” — Carolyn Abbate

“This is a book that has no peer, one where insights and theories from evolutionary biology, cognition, and neurology are developed into an extraordinarily subtle portrait of the prehistory of music making among hominins and humans. To have modern philosophical conundrums about music traced back to their aboriginal origins is simply breathtaking, and Tomlinson crosses disciplines with such deep knowledge of so many, and such fearlessness, as to give new meaning to the idea of intellectual synergy. A virtuoso performance.”  — Carolyn Abbate, Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser University Professor, Harvard University

“This brilliant book offers the most convincing argument I have seen for how music came to be. If the model of biocultural coevolution proposed here is right, the explanation for music lies not in a simple adaptationist logic — that it was ‘good’ for us in some way. Instead, music arises from a beautiful spiraling dance between culture and biology extending across the deep history of humanity. In developing this complex and compelling argument, Tomlinson synthesizes a literature that spans both science and the humanities. A Million Years of Music is a model for how scholarship in the twenty-first century can be done.”  — Daniel Lord Smail, author of On Deep History and the Brain

“Gary Tomlinson’s A Million Years of Music is a brilliant book opening up the frontier between the humanities and sciences. Music’s role in the development of the human capacity for abstract thinking is persuasively traced through an original and virtuosic interdisciplinary narrative. To read this book is to be astonished by the relevance of archaeology and coevolution for thinking through some of the most central questions for music and the humanities in the twenty-first century. Scholars who have drawn from the intellectual legacies of structuralism, post-structuralism, and post­colonialism, with their themes of indeterminacy, contingency, and non-linear emergence, will see that these same themes are key to a contemporary understanding of the relationship between the biological and the social. Tomlinson’s book is both relevant and courageous.”  — Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music, Harvard University