Tuesday, November 07, 2023

How to keep a forest happy?

A BaYaka group of women and girls singing and clapping enthusiastically while resting during a hectic day's work in the forest (Courtesy: K. R.L. Janmaat, 2018).

A new study on the possible evolutionary origins of music  [Press Release]

[Newspaper article in Dutch]

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 several hypotheses on music simultaneously in a modern foraging society during their daily search for 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 knew. The study was part of an elaborate longitudinal study spanning 2 years and has now been published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Music makes the forest happy    

“We know from their communication about music that the BaYaka sing to “please the forest” so that it provides them with more food. What they dislike most is conflict, as they believe it would make the forest spirits angry. What intrigues me the most is that our behavioral observations nicely complement their verbal communication about music. The women sing more frequently when they search for food in groups that are large and contain fewer “friends”, in which conflicts about food are more likely to arise. To me, our study reveals that these foragers appear to use music as a tool to avoid potential future conflict. How amazing is that?!”, Janmaat says.

“This study gives important empirical insights in the possible origins of music, a topic that for long had to be mere speculation”, says coauthor Henkjan Honing, professor of Music Cognition at UvA. “It made us decide to intensify our interdisciplinary collaboration and to further study the role of music with the BaYaka in a project aiming to unravel the human capacity for music. We are excited to announce our plans to return to this captivating society next year, where music appears to occupy a central role that transcends language.”

Chittar, C., Jang, H., Samuni, L, Lewis, J, Honing, H., Van Loon, E.E., Janmaat, K.R.L. (2023). Music and its role in signaling coalition during foraging contexts in a hunter-gatherer society. Frontiers in Psychology. doi 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1218394.

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