Bayaka women and children playing by pulling on sticks
Case study

Harmony in the forest, cross-border collaboration in the cloud

Why is music so prevalent in all human societies? A group of international and interdisciplinary researchers has now concluded: music is vital for forming coalitions. Project member Chirag Chittar used SURF’s Research Cloud to analyse data that was collected in Congo, even when he was stuck in India during the pandemic. 

Key facts

Who: Chirag Chittar
Function: researcher
Organisation: UvA
Service: Research Cloud
Challenge: analysis of large amounts of data - testing complex models - international collaboration
Solution: a platform for data analysis and collaboration

The origins of music 

Does music serve an evolutionary function, or is it just “auditory cheesecake”, as cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker claimed, no more than a delightful 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, to a means to increase social bonding in groups.

Hunter-gatherer society 

A group of international and interdisciplinary researchers have tested several hypotheses on music. For two years they registered the behaviours of the BaYaka people, a hunter-gatherer society living in Congo, during their daily search for tubers – their staple food. The researchers combined the data on the BaYaka's behaviour with other variables: whether they sang or not, if they carried an infant during foraging, the group composition while searching for tubers, and the likelihood of encountering dangerous animals.

Avoiding conflict

Portret Chirag Chittar

Chirag Chittar

The project was led by Karline Janmaat, Professor in Cognitive Behavioural Ecology at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), and included renowned music researcher Prof. Henk-Jan Honing (also UvA) and MSc student Chirag Chittar. The team found that women of the BaYaka were more likely to sing in large groups of strangers and less likely to sing in groups of people they were close with when looking for tubers. This led the researchers to conclude that these people use music and song as tools to avoid conflict. The study was published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Essential for survival

“Formation of highly cooperative alliances is essential for the survival of the BaYaka, who live in ever-changing precarious environments”, explains Chirag Chittar. “We think that music can act as an icebreaker to gauge the skills or even encourage the enthusiasm of strangers. Trust is essential for this society to thrive as conflicts can occur between individuals co-residing in forest camps. We believe that in this way music can help in mitigating conflict and encouraging cooperation.” 

"Testing the model to see if it would produce consistent results across multiple iterations would take me a day on my laptop, but only 15 minutes on the Research Cloud."
Researcher Chirag Chittar

Extensive dataset 

Originally from India, Chittar came to the Netherlands to pursue his master’s degree at the UvA. “I was interested in paleoecology, and the Netherlands was the place to go for that. Especially the universities of Amsterdam and Leiden have good professors who specialise in the subject.” For his thesis project, Chittar became involved with Karline Janmaat. Janmaat and her former PhD student Haneul Jang had previously collected an extensive dataset in Congo, which Chittar analysed using the SURF Research Cloud. 

Complex models

“I found the platform extremely efficient and useful. Some of the complex models that I used for analysing the data took half the time to run on the Research Cloud than what they would usually take. Testing the model to see if it would yield consistent results over several iterations would cost me a day on my laptop but only 15 minutes on the Research Cloud.”

Vrouwen zingen en trommelen

Singing and drumming at the camp after foraging (photo Karline Janmaat)

The best part 

His study period in the Netherlands was over and Chittar returned to India in the midst of the second covid wave, “which caused havoc across the world, including my country”. But even there he could continue to work on SURF Research Cloud and, together with Prof Janmaat, prepare the analyses for publication in the scientific journal. “I think that was the best part of using the Research Cloud: I could continue collaborating with my professor and run analyses on a system that’s based in the Netherlands, while I was abroad.” 

Guinea pigs 

Chittar was one of the first students in Janmaat’s group to use the Research Cloud. “The service has developed a lot further since 2021 so more students of hers are using it now, also internationally. We were kind of like Guinea pigs in using the service, so we could give feedback to SURF as well about how they could improve certain aspects, which was extremely helpful.”

Currently, Chittar is pursuing his PhD in the Anthropology department at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. 


'Music and its role in signalling coalition during foraging contexts in a hunter-gatherer society', Frontiers in Psychology

Text: Josje Spinhoven

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