Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 18
matter-of-factly, what happens to stars during the daytime, he responded, matter-of-factly: “They stay where they are. We just can’t see them because the sun is too bright.” But another time, in a religious frame, Toma answered the same question with a Ju/’hoan legend, in which the stars are antlions that crawl up into the sky at night and return to their sandy pits at dawn.48 He was apparently not the least bit upset by the contradiction between these two explanations.
In his classic book about the Mbuti, Colin Turnbull contrasts the light-heartedness of Mbuti religious beliefs and practices with the fearful superstitions of the nearby agricultural people.49 The agriculturalists truly fear the forest spirits, so much so that they rarely venture into the forest, even in broad daylight. In contrast, while the Mbuti claim to believe in the same spirits and to interact with them in their rituals, they do not, in their everyday lives, manifest any fear of the spirits. One of their rituals involves the playing of the molimo—an enormously long trumpet, traditionally made by hollowing out a log from a molimo tree. The men of a band are keepers of the molimo, and, on special occasions, they bring it out at night. The sound of the molimo is deemed sacred, and women are supposed to be frightened of it and to believe that it comes from a terrible animal spirit. According to Turnbull, when he observed the ritual, the women played their parts well, staying in their huts and acting frightened. But they were not really frightened; they seemed to know perfectly well that this was all a grand game instigated by the men. Other anthropologists have likewise contrasted the playful attitudes of hunter-gatherers toward their deities with the fearful attitudes of neighboring sedentary people.50
A Playful Approach to Productive Work
Our word work has two different meanings. It can mean toil, which is unpleasant activity; or it can mean any activity that accomplishes something useful, whether or not the activity is pleasant. We use the same word for both of these meanings, because from our cultural perspective the two meanings often overlap. To a considerable degree, we view life as a process of doing unpleasant work in order to achieve necessary or desired ends. We toil at school to get an education (or a diploma); toil at a job to get money; and may even toil at a gym (“work out”) to produce better muscle tone. Sometimes we enjoy our work at school, job, or gym—and we deem ourselves lucky when we do—but our dominant mental set is that work is toil, which we do only because we have to or because it brings desired ends. Work in this sense is the opposite of play.
By all accounts, hunter-gatherers do not have this concept of work as toil. 51 They do not confound productiveness with unpleasantness. They do, of course, engage in many productive activities, which are necessary to sustain their lives. They hunt, gather, build and mend huts, build and mend tools, cook, share information, and so on. But they do not regard any of this as burdensome. They do these things because they want to. Work for them is play.
How do they manage this? What is it about hunter-gatherer work that makes it enjoyable rather than burdensome? On the basis of anthropologists’ descriptions, I would suggest that at least four factors contribute to hunter-gatherers’ abilities to maintain a playful attitude toward even those activities that they must engage in to survive. I describe each of these briefly, in the following paragraphs:
One contributing factor to the play-like quality of hunter-gatherer work is that the work is not excessive. According to several quantitative studies, hunter-gatherers typically devote about 20 hours per week to hunting or food gathering and another 10 to 20 hours to chores at the campsite, such as food processing and making or mending tools.52 All in all, the research suggests, hunter-gatherer adults spend an average of 30 to 40 hours per week on all subsistence-related activities combined, which is considerably less than the workweek of the typical modern