Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 12
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.”18 Similarly, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas noted that the Ju/’hoansi that 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.”19
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 . . . .”20
In his book about the Ju/’hoansi, Lee tells the story of how the people he was studying turned their leveling humor on him.21 At one point early in his fieldwork, Lee decided to reward the people he was studying with a feast, for which he purchased the fattest ox that he could find in the nearby farming community, “1200 lbs on the hoof.” He was excited about announcing this gift and expected that the Ju/’hoansi—who loved meat and never got enough of it—would be grateful. When he announced the gift, however, he was surprised and hurt to find that the people responded not with the words of gratitude that he had expected, but with insults. For example, Bena, a 60-year-old grandmother, referred to the ox as “a bag of bones” and asked, to everyone’s amusement except Lee’s, “What do you expect us to eat off it, the horns?” A man who had been one of Lee’s closest confidants among the Ju/’hoansi deadpanned: “You have always been square with us. What has happened to change your heart? Or are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck?” Such humor, at Lee’s expense, continued for days preceding the feast.
Lee was already aware of the Ju/’hoan practice of “insulting the meat” that hunters brought to the band, and at some point he began to suspect that this practice was now being used on him. Nevertheless, his pride in providing such a wonderful gift was taken away; his masculine ego was hurt. And that was precisely the purpose of the insults. The Ju/’hoansi were treating him in just the same way that they treated any of their own hunters who brought home a big kill and failed to show proper modesty about it. As Tomazho, a wise Ju/’hoan healer, subsequently explained to Lee: “When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”22
The effectiveness of humor as a leveler and reducer of aggression, I think, comes from its direct relationship to play. To make fun of something is to say, “This thing that you are so proud of, or this dispute that has you so angry, is not as important as you think it is. This is play, and the important thing in play is to be a good sport.” When hunter-gatherers use humor to resolve even the most serious social problems that they face, they seem to bring all of social life into the domain of play.