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The song of the Neanderthal

From ancient DNA, to an unusual nose, to a sound you cant quite place.

Mark W. Tiedemann

ndr Gilles-Rasson is emblematic of
the staff at the PaleoGenome Retrieval
Project. Casual, sincere, quietly opti-
mistic, he gives the impression of a person-
ality consultant rather than a researcher
on the cutting edge of palaeolithic bio-
I suppose well never be rid of that label,
he says, smiling ruefully. My predecessor
used it in one interview and weve been stuck
with it ever since.
Its inaccurate?
Distracting. You know what our work is
here? He gestures out of the broad window,
beyond which a series of bioisolate environ-
mental domes stretches towards the distant
Rainforest recovery and preservation. markers to know for certain what the but it yielded
Among other things, yes. But we arent sequences are. some fascinating
recreating Stone Age hominids. As with Neanderthals? results. When we understood the patterns
I hold up the disc that has just been We were very, very lucky. Weve been our models showed us and matched those to
released by the projects Community Inter- able to model an entire organism, including the tonal and textural capacities of that nose,
face Office, with its cover depiction of a styl- and this was the real stroke of luck the we realized that we might have a basis for
ized Neanderthal sporting a startlingly com- brain. deriving compositions.
plex nose. He grins and nods. Forgive me, but that nose stands out. Its an amazing recording. I dont know
You want to know how we recorded That was a surprise. But it would still be how to classify it.
Neanderthal music? You are aware that we just a nose an unusual one without the Its a kind of whole-tone scale, but the
originally did pure pharmaceutical research synaptic structure of the brain to tell us how harmonies are based on fourths instead of
here? We still do, but there is so much more the Neanderthals used it. thirds, so there is an eeriness to it. Not haunt-
now. Many of our products are psychotrop- The music. ing, but familiar. Presque vu, non? Like some-
ics antidepressants, bipolar remedials, Gilles-Rasson nods, leaning forward. thing we should have known, something we
treatments for epilepsy and so forth. Conse- Soft tissue muscle, skin, cartilage does might once have heard, had we listened.
quently, we developed methods for mapping not fossilize well. Even in those rare instances I wonder what Stravinsky would have
the brain that gave us accurate, reliable mod- where tissue has survived, were talking said to it.
elling of how the brain is affected by different about specimens ten- to twenty-thousand Perhaps But of course! Or perhaps
molecules. years old. When the gene map produced this nothing. Weve found that a significant num-
We joined up early in the century with structure, we were totally surprised. The ber of people simply do not hear it as music.
an offshoot of the Human Genome Project trick, then, was to figure out its function. Ive noticed that among my own friends
and began working on new systems for pro- According to the liner notes, Jean-Ren and colleagues. They dont dislike it, as they
jective and holistic modelling. First with Compierre suggested communications? might music not to their taste. They simply
humans, then with other things. Take any He suggested music right off. He and dont hear it. Can you explain that?
sample of DNA and use it to model the Marie Conal actually built a physical model He shrugs. Would we recognize the
organism it is programmed to express. The of the nose to test it. Its amazingly versatile. music of someone from Tau Ceti as music?
more complete the sample, the better the And the music itself? Different species. The synaptic structure, the
results, of course, but we have become quite He sighs. Music. A puzzling psychologi- way the Neanderthal brain worked our
adept at the extrapolative side, filling in the cal phenomenon. All the theories added models show that it was quite different from
blanks, so to speak. together fail to explain it in Darwinian terms. ours in many respects. They must have pos-
About 22 years ago we began working Infants with no prior experience of it sessed a completely different aesthetic.
with a team of palaeobiologists on fossil respond, and the response is different from He smiles slyly. Of course, we may not
DNA. the response to simple communication. really know what the true music of Homo
Dinosaurs? There is an emotional reaction at odds with sapiens is. That may be our next discovery.
Some. Weve been able to validate cer- simple informational modes. Once we had (Interview from Aurikle News and Review
tain theories about them. Most of our the synaptic structure and the instrument, March 2089, reproduced by permission.)
successes have been with plants. Time is the we were able to make maps of the emotional Mark W. Tiedemanns first novel, Mirage, is a spring
factor the nearer to the present, the more range anticipate how Neanderthals would release from iBooks. Volume One of his Secantis
complete the DNA. In some instances we react to music. Sequence will be published by MeishaMerlin in the
have enough trace remnants of the protein Well, anticipate ... frankly, we guessed ... autumn of 2001. He lives in St Louis, Missouri.

NATURE | VOL 404 | 9 MARCH 2000 | 2000 Macmillan Magazines Ltd 127