A Million Years of Music

A Million Years of Music

The Emergence of Human Modernity

By Gary Tomlinson

A new narrative for the emergence of human music, drawing from archaeology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary theory.

Distributed for Zone Books

Hardcover $29.95 T £25.00
Paperback $21.95 T £17.99





A new narrative for the emergence of human music, drawing from archaeology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary theory.

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 prehumen species, laid the foundation for musical behaviors in more recent times. He traces in Neandertals 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.


Out of Print ISBN: 9781935408659 368 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 8 b&w illus., 2 color ills


$21.95 T | £17.99 ISBN: 9781890951528 368 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 8 b&w illus., 2 color ills


  • This is interdisciplinarity at the deepest level, not merely a surface-level engagement with passing trends in other fields. … A Million Years of Music is a crucial work which provides a fresh perspective on an old problem. It is, in many ways, the ultimate rebuttal of Steven Pinker's glib dismissal of music as a disposable pleasure stimulus. … Written with passion and great erudition, it demonstrates music's role as an essential part of human identity, rivaling speech.

    MAKE Literary Magazine

  • The past two decades have…seen the development of a “biocultural” hypothesis for the origins and nature of the musical mind that looks beyond the traditional nature-culture dichotomy. … Here the origin of music is not understood within a strict adaptationist framework. Rather, it is explained as an emergent phenomenon involving cycles of (embodied) interactivity with the social and material environment. … Tomlinson's … approach … represents the current state of the art in the field.

    Frontiers in Neuroscience

  • …written in dialogue with evolutionary biology, cognitive science, palaeoarchaeology, and palaeoanthropology, [this] book is hardly a work of musicology at all, and many of its central claims will demand careful consideration from a wide and diverse academic community. Nevertheless, A Million Years of Music may be the most important contribution to musicology in its short history: in his historical purview and methodological blend of hard science and historiography, Tomlinson sketches a map of the future terrain which every musicologist will one day be obliged to explore.

    Journal of the Royal Musical Association

  • Expertly interweaving humanities and science, Tomlinson demonstrates how the answers to philosophical questions surrounding modern music can be discovered in their ancient origins.



  • Music's role in the development of the human capacity for abstract thinking is persuasively traced through an original and virtuosic interdisciplinary narrative.

    Ingrid Monson

    Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music, Harvard University

  • 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

    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