“Given the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years,” singer Ozzy Osbourne wrote recently in a column for the Sunday Times of London, “not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol… you name it– there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive.” What is the secret of the dark prince’s longevity? “I was curious,” says Mr. Osbourne, and so he has done what any scientifically interested person with some extra millions to spare would do: he has gotten his DNA sequenced and decoded. “Maybe my DNA could say why,” he hopes.
From the dawn of time, musicians have tended towards such robustness. They have always been the shamans, the oracles, the freaks, the party animals. The genetic benefit for such people is obvious: the more vice you can tolerate, the more earthly woe escaping you can do, with no strings attached. Mankind effectively becomes closer to God-like. And this, in the end, is what the scientific hopes of DNA decoders are all about: imagine the possibilities, the human potential, if we could just splice together the brain-power of Albert Einstein with the drug resistance of Ozzy Osbourne.
Disappointingly, scientist have failed to isolate the “non-stop party gene” in Osbourne’s DNA. But the genome sequencing has led to one profound revelation: “We found a little segment on Ozzy’s chromosome 10 that very likely traces back to a Neanderthal forebearer,” says research director Dr. Nathan Pearson.
That’s right: Ozzy Osbourne, derided as part Neanderthal by the music press ever since Black Sabbath first shambled their way onstage in the late 60’s, turns out to be, as it happens, part Neanderthal. One of mankind’s oldest prejudices rears its ugly head: our long-lost cousins, with whom we co-existed 80,000 years ago, now extinct, but still subject to our derision and ridicule. The term Neanderthal has gone down in Homo Sapien colloquialism as unsophisticated, backwards, a hulking idiot. But more than a few of us have some traces of that branch in our family tree. If you are naïve enough to think that no human-Neanderthal interbreeding went on, you are underestimating the allure of a warm, fire-lit cave on a cold winter night eight hundred centuries ago.
Neanderthal man had, fire, tools, culture and religion. The main thing that separates Neanderthals from Homo Sapiens, as with Ozzy and the music journalists, is language. Human beings, alone amongst animals, communicate with discrete units of vocabulary in infinitely recombinable variation, giving them a survival advantage in the long-term evolutionary sense, but not necessarily equipping them to optimally appreciate contemporary music. The journalistic tendency of the early 1970s was to sit at a typewriter and come up with clever and often evolution-based insults for the new breed of Zeppelin/Sabbath style blues: these were “cave men,” or even “dinosaurs.” The journalists felt the primitive gravity of the music and rushed to reject it, to clothe themselves in the cynical costume of modern man; the audience, meanwhile, was happy to fall into the trance of an ancient shamanistic drone.
How, we might ask, did the Neanderthals, with as large or larger brain capacity than humans, but no actual spoken language, communicate with one another? Steven Mithen, in his book the Singing Neanderthal, proposes an interesting answer: a system he terms “holistic, multi-modal, manipulative, and musical” (which perhaps not totally coincidentally spells out HMMMM). “Its essence would have been a large number of holistic utterances, each functioning as a complete message in itself,” he writes. Nuances of pitch, melody or volume would have lent these noises shades of meaning, as they do in bird songs. This system, which consists essentially of communicating emotion and guiding group action through repetitive, communal chanting, might have been further augmented through musical instruments such as bone flutes, which have been found amongst Neanderthal remains and dated thousands of years before similar objects appeared amongst humans. In fact, music itself may be one of mankind’s earliest cultural appropriations.
Music pre-dates language, and though no one can explain its exact origin or evolutionary function, there are probably several: attracting a mate, intimidating predators, creating a sense of community. Mothers sing to newborn children using “motherese,” a set of sounds and inflections that are surprisingly consistent across nations and cultures. The parts of the brain that produce or perceive music are among its most ancient circuits, used otherwise only in critical survival situations.
There are several theories as to why the Neanderthal died out: some suspect humanity committed its first genocide, while others argue that interbreeding subsumed our neighbors. Modern, recombinable-fragment language won out as the most efficient communication system, leaving the more ancient forms of meaning to attach themselves to that which could not be spoken: it is no accident that almost all religion and spiritual practice incorporates music, chanting, and trance. Perhaps the “big black shape with eyes of fire” that Ozzy Osbourne encounters in the first few minutes of the first Black Sabbath album is not Satan; perhaps it is the ghost of Ozzy’s long-gone ancestor, commanding him to carry on, to continue beating on hollow logs and barking at the moon. Even the Neanderthals would have recognized the sound, and, had they the words to do so, might have called it “heavy rock.”
Al Burian is a writer, artist and musician. He is the author of the long-running fanzine Burn Collector, has published two anthologies of his zine writing and a book of comics. He lives in Berlin.