Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 24
Hunter-gatherer cultures do vary in the degree to which children contribute to their own subsistence. The Ju/’hoan seem to lie at the extreme of almost no contribution by children, and the Hazda seem to lie at the other extreme. Nicholas Blurton Jones and his colleagues found that Hazda children forage for roughly half of the calories that they consume each day and often do other chores as well, such as gathering water and firewood or caring for younger children. 74 These researchers noted, however, that even among the Hazda a child’s life is far from one of dreary toil. They found that children, aged 5 to 15, spent on average only about 2 hours per day foraging and that even while foraging they continued to play, an observation that is consistent with the playful nature of hunter-gatherer work in general. A typical comment about children’s foraging, in other hunter-gatherer groups, is that it may produce food, but it is motivated by enjoyment, not by the need to get something edible.75
Hunter-gatherer children are never isolated from adult activities. They observe directly all that occurs in camp––the preparations to move; the building of huts; the making and mending of tools and other artifacts; the food preparation and cooking; the nursing and care of infants; the precautions taken against predators and diseases; the gossip, discussions, arguments, and politics; the songs, dances, festivities, and stories. They sometimes accompany adults on food gathering trips, and by age 10 or so boys sometimes accompany men on hunting trips. They pay attention to the adult activities around them. In the course of their daily lives, they see, hear, and have the opportunity to explore everything that is relevant to becoming a successful adult in their culture, and they incorporate all of this into their play. They play at the activities that they observe in the adults around them, and they become good at those activities. As they grow older, their play turns gradually into the real thing. There is no sharp division between playful participation and real participation in the valued activities of the group.
Our survey question about the forms of hunter-gatherer children’s play elicited many examples of valued adult activities that were mimicked regularly by children in play. Digging up tubers, fishing, smoking porcupines out of holes, cooking, caring for infants, climbing trees, building vine ladders, building huts, using knives and other tools, making tools, carrying heavy loads, building rafts, making fires, defending against attacks from predators, imitating animals (a means of identifying animals and learning their habits), making music, dancing, storytelling, and arguing were all mentioned by one or more respondents. The specific lists varied from culture to culture, in accordance with differences in the skills that were exemplified by adults in each culture. All of the respondents said that boys in the culture they studied engaged in a great deal of playful hunting. The two respondents who studied the Agta—a culture in which women as well as men regularly hunt—noted that girls as well as boys, in that culture, engaged in much playful hunting.
Apparently, when children are free to do what they want, they spend much of their time playing at the very activities that they see, from direct experience, are most crucial for success in their culture.76 Their conscious motive is fun, not education. It is exciting for children, everywhere, to pretend that they are powerful, competent adults, doing beautifully and skillfully what they see the adults around them doing. From an evolutionary perspective, it is no coincidence that children are constructed in such a way.
Equally important to learning how to hunt and gather, for hunter-gather children, is learning how to interact with others assertively yet peacefully. In their play, children practice arguing. Turnbull has described how older Mbuti children (age 9 and up) playfully rehash and try to improve upon the arguments that they have heard among adults. Here are Turnbull’s words: