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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 1 - page 17 / 33





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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate.  P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers   p 17

state of consciousness is generally reached “without hallucinogenic substances, but through a combination of drumming, singing, and dancing, coupled with physical exhaustion.” He writes further: “Often the shaman is a showman who employs rich poetic imagery and histrionics. He may sing and dance, trembling and shrieking, and speak in strange languages. He may also employ prestidigitation and ventriloquism. . . . Shamanic séances are very much performance events, not infrequently with audience feedback. They involve the shaman in role playing, engaging in dialogue with various spirits, each of whose counter-roles he plays himself.”41

Others have noted that among some hunter-gatherers the whole band is involved in the dancing, singing, and drumming; all of them, effectively, are shamans or at least contributors to the shamanic experience. Among the Ju/’hoansi, roughly half of the men and a third of the women are able to enter into shamanic trances.42 When spirits are called forth in such exercises, in apparently any hunter-gatherer group, they are not treated reverently; they are treated much as the people treat each other. The communication may involve mutual joking, teasing, laughter, singing, and dancing, as well as requests for healing. Some researchers have claimed that, at least for some hunter-gatherer groups, it makes no sense to distinguish such rituals from play.43 Unlike the solemn, uncreative, tight following of rules toward known ends that is often associated with the term ritual, the so-called rituals of hunter-gatherers involve a great deal of the kind of joyful, creative, yet rule-guided activity that everyone associates with play.

A number of researchers have commented that hunter-gatherers, in general, are highly practical people, not much given to magic or superstition.44 Shamanic healing is an exception, but such healing may actually work to the degree that diseases have psychological components. In general, hunter-gatherer rituals have more to do with embracing reality than with attempting to alter it. As an example, Thomas describes how the /Gwi people (hunting and gathering neighbors to the Ju/’hoansi) use their sacred rain dance not to bring on rain but to welcome it and partake in its power when they see it coming.45 Living in the desert, where water is a limiting factor for all life, they might well dance to bring on rain if they thought it would work, but they do not believe they have such power. They can, however, rejoice in the rain and use its coming to raise their own spirits and prepare themselves for the bounty to follow. Gould, writing of the Yiwara, makes the same point in stating that these people “. . . do not seek to control the environment in either their daily or their sacred lives. Rituals of the sacred life may be seen as the efforts of man to combine with his environment, to become ‘at one’ with it.”46 From my perspective, such rituals are a form of play in which aspects of the natural world, personified in the deities, become playmates.

On the dimensions that commonly distinguish religious liberals from religious fundamentalists in the west, hunter-gatherers appear everywhere to be at the liberal end. Although hunter-gatherers find meaning in their stories about the spirit world, they do not treat the stories as dogma. Neighboring bands may tell similar stories in different ways, or may tell different stories, which contradict one another, but nobody takes offense. The sacred rituals of one band may be different from those of another, or may vary considerably over time. Hunter-gatherer parents do not become upset when their children marry into another group and adopt religious beliefs and practices that differ from those they grew up with. 47 To leave one band and join another, with different religious practices, is in this sense like leaving a group who are playing one game and joining another who are playing a different game. There seems to be an implicit acknowledgment, among these people, that religious stories, while in some ways special and even sacred, are in the end just stories.

Hunter-gatherers’ concepts of the spirit world are valuable to them, but they apparently don’t let those concepts interfere with their empirical understanding of the physical world around them. Here is an example of that, given by Thomas. When Toma, a wise Ju/’hoansi, was asked,

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