Cognitive Science Talk Review: Dr Jerome Lewis’ ‘Music First: hunter-gatherer ethnography and the evolution of language’

Written by Toby Gay

On Friday 30 November, Dr. Jerome Lewis from University College London delivered a talk entitled ‘Music first: hunter-gatherer ethnography and the evolution of language’ in front of a packed lecture theatre in the Psychology building.

Before commencing, Dr. Lewis warned that although the lecture would be listed as a ‘Cognitive Science’ talk, he would be drawing heavily from other disciplines, namely Anthropology, Psychology and Archaeology, to support his argument. Indeed, his opening remarks could have been those of a Linguistics professor, as he pointed out the difficulty of defining ‘music’, placing it on the spectrum of ‘communication’, before distinguishing this latter term from ‘language’. After this densely theoretical introduction, Dr. Lewis transported his audience to West Africa, where he conducted his case study on a contemporary hunter-gatherer society called the Baka. From here on, the line of argument became slightly muddled, as he started focussing on the heavily gendered and yet incredibly egalitarian nature of this group which, admittedly, was fascinating.

Despite this, his presenting style and handling of multiple forms of media to demonstrate the lives of the Baka and the significance of their songs in cultural and practical settings were excellent. He continued in the same vein when answering questions on the possible connections between virtuosity in singing and prestige varieties in language.

On more than one occasion, Dr. Lewis had to reassert that he had found this group to be completely averse to notions of personal property or ambition, suggesting that all human beings share an innate psychological quality that attracts us to communal egalitarianism. An attempt was made to establish a link – through the material culture of honey containers – between today’s hunter-gatherers and their European predecessors 27,000 years ago, but this was not fully pursued. This was unfortunate for, as Graeme Warren of University College Dublin pointed out earlier this year:

‘We cannot reach back into deep time without the insights of archaeology. So if we want to understand hunting and gathering throughout time and space, we have to use archaeological approaches to understand what may be widespread among hunters and gatherers, or what may be recent developments overall. So, the two disciplines [Archaeology and Anthropology] need to work together’.

Dr. Lewis could improve his analysis by applying the above principle to his work. Unfortunately, however, as the cultivated soil in many parts of Europe is often more than 10,000 years old, much of the material culture from our hunter-gatherer ancestors is lost, and establishing links with societies such as the contemporary Baka therefore becomes even more difficult.

In fact, the most famous archaeological site in England, Star Carr in North Yorkshire, provides evidence that our ancestors from approximately 8,000 BC led less nomadic lives than today’s hunter-gatherers. In addition, the plethora of skull-caps and projectiles apparently abandoned on the site suggests that its inhabitants enjoyed a surplus of resources. This would imply that this society was, by the end of the last ice age, starting to move away from the kind of egalitarianism which the subjects of Dr Lewis’s studies practice today.

Nevertheless, Dr. Lewis’s lecture was thought-provoking as well as highly entertaining. In light of the recent events regarding the Sentinelese, one of the last uncontacted tribes in the world, the talk was convincing in advocating the preservation of these societies with the objective of understanding the past, and possibly even the future of humanity.



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