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Department of Evolutionary Anthropology

New study published on the function of singing behaviour in BaYaka hunter gatherers in Congo

Chirag Chittar et al.

  • A BaYaka group of women and girls singing and clapping enthusiastically while resting during a hectic day’s work in the forest (Photo: Karline Janmaat 2018)

  • Mbendjele women digging and looking for tubers (Photo: Haneul Jang 2015).

  • BaYaka women and children singing and having some fun while searching for tubers (Photo: Jorin Veen 2020).

  • A child being held by the grandmother during a tuber digging event, while her mother is digging and singing in front of them (Photo: Karline Janmaat 2016)

  • Joy from the forest group excursions being brought and spread back in the camp, while carrying their collected food and firewood. The full fledged singing event is also accompanied by energetic drumming and percussion with pans and cups (Photo: Karline Janmaat 2016)

Origins of Music

Why is music so prevalent and universal in human societies? Does music serve an adaptive function, or it is just “auditory cheesecake”, as cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker infamously claimed: a delightful dessert but, from an evolutionary perspective, no more than a by-product of language? The debate on the origins of music has intrigued scientists for centuries. The hypotheses range from music being a mating display in order to woo females, to a means to increase social bonding in group contexts. For the first time, a group of international and interdisciplinary researchers led by Karline Janmaat and her former MSc Student Chirag Chittar, have tested the several hypotheses on music simultaneously in a modern foraging society during their daily search for tubers – their staple food. They found that women during tuber finding events were more likely to sing in large groups of strangers and less likely to sing in large groups of individuals they were close with.

This study was part of an elaborate longitudinal study spanning 2 years and has now been published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Chittar, C., Jang, H., Samuni, L, Lewis, J, Honing, H., Van Loon, E.E., Janmaat, K.R.L. (2023). Music and its role in signalling coalition during foraging contexts in a hunter-gatherer society, Frontiers in Psychology

You can find further information on this published study in the press release here (PDF, 1 MB).

Disclaimer: Informed oral consent of the focal women and their families was obtained before the implementation of the study, allowing Karline Janmaat and Haneul Jang to follow the women during their daily foraging trips. In addition, prior oral and written consent was taken for pictures and video footage from the BaYaka. For further use of the pictures, permission has to be asked to Prof. Karline Janmaat, Dr Haneul Jang and Jorin Veen.