Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 14
apparently characterizes most if not all hunter-gatherer cultures.24 The meat from the kill is then distributed to families and individuals in the camp in a manner that follows a game-like set of rules, though the rules differ from society to society. One rule specifies who may carve up the meat and distribute it in the first wave of distribution. In some cultures, that person is the hunter who killed it; more often, however, it is not. Among the Ju/’hoansi, the official initial “owner” of the meat, who has the right to distribute it, is not the hunter but the person who owned the arrow (or the dart, in the case of blowpipe hunting) that killed the animal. There is much giving and lending of arrows, among all members of the band, so anyone might own an arrow and lend it to a successful hunter.25 A number of other hunter-gatherer societies likewise attribute initial game “ownership” to the person who owned the implement (such as arrow, poisoned dart, or net) that was used to make the kill.26 Such rules assure that even the good will that is generated by the distribution of meat does not go just to successful hunters, but is distributed throughout the band. In still other societies, a particular person, often an elderly male who had nothing to do with the hunt, is designated as the official distributor of meat.
In apparently all hunter-gatherer groups there is no economic advantage in being the distributor of meat. That person is never allowed to take a larger share than anyone else, and often he must take a smaller share. Some societies have explicit rules for the order of distribution. Among the Yiwara, for example, the man who brings home a kill must give the first and best portions go to those who are least closely related to him by blood, including his in-laws, and must leave for his immediate family and himself the least desired portion.27 This custom, I assume, helps to maintain good will among those whose relationships are most likely to need such support. Among the Hazda, pregnant women are given first priority.28 All these rules seem to have practical purposes, but the ceremonial spirit in which they are followed seems to put them into the realm also of play.
In relatively large hunter-gatherer bands, the distribution of meat occurs in waves. The first wave involves distribution among a pre-designated set of adults, who then distribute those portions among others, who in turn distribute the portions they received. The end result is that everyone receives roughly equal portions, with some differences depending on perceived need. Kirk Endicott points out that food sharing among the Batek may continue even when everyone has plenty, thereby taking on a ritualized aspect. Families may give portions of food to others who already have adequate portions and may receive, from others, the same kinds of foods that they have just given away.29 Here the implicit rules of sharing clearly go beyond the practical purpose of making sure that everyone gets their fair share of food. The sharing may still serve a bonding function, but that is a function of play.
In her review of food sharing within various hunter-gatherer bands, Wiessner concludes that the sharing is not centered on reciprocity.30 A successful hunter, who has taken no more than anyone else from his own kill, cannot expect that in the future he or his family will receive a larger than average portion of someone else’s kill. Nurit Bird-David contrasts such non-reciprocal sharing of game among the Nayaka hunter-gathers, whom she studied, with the sharing of game by their sedentary, cultivator neighbors, the Mulla Kurumba. The latter group have ceremonies for sharing large game, but in their ceremonies, unlike the Nayaka’s, the emphasis is on reciprocity and the exact repayment of debts.31
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.”32 I suppose the analogue to this, in a pick-up 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.