Optimal brain and body health is more than making meals and being barefoot—modern humans are still holistic hunter-gatherer-musicians
Many lifestyle habits of humans were quite similar for several million years, but deviating from them today can affect our genes, body and mind in many unhealthy ways. A relatively recent change in diet beginning about five to ten thousand years ago demonstrated this break with the past, as the shift to more refined carbohydrates and inactivity led to chronic disease and today’s worldwide overfat epidemic. (I use the term “overfat” to describe those with too much body fat, whether obese or not.)
No doubt many people are familiar with today’s paleo patterns of living. These include being barefoot, eating healthy animal protein and fat, and avoiding modern manufactured junk food. Thanks to books like “The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf and “The Primal Connection” by Mark Sisson, the research of Dr. Loren Cordain, and the outpouring of information by many others, millions of people are reaping the benefits of Paleolithic life as we know it.
It wasn’t always so easy a topic to discuss, nor is it novel, although the popular term “paleo” is relatively new. The awareness that humans have deviated from our ancestral habits goes back to Hippocrates, or earlier in China, and more recently books started emphasizing these ideas in the 1800s. In 1958, the bestselling book “Eat Fat to Get Slim” was popularized. For me, it was well known among nutrition-oriented folks in the 1960s that refined carbohydrate, including sugar, was deadly.
Unfortunately, today’s paleo impact on the population is relatively small with most not really living it—more see it as a “diet” rather than a way of life. It’s overshadowed by the much larger overfat epidemic, which is still growing and affecting the masses around the globe. Even in areas of the world where starvation was the mainstay just one generation ago, the nutrition transition has suddenly made obesity the much larger problem.
While there’s no doubt about the benefits of being barefoot for better body mechanics, avoiding all high glycemic food to reduce body fat and disease, and the wonders of natural paleo-type strength workouts, there’s a serious component of the modern movement that’s missing. It’s an important feature of humanity that began in prehistoric times and helped get us to where we are today, and is a key evolutionary factor humans had before language—music.
Frogs do it, so do whales, and even mice. Everyone knows birds do it too. It’s music—our songs are a powerful neuro-stimulant that led to the development of language, helped match the best mates, and played a role in building better brains. When we listen to music, our whole brain “lights up,” unlike virtually any other sensation. This, many believe, enabled early human brains to continually evolve into the most magnificent of biological structures.
Animal songs are an important and integral part of not just finding a mate, but the one with the best genetic match. More powerful than natural selection, songs are associated with sexual selection, a way for the singing species to greatly improve their chances of evolving stronger.
Music appeared in the earliest humans some six million years ago, and played a vital role in Paleolithic people’s survival and evolution. Archeologist Steven Mithen (The singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind and body. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) wrote that the increasingly complex lives of human ancestors required an increasingly complex yet ‘holistic’ vocal communication system, which he identifies as music.
Music was, and still is, an essential part of the human ability to communicate. For our ancestors, communicating with fellow paleos to keep the group safe, let that cute man or woman on the rock know you’re there, or just to stake out a territory was a survival skill closely connected with music. It’s not really any different today, although our society has changed and many have lost music.
Today we are in the age of communication breakdown, despite all the high tech devices. It all began just the other day, it seems, with the popularity of the telephone in the mid 20th century. With it, we no longer needed to talk face-to-face. This evolved into faxes, pagers and, of course, emails, texting and tweets.
For humans, face-to-face contact is a foundation of communication. It’s so important that our brain evolved to devote large amounts of space and energy to vision (a reason musicians often close their eyes during performance—it reduces activity of the brain’s visual areas devoting more energy to performing). In particular, communicating long-distances with songs, say scientists, led to more modern music. We can hear similar statements from today’s animals too. Consider the howling of wolves and screeches of hawks from a distance during hunting and courting.
Along with communication and sexual selection, humans also made music to mark their territories. While some animals, like cats, mark their territory with scents, early humans did not, and instead used sounds. Music was the human form of scent.
Archeologists Edward Hagen and Peter Hammerstein (“Did Neanderthals and other early humans sing?”) wrote, “A vocal signal can advertise both location and ‘quality’ to members of the opposite sex.” (That songs are important for mating success is nothing new—in 1871, Charles Darwin proposed that this might also explain the evolutionary origins of human’s “modern” music.)
Humans would eventually evolve to sing duets. This is a most unique animal feature (although a few modern-day birds do this), which gradually became more complex and coordinated, and sung by male and female. In addition to advertising each partner’s newfound physical territory, singing together further signaled the couples status to rivals, an announcement of the committed relationship.
In addition to singing with their mates, early humans may have defended their territory in groups, with compelling, coordinated vocalizations to mark their ownership. Perhaps this was the first rock band.
All humans were rock stars—actually, it was more folk music, from which most musical genres today were derived. Everyone in the clan was musical, unlike today where a significant separation of musical and non-musical people began to appear just a few hundred years ago.
Long before musical instruments, songs were sung by all individuals, eventually with vocal choruses by others, then leading to harmony and other sounds as specialized brain areas developed. Combined with the expanding brain, human anatomy would have also allowed different oral resonances, various singing sounds such as humming, whistling, blowing and groaning (not unlike what many vocalists do today). This would have evolved to percussive sounds as the brain’s cerebellum developed to provide tempo—perhaps just banging bones or stones, clapping hands or slapping skin—and no doubt beating their chests.
As the brain evolved and complex vocalizations developed, the more detailed recognizable pitch of individual notes was emphasized over humming, whistling, and groaning. This would be an important foundation for the development of language.
The invention of non-percussion instruments would not come until, presumably, millions of years later. Archeologists recently found the oldest human instrument to date in a German cave—a 42,000 year-old bird bone flute. This was the period humans were migrating out of Africa into Europe, and music was more highly developed and powerful. Perhaps this was the first pied piper? A human making music from a bone must have had a large fan-base following him or her.
The mass migration to all parts of the earth spawned many different cultures—none of which were without music. And every human culture had some form of music with a periodic beat pattern, to which people synchronize their rhythmic movements whether for procreation, hunting, fighting or dance.
As Aniruddh Patel states in “Music, biological evolution, and the brain” (The Neurosciences Institute, San Diego, CA 2010), “one can predict with some confidence that the few remaining uncontacted tribes of humans, when finally described by anthropologists, will have music as part of their behavioral repertoire.” I would add that, because of music’s natural mathematical foundation, that it’s universal. The same might be true of our first encounter with extraterrestrial life—music will be a common feature that helps us communicate. That musical knowledge is not learned but innate is a popular notion. Babies relate to it well. And, how else could the Beatles have created such great music without any musical knowledge of notes, time signatures or other basic theory?
In Part 2 of Paleo People Today, I’ll highlight an interesting relationship between meat and music, Darwin on music, and the important connection between athletic movement and brain rhythm. Read it here.