Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 19
American, if the American’s 40 or more hours of out-of-home work is added to the many hours spent on domestic chores.
The short workweek becomes less surprising when we think about how hunter-gatherers make their living. Hunter-gatherers, by definition, do not plant or cultivate; they just harvest. They don't control the rate of production of food, only the rate of collecting it. With that way of life, long hours of work would be counterproductive. Harvesting wild animals and plants faster than their regeneration rate would deplete nature's food supply and eventuate in either mass starvation or a need to move ever farther, into new, uncharted, possibly dangerous territory. Moreover, without means for long-term food storage, there is no value in harvesting more than can be consumed within a short period after its harvest. There is also no value in spending lots of time producing material goods. Possessions beyond what a person can easily carry on long treks from one campsite to another are burdens, not luxuries.
One anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, has famously characterized hunter-gatherer societies collectively as “the original affluent society.”53 An affluent society, by Sahlins’s definition, is one in which “people’s material wants are easily satisfied.” Hunter-gatherers are affluent not because they have so much, but because they want so little. They can provide for those wants with relatively little work, and, as a result, they have lots of free time, which they spend, according to one observer of the Ju/’hoansi, at such activities as “singing and composing songs, playing musical instruments, sewing intricate bead designs, telling stories, playing games, visiting, or just lying around and resting.”54 These are just the kinds of activities that we would expect of happy, relaxed people anywhere.
Play requires mental challenge and an alert, active mind engaged in meeting that challenge. The least play-like work is that which is mind-numbingly repetitive and dull. Hunter-gatherer work is almost always challenging, almost never dull.
Hunting, as it is done by hunter-gatherers, requires great intelligence, knowledge, and physical skill. Unlike such carnivorous animals as lions, tigers, and wolves, human beings are not adapted for capturing game by sheer bodily speed and force, but instead must use wit and craft. Hunter-gatherer men have a vast knowledge of the habits of the perhaps two to three hundred different mammals and birds they hunt. They can identify each animal by its sounds and tracks as well as sight. A book has been written on the thesis that the tracking of game by hunters marked the origin of scientific reasoning.55 Hunters use the marks they see in the sand, mud, or foliage as clues, which they combine with their accumulated knowledge from past experience, to develop and test hypotheses about such matters as the size, sex, physical condition, speed of movement, and time of passage of the animal they are tracking. In describing the tracking abilities of the Ju/’hoansi, Alf Wannenburgh wrote: “Everything is noticed, considered, and discussed. The kink in a trodden grass blade, the direction of the pull that broke a twig from a bush, the depth, size, shape, and disposition of the tracks themselves, all reveal information about the condition of the animal, the direction it is moving in, the rate of travel, and what its future movements are likely to be.”56
The tools of hunting—which, depending on the culture, might be bows and arrows, blow pipes and poisoned darts, spears and spear throwers, snares, or nets—must be crafted to perfection, with great skill. And great skill is needed, too, in the use of the tools. No anthropologist has reported an ability to hunt at even close to that of the hunter-gatherers that he or she has studied, using their tools.57 Most speak with awe of the abilities they observe.
The gathering of vegetable foodstuffs, which is done mostly by women, likewise requires great knowledge and skill. Our species is not adapted to graze on large amounts of readily available foliage, as our ape relatives are. Rather, we depend on nutrient-rich plant matter that