I've always been fascinated by the idea that certain fears may be passed along through the generations. Genetic changes that occur from a trauma may pass to one's children, and then to subsequent generations--a genetic imprint called "epigenetic transgenerational inheritance."
In 2013, neurobiologist and psychiatrist Kerry Ressler at Emory University, along with co-author Brian Dias, published a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggesting that it may be possible for some fears and neuroses to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA--at least in mice. During tests they showed that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences to subsequent generations. They conditioned the first generation of mice to associate a pleasant odor with fear; the next two generations were also afraid of the smell. You can read a description of their research for the layperson in Nature: "Fearful Memories Haunt Mouse Descendants."
After writing a draft of Nightsong, I put it away for several years. I couldn't quite figure out how to make the story gel. How would Bronwyn, the main character, have carried fears from ancient times in her DNA, and what would trigger these fears? I think reading about this research gave me the impetus to go back and work on the novel again. It was the glue that, for me anyway, held the story together and made it work.
Bronwyn eventually discovers the source of her own extreme fear of fire, as well as the origin of many other fears and anxieties that were passed along from her prehistoric ancestors.
In my novel NIGHTSONG, the Neanderthals communicate by a combination of speech and song. They bond by singing together, and their "nightsongs" help keep their fears at bay. They tells stories by singing and in their songs they "show" where they've been and what they've experienced.
When I began writing NIGHTSONG about 9 years ago, I read a lot about the origin of music and singing. What was the evolutionary purpose of music? I think I absorbed a lot of theories and ideas from books such as The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithen, as well as books about the amazing vocal variations in people today.
I was especially fascinated by the Tuvan throat singers of Inner Asia, and their complex sonic world. In the book Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond, Theodore Levin describes the songs of the Tuvan throat singers, who can sing more than one tone at a time. Their songs don't only imitate nature and animals; they also create a sonic picture for listeners. These are the kinds of songs I imagined that the Neanderthals may have sung,
I sing in a women's choir called Cantigas, based in New Jersey, and we performed a crowd-pleasing piece called Tres Cantos Nativos by Marcos Leite, in which the singers recreate the sounds of a rainforest, using only body movements, clapping, and voice. The animal sounds are made by choir members (as I recall, we had one choir member who did a mean Venezuelan rooster). In NIGHTSONG, the Neanderthals create this kind of music--using simple shakers, their voices, and their bodies only. Listen to the first few moments of this piece with your eyes closed. You'll be transported to a rainy day in the forest (performed by Lee University's Choral Union).
I am the author of NIGHTSONG: A Neanderthal mystery. I hope you may want to dip into my blog after you've read my novel (or even if you haven't) to learn a bit more about the Neanderthals and to hear some of the music described in the novel. I may go off topic sometimes...