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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 1 - page 15 / 33





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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate.  P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers   p 15

Even more game-like is the sharing of materials other than food. Hunter-gatherers own very little, and the objects they do own, such as beaded decorations and tools, have limited value because they are made from readily available materials and can be replaced without great trouble by band members who are highly skilled at making them. Yet, the people cherish such objects, not as treasures to hoard but as potential gifts to others. Such objects are circulated in continuous rounds of gift giving, which promote friendships. People in collector and agricultural societies also often have gift-giving traditions and rituals, but in those societies the giving may take on competitive, power-assertive, and dependence-producing functions.33 In contrast, hunter-gatherers take pains to keep their gift-giving modest, friendly, non-competitive, and in those senses play-like.

The Ju/’hoansi, for example, have a formal gift-giving system, referred to as hxaro, which occupies a considerable portion of their time and has the qualities of a sacred game. Each Ju/’hoan adult has roughly 10 to 20 regular hxaro partners, most of whom live in other bands, sometimes more than 100 miles away. Each person travels regularly, by foot, to visit his or her hxaro partners and present them with gifts. Giving between any pair of partners always goes in both directions, but care is taken to prevent the giving from looking like trade. Gifts are never reciprocated immediately, and there is no requirement that the gifts balance out to be equal in value. Each gift is given and received as a reflection of friendship, not as something that is owed to the other. Hxaro partners are said by the Ju/’hoansi to “hold each other in their hearts.”34

Ju/’hoan children are introduced to hxaro by their grandmothers, when they are still toddlers, through games of give and take.35 By having hxaro partners in many different bands, spread out over large areas, the Ju/’hoansi protect themselves from complete dependence on their own band and location. They are welcomed, for as long as they wish to stay, wherever they have such a partner. So, what at first glance seems to be wasted effort—walking hundreds of miles a year to deliver gifts that have little material value—is actually a socially valuable game. It helps maintain peace between bands, and it frees people from the confinement and possibility of exploitation that would result if they could not move freely from one band to another. It also facilitates marriages between people of different bands, which is essential among all hunter-gatherers to prevent inbreeding. But these social gains, which may be the ultimate purposes of hxaro, are not the immediate, conscious motives for most of the visits. The conscious motives are to experience the joys that come from visiting old friends, presenting them with gifts, and following the rules of a life-long game.

A Playful Approach to Religion

A case can be made that religious faith, everywhere, taps into the human capacity for play. Faith is belief that does not require empirical evidence. To believe without evidence is to make-believe. In any social game the players accept, for the purpose of the game, the fictional premises that provide the game’s context. Jill is the princess, Johnny is the fierce dragon, and the couch is a bridge with a troll living under it. Only during time out can Jill and the others say that they were merely pretending. It can be argued that religion, for the devout, is play for which there is no time out.36

If we think of social life as a grand human game, then the religious beliefs of a society provide a context for understanding the goals and rules of the game and for making decisions. The religious beliefs both reflect and help to support the society’s socioeconomic structure. From this point of view it is no surprise that monotheistic religions that blossomed in feudal times portray a hierarchical view of the cosmos, with an all powerful God,“king of kings,” at the top, and a storyline focused on requirements of obedience and service to lords and masters. It is also no surprise that hunter-gatherer religions reflect an egalitarian view of the spirit world, populated

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