Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 20
must be sought out, extracted, and processed. Hunter-gatherer women must know which of the countless varieties of roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, fruits, and greens in their area are edible and nutritious, when and where to find them, how to dig them (in the case of roots and tubers), how to extract the edible portions efficiently (in the case of grains, nuts, and certain plant fibers), and in some cases how to process them to make them edible or more nutritious than they otherwise would be. These abilities include physical skills, honed by years of practice, as well as the capacity to remember, use, add to, and modify an enormous store of culturally shared verbal knowledge.58
We are highly social beings. We like to be with others of our kind, especially with those we know well; and we like to do what our friends and colleagues do. Hunter-gatherers live very social lives. Nearly all of their activity is public. Most of their work is done cooperatively, and even that which is done individually is done in social settings, with others around.
Men usually hunt in ways that involve teamwork; and women usually forage in groups. Concerning the latter, Wannenburgh wrote, of the Ju/’hoansi bands he studied, “In our experience all of the gathering expeditions were jolly events. With the [Ju/’hoansi’s] gift of converting chores into social occasions, they often had something of the atmosphere of a picnic outing with children.”59 A social setting—with cooperative efforts, mutual encouragement, and joking and laughter—always helps promote a playful attitude toward work. In a description of the means by which Batek people choose tasks and form work groups each day, Endicott wrote: “They may be entirely different groups from those of the previous day, for the Batek like variety both in their work and their companions.”60
A crucial ingredient of play is the sense of free choice. Players must feel free to play or not play and must invent or freely accept the rules. Workers who must follow blindly, step by step, the directions of a micromanaging boss are the least likely to consider their work to be play. Hunter-gatherers have developed, to what in our culture may seem to be a radical extreme, an ethic of personal autonomy. They deliberately avoid telling each other how to behave, in work as in any other context.61 Each person is his or her own boss.
On any given day at a hunter-gatherer camp, a hunting or gathering party may form. The party is made up only of those who want to hunt or gather that day. That group decides collectively where they will go and how they will approach their task. Anyone made unhappy by the decision is free to form another party, or to hunt or gather alone, or to stay at camp all day, or to do anything at all that is not disruptive to others. There is no retribution for backing out. A person who doesn’t hunt or gather will still receive his or her share of whatever food is brought back. By adopting this strategy, hunter-gatherers avoid being held back, in their foraging, by someone who is there only begrudgingly and has a bad attitude about it. And because they adopt this strategy, all members of the band can experience their hunting and gathering as play.
Ultimately, of course, hunting and gathering are crucial for everyone’s survival, but on any given day, for any given person, these activities are optional. On any given day, a band member may join a foraging group, or visit friends in another camp, or just stay in camp and relax, depending on what he or she feels like doing. Such freedom does open up the possibility of free-riding by individuals who choose not to hunt or gather over an extended period of time, but, such long-term shirking apparently happens rarely.62 It is exciting to go out hunting or gathering with the others, and it would be boring to stay in camp day after day.
The fact that on any given day the work is optional and self-directed keeps it in the realm of play. I’m sure that the perceived necessity to obtain food and accomplish other essential tasks influences people’s decisions about what to do, but the sense of necessity does not dominate, on