Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 10
Although hunter-gatherers are free at any time to leave a band, they recognize the value of keeping a band together. The band is the economic and work unit, as well as the social unit, of hunter-gatherer societies. A band with stable membership, in which people know one another other well and have a history of cooperating with one another, is more valuable than an unstable band. Moreover, people develop close friendships with others in their band. Therefore, people within a band—like people in a play group—are motivated to behave toward others in ways designed to keep the band together, and this lays the foundation for hunter-gatherers’ autonomy, equality, sharing, and consensual decision-making.12
Essentially all researchers who write about the social lives of hunter-gathers emphasize the high value placed on individual autonomy. The descriptions make it clear that hunter-gatherers’ sense of autonomy is different from the individualism that characterizes modern western capitalist cultures. Western individualism tends to pit each person against others in competition for resources and rewards. It includes the right to accumulate property and to use disparities in wealth to control the behavior of others. Thus, western individualism tends, in principal, to set each person apart from each other person. In contrast, as Tim Ingold has most explicitly pointed out, the hunter-gathers’ sense of autonomy is one that connects each person to others, rather than sets them apart, but does so in a way that does not create dependencies.13 Their autonomy does not include the right to accumulate property, or to use power or threats to control others’ behavior, or to make others indebted to oneself. Their autonomy does, however, allow people to make their own decisions, from day to day and moment to moment, about their own activities, as long as they do not violate the implicit and explicit rules of the band, such as the rules about sharing. For example, individual hunter-gatherers are free, on any day, to join a hunting or gathering party or to stay at camp and rest, depending purely on their own preference. This is a freedom that goes way beyond the freedom of most workers in western cultures.
Hunter-gatherers avoid, with passion, any kinds of agreements or practices that would make one person dependent upon or beholden to another. They do not engage in contractual exchanges. Gifts are given regularly, but there is never an obligation that a gift be reciprocated. Hunter-gatherers likewise do not tell others what to do or use power-assertive methods to gain compliance. When they do try to influence the behavior of others, they usually do so indirectly, in ways that preserve each person’s sense of choice and prevent or minimize any sense of being dominated. A general assumption is that all adults will want to work for the good of the band, but care is taken to assure that each person’s work for the band is voluntary, not coerced. Ingold points out that social relationships among hunter-gatherers are founded on trust—trust that the others will, on their own volition, want to please others in the band and support the band as a whole.14
Intimately tied to hunter-gatherers’ sense of autonomy is what Richard Lee has called their “fierce egalitarianism.”15 Egalitarianism, among hunter-gatherers, goes far beyond the western notion of equal opportunity. It means that nobody has more material goods than anyone else, that everyone’s needs are equally important, and that nobody considers himself or herself to be superior to others. The maintenance of equality in these ways is part and parcel of the maintenance of autonomy, as inequalities could lead to domination of those who have less by those who have more. Hunter-gatherers, of course, recognize that some people are better hunters or gatherers than others, some are wiser than others, and so on, and they value such abilities. However, they react strongly against any flaunting of abilities or overt expressions of pride. Any sense that some people are superior to others would challenge the autonomy of individuals, as a sense of superiority can lead to attempts to dominate.
From an economic point of view, the primary purpose of the band for hunter-gatherers is sharing. The people share their skills and efforts in obtaining food, defending against predators,