Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 13
The relationship between laughter and play lies deep in our biological makeup. Laughter originated, in primate evolution, as a signal to accompany play fighting. To distinguish play fighting from real fighting, so that a playful attack is not responded to with a real one, players of any species must use some signal to assure one another that their attacks are playful. In monkeys and apes, the play-fight signal is the relaxed open-mouth display, or play face, characterized by a widely open mouth with lower jaw dropped and relatively little tension in the facial muscles. In chimpanzees the play face is often accompanied by a vocalized ahh ahh ahh, which sounds like a throaty human laugh. Such observations leave little doubt that that the play face and sounds accompanying it are evolutionarily related to human laughter. 23 Play fighting and the signals accompanying it constitute the original form of humor. When we humans, of any age and in any culture, use humor to quell a fight or deflate a puffed-up ego, we are calling on a very primitive mammalian mechanism. We are saying, in effect, “This is play; and in play we don’t really hurt anyone and we don’t act in a domineering manner.” We are saying it in a way that works because it strikes at the gut level of instinct, which we have no means to refute, rather than at the intellectual level of verbal argument, which we are all so good at refuting or ignoring.
And so, by using humor as a means to promote humility and peace, hunter-gatherers capitalize on the human instinct to relate humor to play. 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 playful criticism, which brings them back into the good graces of the others and allows them more gradually to re-enter 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, as 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 Ju/’hoansi.
As I said earlier, all social play involves socially shared rules. The rules give structure and predictability to the interactions among the players. The overarching purposes of the rules for any social game, if it is truly play, are to coordinate the activities of all of the participants into a coherent whole and to make the game fun for all. The rules of social play often require that people resist their natural urges or instincts and exert self-discipline. 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 play-like. The focus on means turns people’s attention away from their immediate hunger or on 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 worthless. This rule of extreme modesty about a kill