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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 1 - page 11 / 33





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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate.  P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers   p 11

and caring for children. They also share food and material goods. Such sharing, presumably, is what allowed hunter-gatherers to survive, so long, in challenging conditions. The hunter-gatherer concept of sharing is different from our western concept. For us, sharing is a praiseworthy act of generosity, for which a “thank you” is due and some form of repayment may be expected in the future. For hunter-gatherers sharing is not a generous act, nor an implicit bargain, but a duty. Nobody is thanked or praised for sharing, but they would be ridiculed and scorned if they failed to share. Anthropologists refer to such sharing as “demand sharing.” Failing to share, if you have more than someone else, is a violation of a fundamental rule of hunter-gatherer societies.16

Hunter-gatherers do not have “big men” or “chiefs,” of the sort common in collector societies and primitive agricultural and herding societies, who tell people what to do. Some hunter-gatherer groups have no regular leader at all. Others, including most Ju/’hoan bands, have a nominal leader who speaks for the band in dealing with other bands, but that person has no more formal decision-making power than anyone else. Decisions that affect the whole band, such as that to move from one camp to another, are made by group discussions, which may go on for hours or even days before action is taken. Women as well as men take part in these discussions, and even children may be listened to if they have an opinion. Within any given band some people are known to have more wisdom or better judgment than others, and are therefore more influential than others; but any power that they exert comes from their ability to persuade and to find compromises that take everyone’s desires into account.17

The goal of such discussion is to reach consensus among all who care about the decision. It usually makes no sense to act, as a band, until all band members are ready to go along with the action. Those who are not ready to go along may leave, or they may stay as disgruntled members; in either case the band would be weakened. To accept a decision that is strongly rejected by some members is, implicitly, a decision by the band that it would be OK for those members to leave. That sometimes happens. Depending on your perspective, you could say in such cases that the disgruntled persons were “driven out” by the band’s decision, or you could say that the disgruntled persons were simply using their always-present options to leave.

Again, the point I am making is that the elements that anthropologists emphasize in describing hunter-gatherer social attitudes and governance are strikingly similar to the elements that characterize well-functioning play groups. The meanings of autonomy, equality, sharing, and consensus within a hunter-gatherer band are quite comparable to their meanings in social play. And, in hunter-gatherer bands as well as in play groups, the ultimate source of these characteristics lies in the voluntary nature of group membership. Since people can leave at any time, it is necessary to please members of the band in order to keep the band together. Pleasing them means granting them autonomy, treating them as equals, sharing with them, and making group decisions that they are willing to accept. Sometimes anthropologists write about hunter-gatherer social life as if nothing comparable to it exists in western cultures. I suggest here that something quite comparable does exist, in every well-functioning group of people playing a social game.

Uses of Humor in Hunter-Gatherer Governance

Anthropologists who have lived in hunter-gather 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 also for another purpose, that of correcting or punishing those who are in some way disrupting the peace or

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