The Role of Play in Hunter-Gatherer Societies

whitecoast

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Hi everyone. I found an interesting essay in the American Journal of Play, by a developmental/evolutionary psychologist named Peter Gray, entitled “Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence.”After mulling over it for awhile I thought I’d share it here, because I think it contains a few interesting concepts from a cognitive/social science perspective. :)

Here’s a link to the article: http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/1-4-article-hunter-gatherer-social-existence.pdf

Here’s the abstract:

The author offers the thesis that hunter-gatherers promoted, through cultural means, the playful side of their human nature and this made possible their egalitarian, nonautocratic, intensely cooperative ways of living. Hunter-gatherer bands, with their fluid membership, are likened to social-play groups, which people could freely join or leave. Freedom to leave the band sets the stage for the individual autonomy, sharing, and consensual decision making within the band. Huntergatherers used humor, deliberately, to maintain equality and stop quarrels. Their means of sharing had gamelike qualities. Their religious beliefs and ceremonies were playful, founded on assumptions of equality, humor, and capriciousness among the deities. They maintained playful attitudes in their hunting, gathering, and other sustenance activities, partly by allowing each person to choose when, how, and how much they would engage in such activities. Children were free to play and explore, and through these activities, they acquired the skills, knowledge, and values of their culture. Play, in other mammals as well as in humans, counteracts tendencies toward dominance, and hunter-gatherers appear to have promoted play quite deliberately for that purpose.

The author’s caveat on much of the negative interpretations of the term “play” as trivial, irrelevant, childish, et cetera:

The word play has some negative connotations to people in our culture, especially when applied to adults. It suggests something trivial, a diversion from work and responsibility. It suggests childishness. So, in the past, when people referred to the playfulness of the indigenous inhabitants of one place or another, the term was often an insult or, at best, a left-handed compliment. In truth, hunter-gatherer life can be very hard. It is certainly not all fun and games. There are times of drought and famine; early deaths are common; there are predators that must be dealt with. People grieve when their loved ones die. People take losses seriously and take seriously the necessity to plan for emergencies and respond appropriately to them. As you will see, my point is that play is used not to escape from but to confront and cope with the dangers and difficulties of a life that is not always easy.

Gray gives five criteria for an activity to be described as a form of play.
1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed. All players are free agents, have a say in “rules” mutually agreed upon and are free to quit.
2. Play is intrinsically motivated. It is done for its own sake more than some reward separate from the activity itself.
3. Play is guided by mental rules. These are often mental concepts that require players to make conscious efforts to keep them in mind, and give structure and direction to the activity.
4. Play is imaginative. Players use imagination to construct the mental landscape of the activity, outlined roughly by rules.
5. Play involves an active, alert, but nonstressed frame of mind. This sounds quite similar to the positive psychology concept of Flow, developed by Csikszentmihalyi.

Here’s my paltry attempt to summarize as much as possible much of the key points in how play is used in a governmental, social, and productive context in hunter-gatherer societies. I recommend reading the whole thing, in case it's interesting or I miss something.

Social Play as a Mode of Governance in Hunter-Gatherer Bands

Every instance of prolonged social play is an exercise in governance. The great challenge is to keep all of the players happy without allowing anyone to violate the rules. If players are unhappy they will quit, and if too many quit the game is over. If players consistently violate the rules, that, too, terminates the game. The point I wish to develop in this section is that the means of governance in social play are, in essence, the means of governance in hunter-gatherer societies. I’ll start by describing a typical example of a group playing a social game and then show how certain characteristics of such a group also exist in
hunter-gatherer bands. The crucial characteristics in both are summarized as voluntary participation, autonomy, equality, sharing, and consensual decision making.

A basic characteristic of any social game, if it is really play, is that participation is optional; anyone who wants to leave can leave at any time. As I said earlier, in defining play, the freedom to leave is essential to the spirit of play. Since the game requires a certain number of players, everyone who wants the game to continue is motivated to keep the other players happy so they don’t leave. This has a number of implications, which are intuitively understood by most players.

One implication is that players must not dominate or bully other players. People who feel dominated will quit. Another implication is that players must attempt to satisfy the needs and wishes of all the other players, at least sufficiently to keep them from quitting. In this sense, each person, regardless
of ability, must be deemed equally worthy. If Mark, Mike, and Mary all want to pitch, the team might let each have a turn at pitching, even though their chance of winning would be better if Henry did all the pitching. Whoever is pitching, that person will almost certainly throw more softly to little Billy, who
is a novice, than to big, experienced Jerome. When Jerome is up, the pitcher shows his best stuff, not just because he wants to get Jerome out but also because anything less would be insulting to Jerome. The golden rule of social play is not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rather, it is “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” The equality of play is not the equality of sameness but the equality that comes from granting equal validity to the unique needs and wishes of every player.

Uses of Humor in Hunter-Gatherer Governance

Anthropologists who have lived in hunter-gatherer bands often write about the good humor of the people—the joking, good-natured teasing, and laughter. Such humor, which is also common among people everywhere in social play, no doubt serves a bonding function. Laughing together helps create a feeling of closeness and shared identity. Good-natured teasing is a way of acknowledging yet accepting one another’s flaws. Some anthropologists have pointed out that hunter-gatherers use humor for another purpose, that of correcting or punishing those who are in some way disrupting the peace or violating a rule. For example, Colin Turnbull wrote, “[The Mbuti] are good-natured people with an irresistible sense of humor; they are always making jokes about one another, even about themselves, but their humor can be turned into an instrument of punishment when they choose.” Similarly, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas noted that the Ju/’hoansi whom she had lived among would not criticize people directly but would do so through humor. She wrote, “The criticized person was not supposed to take offense at the jokes and would be sure to laugh along with the others. On the very rare occasions when self-control broke down, such as happened when two women could not stop quarreling, other people made a song about them and sang it when the arguments started. Hearing the song, the two women felt shamed and fell silent. Thus the community prevailed without mentioning the problem directly.”

Richard Lee has commented extensively on hunter-gatherers’ use of humor as a tool to quell budding expressions of individual superiority and to maintain the egalitarianism that is crucial to the band’s well-being. Concerning hunter-gatherers in general, he wrote, “There is a kind of rough good humor, putdowns, teasing, and sexual joking that one encounters throughout the foraging world. . . . People in these societies are fiercely egalitarian. They get outraged if somebody tries to put on the dog or to put on airs; they have evolved—independently, it would seem—very effective means for putting a stop to it. These means anthropologists have called ‘humility-enforcing’ or ‘leveling’ devices: thus the use of a
very rough joking to bring people into line.”


Those who are criticized through humor have three choices: They can join the laughter, thereby acknowledging implicitly the foolishness of what they have done, which puts them immediately back into the social game. They can feel and express shame for acting in a way that led to the ridicule, which brings them back into the good graces of the others and allows them gradually to reenter the game. Or, they can stew in resentment until they either leave the band or decide to change their ways. A great advantage of humor as a means to induce behavioral reform is that it leaves the punished persons free to make their own choices and does not automatically end their senses of autonomy and play, which would happen if the punishment involved incarceration, physical violence, or forced banishment. In my informal observations, such uses of humor are common in social play groups, though rarely are they exhibited in such a high art form and with such a conscious understanding of the purpose, as apparently occurs among the Juhoansi.

Rules for Sharing in the Social Game of Life

Much of the joy of social play comes from such exertion and from the aesthetics of taking part in a coordinated, rule-restrained social activity. All this, which can be said about the rules of every form of social play, can also be said about the rules within any hunter-gatherer society. Here my focus is on the rules for sharing. Hunting and gathering people everywhere have rules for distributing foods and sharing the few material goods they own. The goal, always, is material equality, which may be essential for the band’s survival. However, the means of achieving that goal are often quite elaborate and playlike. The focus on means turns people’s attention away from their immediate hunger and away from concern for rapid achievement of the goal of material equality, and this makes the distribution playlike. Consider, for example, the rules for distributing meat. When hunters bring a large kill into the camp, it is a time of general rejoicing. The only person who cannot rejoice is the hunter who actually killed the animal; he must behave modestly and act as if the animal is skinny and worth-less. This rule of extreme modesty about a kill apparently characterizes most, if not all, hunter-gatherer cultures.25 The meat from the kill is then distributed to families and individuals in the camp in a manner that follows a gamelike set of rules, though the rules differ from society to society.

So crucial are the rules of food sharing to hunter-gatherer bands that anyone who fails to share is, in essence, opting out of the game, declaring that he or she is no longer a member of the band. Kim Hill, concerning the Aché, wrote, “It is my impression that those who refuse to share game would probably be expelled from the band.” I suppose the analogue to this, in a pickup game of baseball, would be the kid who, when he gets the ball, just holds on to it and refuses to throw it to anyone else.

Even more playlike is the sharing of materials other than food. Hunter-gatherers own very little, and the objects they do own, such as beaded decorations and tools, have limited value because they are made from readily available materials and can be replaced without great trouble by band members who are highly skilled at making them. Yet, the people cherish such objects, not as treasures to hoard but as potential gifts to others. Such objects are circulated in continuous rounds of gift giving, which promote friendships. People in collector and agricultural societies also often have gift-giving traditions, but in those societies the giving may take on competitive, power-assertive, and dependence-producing functions. In contrast, hunter-gatherers take pains to keep their gift giving modest, friendly, noncompetitive, and in these senses playlike. The Ju’hoansi, for example, have a formal gift-giving system, referred to as hxaro, which occupies a considerable portion of their time and has the qualities of a sacred game. Each Ju’hoan adult has roughly ten to twenty regular hxaro partners, most of whom live in other bands, sometimes more than one hundred miles away. Each person travels regularly by foot to visit his or her hxaro partners and present them with gifts. Giving between any pair of partners always goes in both directions, but care is taken to prevent the giving from looking like trade. Gifts are never reciprocated immediately, and there is no requirement that the gifts balance out to be equal in value. Each gift is given and received as a reflection of friendship, not as something that is owed to the other. Hxaro partners are said by the Ju/’hoansi to “hold each other in their hearts.”

Ju’hoan children are introduced to hxaro by their grandmothers, when they are still toddlers, through games of give and take. By having hxaro partners in many different bands spread out over large areas, the Ju’hoansi protect themselves from complete dependence on their own band and location. They are welcomed, for as long as they wish to stay, wherever they have such a partner. So, what at first glance seems to be wasted effort—walking hundreds of miles a year to deliver gifts that have little material value—is actually a socially valuable game. It helps maintain peace between bands, and it frees people from the confinement and possibility of exploitation that would result if they could not move freely from one band to another. It also facilitates marriages between people of different bands, which is essential among all hunter-gatherers to prevent inbreeding. But these social gains, which may be the ultimate purposes of hxaro, are not the immediate, conscious motives for most of the visits. The conscious motives are to experience the joys that come from visiting old friends, presenting them with gifts, and following the rules of a lifelong game.


A Playful Approach to Productive Work

Our word “work” has two different meanings. It can mean toil, which is unpleasant activity; or it can mean any activity that accomplishes something useful, whether or not the activity is pleasant. We use the same word for both of these meanings, because from our cultural perspective the two meanings often overlap. To a considerable degree, we view life as a process of doing unpleasant work in order to achieve necessary or desired ends. We toil at school to get an education (or a diploma); toil at a job to get money; and may even toil at a gym (work out) to produce better muscle tone. Sometimes we enjoy our work at school, our workplace, or the gym—and we deem ourselves lucky when we do—but our dominant mental set is that work is toil, which we do only because we have to or because it brings desired ends. Work in this sense is the opposite of play.

By all accounts, hunter-gatherers do not have this concept of work as toil. They do not confound productiveness with unpleasantness. They do, of course, engage in many productive activities, which are necessary to sustain their lives. They hunt, gather, build and mend huts, build and mend tools, cook, share information, and so on. But they do not regard any of these as burdensome. They do these things because they want to. Work for them is play. How do they manage this? What is it about hunter-gatherer work that makes it enjoyable rather than burdensome? On the basis of anthropologists’ descriptions, I would suggest that at least four factors contribute to hunter-gatherers’ maintaining a playful attitude toward even those activities they must engage in to survive.

The workload is moderate. According to several quantitative studies, hunter-gatherers typically devote about twenty hours per week to hunting or food gathering and another ten to twenty hours to chores at the campsite, such as food processing and making or mending tools. All in all, the research suggests, hunter-gatherer adults spend an average of thirty to forty hours per week on all subsistence-related activities combined, which is considerably less than the workweek of the typical modern American, if the American’s forty or more hours of out-of-home work is added to the many hours spent on domestic chores.

The Work Is Varied and Challenging. Play requires mental challenge and an alert, active mind engaged in meeting the challenge. The least playlike work is mind-numbingly repetitive and dull. Hunter-gatherer work is almost always challenging, almost never dull. Hunting, as it is done by hunter-gatherers, requires intelligence, knowledge, and physical skill. Unlike such carnivorous animals as lions, tigers, and wolves, humans cannot capture game by sheer speed and force but instead must use wit and craft. Hunter-gatherer men have a vast knowledge of the habits of the two to three hundred different mammals and birds they hunt. The gathering of vegetable foodstuffs, which is done mostly by women, likewise requires knowledge and skill.

Most work is done in a social context. We are social beings. We like to be with others of our kind, especially with those we know well, and we like to do what our friends and colleagues do. Hunter-gatherers live very social lives. Nearly all of their activity is public. Most of their work is done cooperatively, and even that which is done individually is done in social settings with others around. Men usually hunt in ways that involve teamwork; women usually forage in groups. Concerning the latter, Wannenburgh wrote of the Ju/’hoansi bands he studied: “In our experience all of the gathering expeditions were jolly events.

With the [Ju’hoansi’s] gift of converting chores into social occasions, they often had something of the atmosphere of a picnic outing with children.” A social setting—with cooperative efforts, mutual encouragement, and joking and laughter—always helps promote a playful attitude toward work. In a description of the means by which Batek people choose tasks and form work groups each day, Endicott wrote: “They may be entirely different groups from those of the previous day, for the Batek like variety both in their work and their companions.

Each person chooses when, how, and whether to work. A crucial ingredient of play is the sense of free choice. Players must feel free to play or not play and must invent or freely accept the rules. Workers who must follow blindly, step-by-step, the directions of a micromanaging boss are the least likely to consider their work is playful. Hunter-gatherers have developed, to what our culture might consider a radical extreme, an ethic of personal autonomy. They deliberately avoid telling each other how to behave, in work as in any other context. Each person is his or her own boss.

On any given day at a hunter-gatherer camp, a hunting or gathering party may form. The party is made up only of those who want to hunt or gather that day. The group decides collectively where it will go and how it will approach the task. Anyone made unhappy by the decisions is free to form another party, or to hunt or gather alone, or to stay at camp all day, or to do anything at all that is not disruptive to others. There is no retribution for backing out. A person who does not hunt or gather will still receive a share of the bounty. By adopting this strategy, hunter-gatherers avoid being held back in their foraging by someone who is there only begrudgingly and has a bad attitude about it. And because they adopt this strategy, all members of the band can experience their hunting and gathering as play.

Ultimately, of course, hunting and gathering are crucial for everyone’s survival, but on any given day, for any given person, these activities are optional. On any given day, a band member may join a foraging group, visit friends in another camp, or just stay in camp and relax, depending on what he or she feels like doing. Such freedom does open up the possibility of free riding by individuals who choose not to hunt or gather over an extended period of time, but, such long-term shirking apparently happens rarely. It is exciting to go out hunting or gathering with the others, and it would be boring to stay in camp day after day.

The fact that on any given day the work is optional and self-directed keeps it in the realm of play. I’m sure that the perceived necessity to obtain food and accomplish other essential tasks influences people’s decisions about what to do, but the sense of necessity does not dominate on a day-to-day basis, and therefore it does not destroy the sense of play. The genius of hunter-gatherer society, from my perspective, lies in its ability to accomplish the tasks that must be accomplished while maximizing each person’s experience of free choice, which is essential to the spirit of play.

The article also has a section on play in the religion of hunter-gatherers, as well as a section on how education is conducted through play. I'll summarize more of it later on the weekend, unless you want to read ahead.
 

Carl

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
That was so interesting, good find!

This kind of attitude is directly applicable to what we do in terms of work, group meet ups etc., and it's a valuable insight into how to interact naturally without a false personality. In terms of creating a new world, and even just surviving and staying happy through the hard times ahead, this is the type of community I'd like to be involved in.

I think the article really highlights just how much we have become slaves in the developed world, almost completely cut off from community-based human interaction; I guess this is what G meant by primitive cultures having a more fully developed essence.

I wonder what the incidence of psychopathy is like in these cultures, and how they would deal with one? Since it has a genetic component, it's possible that they have a very low incidence due to their kind of anti-psychopathic culture. By that I mean it would be very difficult for a psychopath to thrive and reproduce in that population, with all the closeness and networking.

This guy should really write a book :)
 

luc

Ambassador
Ambassador
FOTCM Member
Thanks whitecoast, great find!

Carlise said:
That was so interesting, good find!

This kind of attitude is directly applicable to what we do in terms of work, group meet ups etc., and it's a valuable insight into how to interact naturally without a false personality. In terms of creating a new world, and even just surviving and staying happy through the hard times ahead, this is the type of community I'd like to be involved in.

I think the article really highlights just how much we have become slaves in the developed world, almost completely cut off from community-based human interaction; I guess this is what G meant by primitive cultures having a more fully developed essence.

I wonder what the incidence of psychopathy is like in these cultures, and how they would deal with one? Since it has a genetic component, it's possible that they have a very low incidence due to their kind of anti-psychopathic culture. By that I mean it would be very difficult for a psychopath to thrive and reproduce in that population, with all the closeness and networking.

This guy should really write a book :)

Good thoughts, after reading into the article I had a look at my desk, saw all these documents in front of me, and thought "Jesus, what have we become?" All this beaurocracy, all this useless information being printed and sent around, all these procedures, all this de-humanized technocratic society... and yet, people will always defend our "great civilization" as the pinnacle of human development... Of course, we need to function as best as we can "in this world", but studying "primitive" societies can be a good reminder that we shouldn't identify with this civilization, and that it really comes down to healthy and mutually beneficial interactions between human beings, osit.
 
Carlise said:
That was so interesting, good find!

This kind of attitude is directly applicable to what we do in terms of work, group meet ups etc., and it's a valuable insight into how to interact naturally without a false personality. In terms of creating a new world, and even just surviving and staying happy through the hard times ahead, this is the type of community I'd like to be involved in.

I think the article really highlights just how much we have become slaves in the developed world, almost completely cut off from community-based human interaction; I guess this is what G meant by primitive cultures having a more fully developed essence.

I wonder what the incidence of psychopathy is like in these cultures, and how they would deal with one? Since it has a genetic component, it's possible that they have a very low incidence due to their kind of anti-psychopathic culture. By that I mean it would be very difficult for a psychopath to thrive and reproduce in that population, with all the closeness and networking.

This guy should really write a book :)

Thanks for posting this whitecoast! I had not heard of him before.

To Carlise:
I found this very interesting as well. It looks like Peter Gray has written two books "Free to Learn", and "Psychology" a college textbook (according to _http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/peter-gray). The site also shows several other research papers besides "Play as the Foundation of Hunter-Gatherer Existence".

This is a link to his recent book "Free to Learn":

_http://www.amazon.com/Free-Learn-Unleashing-Instinct-Self-Reliant/dp/0465025994%3FSubscriptionId%3DAKIAIRKJRCRZW3TANMSA%26tag%3Dpsychologytod-20%26linkCode%3Dxm2%26camp%3D2025%26creative%3D165953%26creativeASIN%3D0465025994

He also has a website for this same book:

_http://www.freetolearnbook.com/

It might be worth looking into. FWIW
 

Buddy

The Living Force
I agree with others: great find, whitecoast! Thanks for posting it. :)

I hope this doesn't sound boring, but as I see it, this is not just a great article which has validation in neuroscience research to support benefits the author talks about, it's a cultural example of a quantum meme. You have western society with it's work vs play dichotomy on the one hand, and on the other, this hunter-gatherer example where both play and work is wholly blended together while specific behaviors related to work and specific behaviors related to social bonding and such are still distinguishable. Nice!
 

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
I like it too because playing is a big part of what we do even if we are very serious about this play helping us to deal with our issues and do our work.
 

shellycheval

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Wow--when comparing this egalitarian, autonomous way of life with Western society's hierarchical, competitive, materialism, it couldn't be more clear why modern society is doomed to destruction and how Paleo societies survived and remained stable for over 25,000 years. Clearly any surviving groups of Humans must model themselves, at least partially or as much as possible, on these societies. In the meantime, individually we can work to embrace these philosophies and apply them to own outlook and choices in our current existence. Already I have experienced a great spirit of cooperation and goodwill at the meetups. Very inspiring--thank you for posting this article.
shellycheval
 
Great essay, indeed. Things become little bit easier to get through with playing in moderation. It's not pleasant to be overly serious about everything all the way long, hence maintaining of a stable motivation and energy level brings much more productivity.
Hunther - gatherer societies had known what are they doing.
Thanks, whitecoast, this reminded me of a very important fact.
 

Zadius Sky

The Living Force
Thanks for posting this interesting essay as I really like it. It's very interesting to see the major differences between the Paleo societies and the Western societies. For one thing, when a person "retires" from "a work life" that was established by our current societies, that person may think he or she have "seen it all" and begins to die slowly. It's really hard to engage in these kinds of "plays" when a false personality is in control.

Thanks, SovereignDove, for posting the links to the books.
 

ersio

Jedi Master
FOTCM Member
Thanks whitecoast :)

I think this would make a great Sott article, possibly with a comparison to the modern attitude to work/play.
 

l apprenti de forgeron

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
SovereignDove said:
Thanks for posting this whitecoast! I had not heard of him before.

To Carlise:
I found this very interesting as well. It looks like Peter Gray has written two books "Free to Learn", and "Psychology" a college textbook (according to _http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/peter-gray). The site also shows several other research papers besides "Play as the Foundation of Hunter-Gatherer Existence".

This is a link to his recent book "Free to Learn":

_http://www.amazon.com/Free-Learn-Unleashing-Instinct-Self-Reliant/dp/0465025994%3FSubscriptionId%3DAKIAIRKJRCRZW3TANMSA%26tag%3Dpsychologytod-20%26linkCode%3Dxm2%26camp%3D2025%26creative%3D165953%26creativeASIN%3D0465025994

He also has a website for this same book:

_http://www.freetolearnbook.com/

It might be worth looking into. FWIW

Thank you, SovereignDove!
 

beetlemaniac

The Living Force
It is interesting to view family circles of my own and others through the lens of the group dynamics of play. There seems to be a less hierarchical command structure and more inter-relation between members in a level field when the concepts of play are involved. Modern society does do us a terrible disservice by applying black/white thinking to work/play. Trust seems to play an integral role in making things work. Without it, along with their social links, people tend to degenerate into mindless zombies operating on surface level emotions of fear/external reward, if they are not constantly angry and frustrated about their lives.

Thanks whitecoast, will download the article :)
 
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